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RELIGION

France sets up ‘office of laïcité’ to defend its secular ideals

The complex and frequently-misunderstood concept of laïcité - secularism - is set to be reinforced with the creation of a new office designed to oversee the application of one of the fundamental principles of the French republic.

France sets up 'office of laïcité' to defend its secular ideals
Photo: AFP

Prime minister Jean Castex announced on Thursday the creation of a new inter-ministerial committee on secularism which will eventually evolve into the bureau de la laïcité

Its role will be to provide extra training to state employees on exactly what laïcité is and what it does and does not allow, and to rule on disputes over the application of the principle of state secularism.

The creation of the office comes as a new bill aimed at ‘strengthening republican principles’ and cracking down on extremism makes its way through parliament.

READ ALSO What is actually contained in France’s new law against Islamic extremism

A key principle of the French state since its adoption in 1905, laïcité is poorly understood outside France, but the ideas of secularism are also often misunderstood – sometimes deliberately for political reasons – inside the country as well.

The basic principle of the law is that everyone in France is free to follow whatever religion they choose, but that the French state itself remains strictly neutral and religion plays no part in the business of the state.

This rules out, for example, Christmas nativity scenes in town halls or prayers in schools. It also means that agents of the state – anyone on the public payroll – cannot display any signs of their religion such as wearing the Muslim headscarf while at work, while religious symbols cannot be displayed in state buildings including schools.

It does not, however, extend to private businesses – so shops can and do put up Christmas decorations – or public spaces – so that wearing a Muslim scarf on the street or in a shop is perfectly legal.

Nevertheless, the lack of a simple, concise definition means that many people remain confused about the principle.

This is not helped by some deliberate distortions of the principle for political reasons, where it is particularly used to attack Muslim women.

READ ALSO What does laïcité really mean in France?

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Swedish police underestimated the level of violence that awaited them and should have called a halt to Danish-Swedish extremist Rasmus Paludan’s demos as soon as it became clear the riots were spiralling out of control, argues journalist Bilan Osman. 

‘Police should have stopped Koran-burning demos after the first day’

Speaking to The Local for the Sweden in Focus podcast, out this Saturday, Osman said she understood why the police had allowed the demonstrations to go ahead in the first place but that the safety of civilians and police officers should have taken precedence when the counter-demonstrations turned violent. 

“Just to be clear, I don’t think it’s an easy question. I think everyone, regardless of views or beliefs, should have the right to demonstrate,” said Osman, who writes for the left-wing Dagens ETC newspaper and previously lectured for the anti-racist Expo Foundation.

“I understand people who say that violence [from counter-demonstrators] shouldn’t be a reason to stop people from demonstrating. I truly believe that. But at the same time: was it worth it this time when it’s about people’s lives and safety?” 

Police revealed on Friday that at least 104 officers were injured in counter-demonstrations that they say were hijacked by criminal gangs intent on targeting the police. 

Forty people were arrested and police are continuing to investigate the violent riots for which they admitted they were unprepared. 

“I think the police honestly misjudged the situation. I understand why Paludan was allowed to demonstrate the first day. It’s not the first time he has burned the Koran in Sweden. When he burned the Koran in Rinkeby last year nothing happened. But this time it was chaos.” 

Osman noted that Rasmus Paludan did not even show up for a planned demonstration in her home city of Linköping – but the police were targeted anyway. 

“I know people who were terrified of going home. I know people who had rocks thrown in their direction, not to mention the people who worked that day, policemen and women who feared for their lives. So for the safety of civilians and the police the manifestations should have been stopped at that point. Instead it went on, not only for a second day but also a third day and a fourth day.” 

On the question of whether it was acceptable to burn Islam’s holy book, Osman said it depended on the context. 

“If you burn the Koran mainly to criticise religion, or even Islam, of course it should be accepted in a democracy. The state should not only allow these things, but also protect people that do so. 

“I do believe that. Even as a Muslim. That’s an important part of the freedom of speech. 

A previous recipient of an award from the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism for her efforts to combat prejudice in society, Osman drew parallels with virulent anti-Semitism and said it was “terrifying” that Paludan was being treated by many as a free speech campaigner rather than a far-right extremist.  

“If you are a right-wing extremist that wants to ethnically cleanse, that wants to cleanse Muslims from Sweden, and therefore burn the Koran, it’s actually dumb to think that this is a question about freedom of speech. When Nazis burn everything Jewish it’s not a critique against Judaism, it’s anti-Semitism.” 

Anti-Muslim sentiment in Sweden tended to come in waves, Osman said, pointing to 9/11 and Anders Behring Brevik’s attacks in Norway as previous occasions when Islamophobia was rampant. Now the Easter riots had unleashed a new wave of hatred against Muslims that she described as “alarming” and the worst yet. 

“I do believe that we will find a way to coexist in our democracy. But we have to put in a lot work. And Muslims can’t do that work alone. We need allies in this.” 

Listen to more from Bilan Osman on the April 23rd episode of Sweden in Focus: Why Sweden experienced its worst riots in decades.

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