Up Against the Wall but Fighting Back Against Extremists
I read with great interest Mr. Olulodes’s article “Up Against the Wall,” which involves three different issues: the growing personalisation of political representation, the typically French idea of “laïcité” and the free development of the individual personality of minors. Each of these issues is closely wrapped in the fabric of secularism, but I believe them to take different forms.
The criticism of Mr. Farron’s remarks on homosexuality, for example, probably has much less to do with his personal faith positions than with the widespread demand that political leaders embody the ideals they represent. Years ago this was simply the function of political parties, while today electors feel that a political stand is weakened if a leader does not appear to be the personal herald of his or her party’s policies.
Similarly, the French idea of “laïcité” sometimes appears to extend the demand for the religious neutrality of the public sphere to the individuals that enter into public space. The “burkini” issue is certainly part of this hyper- French concept, mostly unknown anywhere else. But sometimes the French debate makes use of similar concepts because they may seem nondiscriminatory to a French audience. For example, the ban on the headscarf in French high schools was justified on this concept, but its real aim (made obvious in the hearings of the “Stasi commission”) was to preserve minors from the widespread imposition of a religiously prescribed garment starting at age 12 and the belief that such a practice would inevitably result in a lifetime conditioning of acceptance. However questionable, the real motivation for that prohibition for a few hours a day was therefore the defence of the free development of the individual personality of minors (that’s why the headscarf is not prohibited in French universities).
In fact, the most problematic issue raised by Mr. Olulode, discussed in the context of male circumcision, is that of balancing parents’ and churches’ religious freedom with minors’ free individual development (protected also by the UN Convention on the Rights of Children). Whatever the practical solutions, minors are individuals and cannot be considered the private property of their parents. Unlike decades ago, today we also protect children from even the abuse of chastisement. Legally banning circumcision of infants may be too much, but allowing parents to impose whatever personal view or lifestyle on adolescents is also definitely too much in a secular society.
But, notably, this has nothing to do with promoting atheism. In some European countries today our centuries-old Jeffersonian idea of political secularism risks to be hijacked by an extreme right for anti-immigration or exclusionary campaigns. This right wing has always been strongly anti-secularist, and this is just one more reason for us not to allow the name or idea of secularism to fall into such unworthy hands.
President, European Humanist Federation