By: Mason Krohn
On December 9, 2015, French students celebrated a holiday unknown not only to the country's citizens but also to everyone in the world. France’s former president, François Hollande, announced it as the Day of Laïcité, or the National Day of Secularism. Hollande marked the 110th anniversary of the 1905 law that strictly established the separation of church and state. The unexpected celebration of the century-old decree came in the wake of the terror attacks that killed 17 Parisians at Charlie Hebdo, a satirical newspaper that poorly portrayed Islam, and Hyper Cacher, a kosher deli. Hollande’s improvised holiday was part of his ten-point plan to combat radicalization of youth by educating students about the importance of secularism.
In many ways, the roots of secularism in Europe are being misused to persecute the growing presence of Muslims in the continent. For instance, Marine Le Pen, the runner-up in France’s 2017 presidential election, campaigned on the idea that she was a defender of secularism and used laïcité to justify her proposed policy of banning headscarves and turbans in an effort to gain support from alt-right voters. Besides the misconstrual of church and state separation to propagate a form of discrimination, others argue that a rise in secularism has also benefitted Europe by removing corruption and bias from its government. Yet, while politicians raged on with debates on the meaning of secularism and its related policies, many students admitted that their schools took no part in the celebration as some teachers either refused to spend time on teaching laïcité or they simply had no idea that the holiday was happening. France’s lackluster holiday and politically extreme uses of secularism are a microcosm of religious battles across Europe.
One of the most noticeable European surges in secularism took place in Norway on New Year’s Day this year. After 500 years, the government split off from the Church of Norway, removing 1,250 priests and bishops from their government titles and salaries while converting the religious institution into an independent business. The separation signifies a step in the right direction as freedom of all religions are preserved and no single faith is given financial or legal priority. However, this constructive example of secularism is contrasted with Norwegian politicians who misrepresent its meaning. Take, for example, Norway’s minister of migration and integration, Sylvi Listhaug, who caused an uproar in the Syrian refugee crisis. In April of 2016, Listhaug decided to float in the Mediterranean Sea to simulate the experiences of refugees, except she decided to equip herself with a bright orange and inflatable “survival suit” and only stayed in the sea for a few minutes until a boat “rescued” her. Her stunt received comments like, “[she should] sit on a chair for five minutes to feel what it's like to be paralysed.” Listhaug followed her April extravaganza by telling Norway’s Muslims in October, “Here we eat pork, drink alcohol and show our face. You must abide by the values, laws and regulations that are in Norway when you come here.” Here is where Listhaug fails to follow through with Norway’s true secular commitments. Rather than embracing the division of government and religion, she goes after the personal rights of Muslim citizens. Secularism does not call for the removal of religion in society, but instead the isolation of religion from the government.
In addition to Norway’s Listhaug, the legal systems of Europe perpetuate the use of aggressive secularism to deny Muslims religious freedom. In January, a claim made by a Muslim couple living in Basel, Switzerland was brought to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). The couple fought against the Swiss school that denied their daughters the ability to opt out of compulsory mixed swimming lessons. Nevertheless, the ECHR rejected their claim in support of the government’s control. The ECHR added, “The Court observed that school played a special role in the process of social integration, and one that was all the more decisive where pupils of foreign origin were concerned.” While this case may seem small, it has far-reaching consequences. If the Court considers co-ed swimming lessons a prerequisite to becoming European, it calls into question what else Muslims must abandon to be a part of European society. Given the results of a plethora of similar cases from Belgium to Turkey regarding bans on burqas and headscarves, the ECHR has proven repeatedly that, according to the court, state rights trump the religious beliefs of Muslims no matter how sacred the tradition is. This continued misapplication of secular values has even driven some former members of the ECHR to speak out such as Roberta Medda-Windischer who stated, “the Court has more frequently sustained a form of strict secularism, or even a sort of intolerant secularism or enlightenment fundamentalism. This is especially so in cases when individual religious manifestations do not display any signs of political intentions … making these prohibitions difficult to reconcile with the necessity to protect a democratic society.” While Syrian refugees flood in through Europe’s southern borders, an increasing amount of European nations will be faced with religious disputes over nationality, freedom, and secularism. Sylvi Listhaug’s belief that it takes pork and alcohol to become European may seem outrageous, but in reality, it’s no worse than declaring mixed swimming lessons necessary for integration, which the ECHR has now ingrained into European law.
While the subject of separation of church and state may be uninteresting to French teachers and students, laïcité has been an integral part of France and almost every European nation as they transition into secular societies. Norway is joining a number of countries who freed their governments from church influence through inclusive secularism. On the flip side, no matter the claims of far-right leaders like Le Pen and Listhaug, secularism does not mean intolerance, and the furtherment of this misconstrual hurts religious minorities like Muslims who are being stripped from their traditions. While the 2015 Day of Laïcité may have been a letdown, hopefully France can revitalize its holiday, so that students and adults alike can celebrate the true form of secularism and understand its proper usage before the healthy separation between church and state falls apart.