Rather than call for reform of the French secular and Catholic educational system, John Bowen suggests that France might stop the radicalization of its Muslim prison population through chaplaincy. While this is an important goal, Bowen’s own analysis shows that more urgently needed is an educational, political, and juridical effort targeting the majority of French Catholics and secularists, inside and outside the prison system, who, with relative impunity, express anti-Muslim racism, inflict legal and illegal discrimination, and commit violence against French Muslims.

Indeed the most important task today is to limit the radicalization of these French citizens and state agents, a large number of whom seem to have become, with the encouragement of the state and official discourse, anti-immigrant, right-wing bigots. Recent polls in France show that the National Front’s Marine Le Pen, the most vocal and vulgar opponent of French Muslims, would be elected president if elections were held today. The ongoing discrimination against Muslims; the “apartheid” system, as described by Prime Minister Valls, under which they live; the hysterical, racist public and private discourse about them in the media and in official pronouncements; and the limited legal remedies available to combat this state of affairs—these are the problems that demand immediate redress.

Radicalized Catholics and secularists are the biggest obstacle to unity.

French Catholics (secularists or not) need to learn that France is not theirs to govern as they see fit and that it is not the exclusive property of French Gaulois Catholics. They must realize that what they consider the only legitimate French culture must change and assimilate itself to the long-resisted fact that France is also a Muslim country, that non-Gaulois, non-Christian, and non-European French citizens are part and parcel of the country’s identity. They are not “guests” living in the home of French Catholics and secularists, who are in turn not their “hosts.”

As I argue in my book Islam in Liberalism, French state and societal racist pronouncements (like those of many other Western states and societies), including the charge of “Islamic communalism,” are hardly original, as they are directly imported from France’s and Europe’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century anti-Semitic rhetoric. Then, it was European Jews who were unassimilable, communal, and tribal.

Perhaps French Catholics and secularists could learn something from French Muslims who have tolerated Catholic and secular racism since World War II. Unlike French Catholics and secularists who deem any act committed by any Muslim anywhere an expression of Islam and Islamic doctrine, French Muslims have not linked French Catholic discrimination to the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the conquest of and genocide in the Americas, nor seen it as an expression of Catholic doctrine but as state and societal discrimination reflecting the attitudes of French Catholics and secularists. The irony is that it is French Catholics and secularists who are intolerant of French Muslims. This is most apparent in the attacks against French Muslims following the Charlie Hebdo massacre: attacks by citizens, who in one case killed a French man inside his own home and in front of his wife merely because he was Muslim, and by the state, which has arrested scores of Muslims, including children, on
suspicion that they are “apologists for terrorism.”

The same people who would openly attribute any act by any Muslim to all coreligionists would not dare assert that the acts or views of a given Jewish or Catholic Frenchman are reflective of their religious doctrine. Even when Israeli rabbis, such as Yitzhak Shapira and Yosef Elitzur, justify the murder of Palestinian civilians by appealing to the Torah, anti-Semites in France would be rightly and immediately condemned by the mainstream if they dared suggest that Jewish doctrine itself were to blame.

Educational, political, and juridical reforms are essential to ending French state and societal racism just as they are necessary to reverse the radicalization of a majority of French Catholics and secularists into right-wing racists. Secular and Catholic educational curricula must be massively revised to prioritize attitudes of tolerance and to instill democratic values. As racist French Catholics and secularists represent the greatest impediment to national unity, such an effort will go a long way toward healing the social divisions in the country, which, as Bowen notes, “will be essential to combating radicalization.”