Though more than 80 per cent of its population calls itself Catholic, and Catholicism permeates its history and culture, France resists the 'majoritarian' impulse with a vigour that has seldom wavered over the past 100 years. With the exception of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime during World War II, successive governments have adhered to the letter and spirit of a 1905 law which erected an impenetrable wall between the state and the church.
Under the provisions of this law the state is expected to maintain strict neutrality vis-a-vis all religious communities. No religious instruction is allowed in state-run schools and no religious signs or symbols are permitted in official buildings. Religion is restricted to the private domain. The 1905 law also expects the state to safegu ard the freedom of conscience of all citizens. Any attempt to violate this freedom, through intimidation, coercion, propaganda, violence or proselytising zeal, invites penal action.
Indeed, no citizen, or group of citizens, can act against the country's 'republican' traditions inherited from the Enlightenment thinkers and the 1789 Revolution: democracy, defense of human rights, respect of elementary freedoms, especially the freedom of expression, equality of races and genders and also of opportunity. All citizens are subjected to the same laws. This is the prime requirement of citizenship. But it is not enough. To be French also means adopting the language and culture of France.
Throughout the 20th century Catholics, Protestants and Jews internalised this brand of secularism and identity if only in fits and starts. But the precipitate growth of the Muslim population, estimated to be between 3 to 5 million, in recent decades has stirred a major debate on whether or not it can be integrated into the Republican mainstream. For many French thinkers Islam is intrinsically inimical to democracy, human rights, women, to freedom of expression and hostile to non-believers and to dissidents within its own ranks.
Its deep-seated belief in the ummah, or the unique and indivisible community of believers, is also regarded to be incompatible with the modern idea of the Nation-State. With more and more young, educated, French-speaking Muslims lending a sympathetic ear to radical Islamic preachers, fears have been expressed that France's republican traditions can no longer be sustained.
Another school of thought contends, however, that Muslims can and do come to terms with these traditions. In Tunisia, for example, Islam is not a state religion. Citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. Gender equality has been guaranteed. Polygamy stands abolished. Democracy is striking roots in more and more Muslim countries. Muslim women have headed governments in Turkey, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Meanwhile, Muslim reformists are also making their voices heard. They assert that while the Koran cannot be tampered with, the sharia and other theological texts must be seen in their historical contexts. These can be so interpreted as to enable Muslims to fully adhere to the humanist demands of the modern world.
As of now the reformists are on the defensive. Last April the first ever elections were held for the general assembly and the central committee of the French Council for the Muslim Religion which the government has created along the lines of a similar bodies for the Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities. It justified the move on the grounds that a representative body of French Muslims can be persuaded or cajoled to fall in line with the country's republican ethos. This appears to be no more than wishful thinking at present for, to the chagrin of the secular establishment, it is the hardliners, some of them affiliated to the Muslim Brotherhood, who won the elections to the new body hands down.