The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- A theoretically rigorous secularism has been put to the test in France

Our colonial history, the anxiously plural nature of Congress nationalism and the horrors of Partition have made Indians peculiarly sensitive to community identities. The republican state formally recognized the political relevance of community identity by setting up institutions like the Minorities Commission and by writing laws that granted privileges to educational institutions run by 'minority communities'. Two weeks ago I suggested in these pages that our keenness to appropriate Sania Mirza and Irfan Pathan as symptoms of Indian secularism was legitimate even if it broke the strict see-no-religion rules of Western secularism.

In the fortnight that has passed since that column was written, the practice of a theoretically rigorous secularism has been put to the test in France. France has lived through 14 days of arson as French Muslims from the Maghrib torched the suburban ghettoes in which they live. This has, predictably, provoked schadenfreude among American pundits, law-and-order noises from French politicians, and hand-wringing by liberals. More importantly, it has illustrated the basic difficulty of working the French model of secularism in the contemporary world.

French secularism has no interest in pluralism. Historically it was anti-clerical and its original impulse, the need to sterilize the public realm by making it religion-free, made it both peculiarly hostile and purposefully blind to religious identity in the affairs of the world. The avowed purpose of this attitude, simultaneously Olympian and hectoring, is to guard the values of a civic nationalism invented by the revolution of 1789. The French assume that this nationalism was purged of religious feeling, parochial prejudices, and racial awareness by the presiding values of the revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity.

For Frenchmen who take secularism seriously and most definitely for the French state, Zinedine Zidane is a citizen and therefore simply French. They will no more take note of his Muslimness than they would of the Christianity of a white footballer. Religious or ethnic difference is systematically, deliberately, excluded from the notice of the state. Any official cognizance of religious or ethnic identity would amount to a corruption of civic nationalism and the ideal of citizenship based on a common language and the values of a secular revolution.

The French census collects no figures on religious belief; the state gathers no information about the size, nature or distribution of communities defined by religion or race. Formally, the French state does not know that the majority of its population is white and nominally catholic or that more than 10 per cent of its people are off-white and born to Muslim parents.

There's something splendid about this willed blindness. Living as we do in a world where religious, caste and ethnic identities are paraded in civil society and cynically patronized by the state, a republic that simplifies citizenship by denying such identities room in public life seems admirably principled.

But we also know that this affected blindness, this insistence that one size must fit all, is mad. When Muslim girls were expelled from a French school for wearing the hijab and a law was passed to ban the prominent display of religious symbols in schools, the first thought that occurred to me and many other Indians was: but what about Sikh turbans and patkas' Does a properly rigorous secularism mandate uniform haircuts' In my Jesuit school in Delhi, it was common for a brutal physical education teacher to pull long-haired boys out of line and give them cruelly short crops. Naturally Sikh boys were excluded. As far as I can remember, none of us felt that the state (in this case the school) was treating us unequally by exempting Sikhs from the short hair rule. Sikhs came with long hair and turbans. They couldn't help themselves. Not being public intellectuals we didn't think we were being multi-cultural or pluralist; we thought Sardars were different and accepted that difference as given.

Indians are socialized into recognizing and living with difference at an early age. This doesn't necessarily make us paragons of tolerance, but it does help us accept the fact that citizens will sometimes carry their differences into public life. Indians find no difficulty in accepting the idea that an individual can belong to and inhabit both his community and his nation. It is sometimes argued that French secularism emphasizes the individual as citizen whereas India's looser, pluralist practice informally treats religious communities as collective citizens. This is a misleading opposition. The real argument here is whether the individual citizen belongs to his ethnic/religious community or to the nation. The French believe the nation is the sole proprietor. For better or for worse, the political practice of republican India implies that a citizen can belong to both ' and if the claims of both can't be reconciled, it makes sense to fudge the conflict instead of rigorously clarifying it.

The unwillingness to countenance difference in public life in France or to attend to problems that North African immigrants might suffer collectively as a community is based on two assumptions: One,that the practice of the French state is meritocratic and constituted by a purely civic nationalism untainted by any ethnic or community prejudice. Two, that civil society in France has been so rigorously purged of sectarian identity that opportunities in public life, like access to housing or employment, are undistorted by sectarian feeling.

The trouble is, both assumptions are false. In housing and employment the actions of the French state and French civil society discriminate against Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who happen to be Muslim and black. One study showed that a job applicant with a French name on top of his resume got 50 times more interview offers than one with a Muslim or North African name. North African applicants reported that they were frequently asked if they were practising Muslims. Discrimination in housing is even more blatant. It is public knowledge that French citizens of North African origin live in hideous, doughnut-shaped ghettoes that circle France's great cities.

The truth is that France's vaunted civic nationalism was tied to a default identity, the culture of white French people. This wasn't a problem so long as France was overwhelmingly white and nominally Christian. But once Arab Muslims from North Africa began to account for 10 per cent of France's population, the republican insistence on a single homogeneous citizenry defined by a uniform civic nationalism became dysfunctional and absurd. The New York Times recently reported that Arab schoolchildren were taught in French classrooms that they were descended from ancient Gauls. Their history lessons informed them that one of the defining moments in the life of the French nation was the defeat of the Arabs at Poitiers in 732 A.D. A 'civic' nationalism that fits white Frenchmen like a bespoke suit and makes black Frenchmen look like clownish whiteface parodies of their compatriots isn't a stable foundation for a colour-blind, religion-blind state.

Even if it was true that suburban ghettoes were disproportionately black because North African migrants were poor and couldn't afford better housing and not because they were black and discriminated against, even then the French state ought to have abandoned its panto blindness and gathered information about the demographic composition of these neighbourhoods, if only to make sure that the ghettoes were transitional, to verify if they were in the process of changing. If, like the state of communist fantasy, they failed to wither away, the state would have had some information to act on. A 'secular' country that never takes its own temperature despite a raging fever because it's convinced that it is immune to certain illnesses, is in denial.

Better, like India, to agonize over identity than to take one for granted. Better to acknowledge and recognize difference even at the risk of pandering to it than to drive it underground to fester. Would India have been a stabler, more secular state if its schools had forced Sikh children to cut their hair or if its armed services had insisted on clean-shaven Sikh soldiers' I don't think so.

Perhaps we're too close to the Paris riots. Perhaps in the very long term, French secularism will succeed in creating a homogeneous French citizenry. The trouble is, riots and their reasons have to be addressed in the real time of everyday life, not the glacial slow motion of the long dur'e.

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