Vive la Résistance!

Review: Pierre Manent, ‘Beyond Radical Secularism’

• August 20, 2016 5:00 am


Although the January 2015 terrorist attacks in France now look minor compared to more recent massacres in Paris and Nice, the slaughter at the headquarters of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo was at the time the most bloody attack on French soil since the beginning of the twenty-first century. French political philosopher Pierre Manent observes that, while "the rush of emotion evoked by the event was in this case immense," nevertheless "the acts of war committed in early 2015 … have changed nothing in our country’s dispositions or in its deliberations or actions." In fact, the terrorism of early 2015 has merely worsened France’s paralysis, its refusal "to take a defensive position in order not to have to admit that it has put itself in danger." Manent decided to write Beyond Radical Secularism, released in France in October 2015 and newly translated into English, to identify the root cause of this paralysis in the face of Islamic terror.

To understand the issue, one must recognize that Europe is committed to the view that community life is almost entirely about the organization and guarantee of individual rights. French society asks little to nothing of its citizens except to live out the rights guaranteed by the state. This progressive view cannot take seriously that there are people in the world still motivated by religious devotion, and that some of them would like to organize society around religious principles. Islam is such a religion, and its way of life is based on the duties of religious law, not the ever-expanding rights of man.

But France should be able to incorporate multiple ways of life. After all, it is a secular country whose state takes no position on the right religious doctrine or moral code. In fact, this is the function and pride of the French Fifth Republic: the guarantee of the "equal right of every citizen to follow the morality of his choice." French secularism should therefore be the proper political mechanism to incorporate a large Muslim immigrant population, as well as protect itself against terrorism without demonizing the foe. So what gives?

Whereas the state can be neutral about religion and morality, society can never be neutral. In fact, the state’s neutrality, its formless character, is present precisely to protect the myriad beliefs, moral codes, and religious practices that comprise society. A secularism that preserves a flourishing society of diverse religious practice is completely different from a secularism that socially engineers a religiously neutral society. The latter would be a bland formless void, devoid of religious devotion, beauty, or character.

The secularists who advance such a vision assume that Islam will reform by incorporating itself into France. In assuming this, they think that Islam should no longer be an objective value but rather be recognized as a subjective choice—a manifestation of individual rights rather than objective religious law. Muslims, of course, do not agree with this. For practicing Muslims, Islam is not a subjective choice. When Westerners treat it as one, they render themselves incapable of dealing with terrorism and the integration of Muslim immigrants.

Manent argues that a radical secularist society, one that is formless because it refuses to be shaped by any religious inheritance, is incapable of inviting outsiders to join it. Just as a house must have walls for the host to invite a guest into it, so a society must have customs, ceremonies, and convictions to invite outsiders to join. But a radical secularist society has none of these things: no borders, no common customs, no ceremonies, no education about a common national life, no patriotism. Without common political life, a country has nothing to offer those coming from outside.

France must have form and shape to deal with the influx of Muslim immigrants and the terrorist threat it is currently facing. The proper shape is the nation. France must rediscover its national form in order to establish ties of civic friendship and common life. In the long term, this means abolishing or exiting the European Union, which has made national borders obsolete and foisted the responsibility of governance and common political life onto a trans-national organization. In the short term, Manent suggests one concrete measure: France should command French Muslims to stop accepting money from foreign powers, whether governments or religious organizations, to fund mosques, cultural centers, and other projects.

This would have two immediate effects: first, it would establish French Muslims as French—that is, it would require Muslim immigrants to live a common life with the French because it would prevent the funding of immigrant communities from abroad. Second, the command would be an invitation. It would signal to Muslim immigrants that the French want to welcome Muslim immigrants into their country.

The second aspect of the command is critical and often misunderstood, to the detriment of the West and to Muslim immigrants in the West. A command is an invitation, and in this case it is a prerequisite to entering into a common life. Without asking immigrants to enter into that common life, the French abandon Muslims who are moving into the country. Manent suggests that the greatest disservice the French do for Muslim immigrants is asking nothing of them, not commanding and therefore not inviting them into national life.

The major issue at play in Islam’s relation to the West is not actually Islam—it is the West’s radical secularism. Political Islam is no doubt a problem for Europe and the West, but it is radical secularism that prevents Europeans and Americans from speaking coherently and acting with clear purpose in relation to this growing force. Until Westerners can speak confidently about religion, they have little hope of defending themselves against Islamic terrorism or adequately welcoming Muslims into their societies.

But perhaps the current situation, though a mess, is an opportunity for reborn confidence. The French have played a defensive role in the life of Europe before. Manent’s counsel—that true toleration comes through confidence and strength, not abdication of governing responsibilities to a trans-national organization—gives the French a way to assert their national life in order to welcome Muslims and defend religious toleration against Islamic terrorism. It remains to be seen whether the French have the confidence to heed Manent’s counsel and produce defenders of liberty that are needed now, as ever.