Year XLVI, 2004, Number 3, Page 131
Beyond the Secular State
The long debate still running in France regarding the right of Muslim girls to wear the veil at school raises issues regarding the of overt religious symbols in public places, that is, in those places (schools, hospitals, public offices, courts of law) in which men and women operate as citizens and, as such, interact with one another and with the representatives of the state. More generally, it raises issues regarding the adopting, in such places, of behaviours that underline and heighten differences based on religious identity. The debate raises the question of the secularity of the state, which is one of the great conquests of French civil culture. But careful contemplation of this question leads one beyond the religious aspects and reveals that the secularity of the state is only one aspect of a much broader problem.
It is true that the secularity of the state and its relations with religion is a problem that has already been raised in the past — and to an extent continues to be raised today — and one that must, for this reason, be examined as a priority. It goes without saying that what is being questioned is not the lawfulness of religious practices, as long as these practices remain outside politics and do not contradict the fundamental principles of the liberal-democratic system. Religion fulfils an irrepressible need in man, and only a totalitarian regime would seek to suffocate it.
But established religions have often stepped outside their own sphere and invaded the ambit of politics. In the past they have been employed as instruments of power, and to an extent they still are used in this way. The use of religions in politics is rooted in the ambiguous and contradictory nature of the state. On the one hand, the state is the condition allowing civil coexistence and the affirmation of the values linked to civil coexistence, and as such it is the guardian of the legal system and the guarantor of social peace. On the other hand, however, it has historically always been forced to coexist with other states and to reckon with profound social inequalities, which the course of history has attenuated, but never overcome. The state has thus always been forced to defend its internal civil coexistence against external enemies, through recourse to violence or the threat of violence and often requiring its subjects, or citizens, not only to lay down their lives, but also to accept injustices generated by this state of affairs. All this, combined with the still embryonic political awareness of the majority of mankind, has meant that, until now, the state has never been able (in the eyes of its subjects or citizens) to base its legitimacy solely on that allegiance that stems from the awareness that the state exists to guarantee civil coexistence and to promote the values on which civil coexistence is founded. The state has always needed a prop, outside politics, that draws on other allegiances and allows it to justify its own contradictions. For a long period in the history of mankind, this prop was religion. And religion still actively plays this role in the Muslim world, in Israel, and also, to a lesser degree, in many countries in which the majority of the population professes the Christian religion (one need only think of the pervasive references to God in American politics, of the widespread presence in many European countries of political parties with Christian roots, and of the role that religion still plays in the rituals of the great European monarchies).
It is only at the heart of Europe, through a gradual process, which began in France in 1500 and culminated in the French Revolution, that the state has managed to break free from religion. Thanks to the French Revolution and the birth of the concept of citizenship, a new sense of belonging emerged (even though it had been foreshadowed in the worlds of Ancient Greece and Rome), which the state managed to render superior to religious allegiances; and religion was duly assigned its rightful, non political role. This is how, with difficulty, the secular state came into existence and, being the explicit guarantee of mutual respect, of the equality of all in the eyes of the law, and of the acknowledgment of the value of social justice, managed to impose on its citizens, albeit with considerable limitations, a primary allegiance of a new and purely political character. And the peculiar characteristic of the secular state is that it relegates all other allegiances to the role of secondary allegiances, with which each individual can identify only in so far as they do not conflict with his or her citizenship.
The emancipation, albeit incomplete, of the state from religion was one of the great milestones of European political culture. But it is important to realise that neither the birth of the modern state nor the French Revolution were able to eliminate the factors that had, until then, rendered impossible the separation of the state from all non political sources of legitimisation. This explains why, following the partial emancipation of the state from religion, the role of religion was taken over by a new — largely artificial — allegiance to a perceived atavistic community held together by bonds of blood and by a shared culture that, having taken a thousand years to evolve, were supposed to confer a specific identity on its members. Religion was thus, in part, replaced by the idea of nation, whose role in history has been as ill-fated as it has been crucial. The idea of nation thus introduced a serious element of corruption into the concept of the secular state, which is reflected in the fact that, from the French Revolution onwards, the terms citizenship and nationality have, in common usage, been considered synonymous.
This is why we must look beyond the problem of the secularity of the state and extend our reflection to the more general problem of the emancipation of the state and politics not only from religion, but from all external sources of conditioning, of whatever kind, and thus to the problem of the complete freeing of the idea of citizenship (understood as an allegiance founded on purely political values) from all other kinds of allegiance.
Moreover, it must be added that religion and, more generally, allegiances originally extraneous to politics, not only serve as instruments of power, but also — seemingly antithetically — contribute to the erosion of the state. This is particularly clear in the current phase of history in which, under the influence of globalisation and of the phenomena that are accompanying it, the state is weakening and allowing the emergence of community allegiances that compete with citizenship and cause it to crumble, that undermine the value known as the equality of all in the eyes of the law, and that hinder political debate, confining the different sections of society to isolated ghettos that fail to communicate with one another, thereby interrupting the circle of consensus that links power and the citizens. It is a phenomenon that can be witnessed in Europe and in the United States, and it goes by the name of multiculturalism.
It is important to understand that the existence, within the state, of allegiances and other affiliations that, without having political origins, assume a high public profile and prevail over citizenship — i.e., over the sense of belonging founded solely on loyalty to the Constitution and on belief in the values that underpin coexistence within its framework — goes against the very nature of the state: in regimes that make use of them, such allegiances and affiliations pollute the essence of the state, and where they set themselves up in competition with the loyalties on which the community of citizens is founded, they undermine its solidity. The supremacy of citizenship over all other ties is thus an essential requisite of the state, understood in the purest sense of the word. This means, therefore, that a state whose autonomy is brought into question by the existence of other allegiances (which it uses as a source of its own legitimacy, or which enter into competition with citizenship) is an incomplete state. And this explains why secularity (signifying nothing more than a stage in the freeing of politics from all external ties) is so important in the French concept of statehood. This last remark has to be underpinned by a genuine understanding of the concepts of state and citizenship as perfect ideas and thus of the tendential nature of their affirmation. If it is indeed true that the profound essence of statehood is incompatible with the state’s historical need to defend its internal civil coexistence against threats originating from other states, and its use of this need to excuse injustices, it follows that the state, again understood in the purest sense of the word, may fully be realised only following the overcoming both of the world’s division into sovereign states and of the greatest inequalities between classes, social groups and nations. This means that the full realisation of the state and of citizenship can come about only within the framework of a world federal state that has shown itself to be capable of bringing social inequalities within limits compatible with a sense of common belonging. Clearly, this does not alter the fact that the progressive taking root of the idea of citizenship — even when this remains within its traditional limits — is an essential stimulus for progress towards the full realisation of statehood.
It follows, from all that has been said above, that the autonomy of the state — and secularity as part of that autonomy — cannot be understood as a sort of passive neutrality, which limits itself to allowing, in the name of tolerance, the coexistence of communities whose collective behaviours are inspired by radically differing primary values. If this were the meaning of autonomy of the state, all values, including those that form the basis of civil coexistence, would be the exclusive patrimony of non political communities (i.e., communities other than the community of citizens), and citizenship would be an empty expression of the idea of membership. In such a situation, the state would be nothing more than a sterile organ of mediation serving only to resolve, in the name of abstract impartiality, conflicts between values alien to it. But in reality, the very opposite is true. Civil coexistence is founded on the primary values of freedom, equality and social justice, and the state can overcome conflicts between society’s different communities only insofar as it is the defender of values that the citizens recognise as superior to all other values.
It can be noted that this problem often arises when efforts are made to define the objective of founding a European federation. The European federation is correctly seen as something that transcends nations. But nations, and the nation-states that are their institutional expression, are often perceived as guardians and points of reference of the fundamental principles of coexistence — as the compendium of all the values that, through common languages, customs, traditions, and so on, give meaning to citizens’ daily lives —, whereas the community that ought to be uniting the nations in a broader political and legal framework in fact serves only to ensure their continued coexistence within the framework of a set of rules. Numerous debates on the existence or non existence of a European people have given rise to the idea that no institution that is able to achieve, in whatever form, the political union of Europe could also embody the values that lend humanity to social existence and enliven political debate. According to this view, the European institutions, whatever their nature, now or in the future, can never amount to anything other than a sort of cold suprastructure, a purely arbitrary power without connotations of worth, which would inspire no allegiance and have the purely technical function of resolving specific problems shared the communities belonging to it. This line of reasoning leads one to the conclusion that the European federation is simply an impossible objective, or that the European federation is destined to remain a quasi-state devoid of a people, of a soul, and thus of power.
But these arguments only obscure the real terms of the problem. In reality, there cannot be a state without a people, and neither can there be a people without a general sharing of the fundamental values of civil coexistence. It is true that there may never be a united Europe. But it is equally true that the nation-states have now ceased to serve as points of reference of those fundamental values. There can thus be no doubt that failure to unite Europe will result in the European peoples’ dissolving into anarchy, and losing their identity in the process. Europe can be united only through the birth of a European people and of the federal state that will be its expression. And the values on which it is founded will be reflected in its capacity to move towards a gathering of the consensus of the citizens not through recourse to extra-political sources of legitimisation, such as religion or the nation, but through the affirmation of a superior form of coexistence (albeit presenting the limitations already mentioned) that will be independent of all other allegiances.
This, in itself, may serve as a response to the widespread pressure to have Europe’s Christian roots mentioned, as part of its very identity, in the introduction to the “Constitution”. It is true that Christianity has played a crucial role in the formation of European civilisation and society, and that a broad version of Christianity — in the sense of a love of one’s neighbour and openness to dialogue — is still important in private relations as an antidote to the spread of social Darwinism, the dehumanising of economic relations, and the gradual eroding of social solidarity. But it is also true that a united Europe will come into being as a flag bearer of broader horizons and the overcoming of cultural barriers. It is a fact, too, that the European model of state was born as something separate from religion and that it will take a European federation to carry it forward, emphasising, in full respect of its Constitution and laws, its secularity and the equality of its citizens, whatever their religious persuasion may be. Any document that sets out to define the identity of Europe must therefore bring out quite clearly the strictly secular nature of its political power as a necessary condition for the equality of its citizens.
The autonomy of the state, of which secularity is just one aspect, thus represents an active stance whose job is to bring down the fences that divide society, thereby creating public spaces in which citizens might find common ground for discussion and together become accustomed to comparing views and offering mutual solidarity, instead of merely tolerating the differences that separate them. If this cannot be achieved, then all the state can do, in order to allow the continuing coexistence of incompatible ideas of civil coexistence, is to keep the communities adhering to these different ideas apart from one another. But this isolation, in addition to being a negation of pluralism (in that it juxtaposes incompatible but internally highly homogeneous cultures), is also impracticable since the borders between communities inevitably remain porous and the attempts to isolate them only foster resentment and violence. This is why we must not be afraid to acknowledge that mere tolerance of religious and cultural differences, on the part of powers, leads only to a ghetto society and to the disintegration of the population, accompanied by inevitable outbursts of violence. Alarming manifestations of this trend have already been widely seen in the English-speaking world. In truth, the state, in the face of the reality of multiculturalism, should instead be allowing itself to be guided by the idea of one large community of communication in which all the citizens speak the same “‘language” — if not the same tongue —, all share the same loyalty to the Constitution and to the values it represents, and all feel part of a single people, united by ties much stronger than those that determine their membership of various communities of other kinds, and in which religious differences themselves are lost in the idea of a single, universal “religion of morality” that consigns to a secondary level all those dogmatic peculiarities and rituals of the traditional religions. The state, therefore, must not stop at tolerance, but actively pursue the ideal of integration.
A policy of integration involves, on the one hand, the prohibition of certain behaviours that violate the fundamental principles of civil coexistence (for example, polygamy, infibulation and other practices that offend human dignity) and, on the other, the management of public spaces (schools, hospitals, courts of law, public offices) where the equality of all citizens before the law is a principle rigorously upheld and where barriers between them are prohibited. This latter aspect implies faith in the fact that the mutual frequenting of such spaces will tend to cancel out all but secondary or individual differences (the first possibly different expressions of behaviours underpinned by the same values, or behaviours perceived as relative and not absolute, and the second more visible because they are not cancelled out by the artificial uniformity typical of the behaviour of members of a single community).
Clearly, all this is not to deny the fact that pluralism is an important aspect of an open society. But pluralism must remain compatible with an unreserved sharing of the primary values that underpin peaceful coexistence within a state, and must form the basis not of head-on and possibly violent clashes of opinions that are irreconcilable because they are divorced from the rule of reason, but of dialogue between different points of view, in which a common language is used to overcome differences, even if just to transfer them to a higher level. In the same way, acknowledgment of the need to overcome multiculturalism certainly does not legitimise a policy of oppression, or even suppression, of the minorities that do not share the primary values upheld by the majority. This would be a case of the disease being preferable to the cure. Instead, the problem is one of implementing a policy — a difficult policy and one that will often be required to adapt to individual situations — that discourages the formation of a ghetto society and advocates contact between, and the exchange of radically differing views on, the family and the state. And it must be implemented in pursuit of the objective of integration, but in the full awareness that integration must be achieved by degrees, so as to guard against outbursts of violence in social relations and to eliminate violence in relations between the governing power and the citizens. The fact remains that in relation to certain behaviours, the state will have to remain intransigent if it is not to undermine the very foundations of the consensus on which it is built. We refer to those behaviours that, jeopardising the equality of, and mutual respect among citizens, in particular in public spaces, constitute seedbeds of violence: behaviours that must certainly include the exhibition, in public places, of symbols of religious allegiance. These symbols, which emphasise those differences that unite the members of one community but exclude all other people, become, in reality, a source of provocation, and of potential unrest, which the state cannot allow.
The European federation, providing its foundation is not prevented by the indifference, inertia and short-sightedness of Europe’s current political leaders, will be a vital step on the road towards the realisation of the potentialities inherent in the idea of citizenship. Europe will be born, if it is born, as a country of many religions and of many tongues, a characteristic that will become increasingly marked as it expands. The likely entry, over the years, of Muslim countries such as Turkey and Bosnia, will be significant step forward in this process. Its creation, representing the negation of the nations as exclusive communities, will have enormous symbolic value. Its federal character and its progressive expansion will constitute an insurmountable barrier to the prevalence of a single religion or a single culture. At the same time, the huge importance of its role in the world and its capacity to mobilise the consensus of its citizens will allow it to oppose effectively the disintegration of society that is produced by multiculturalism. It will mark an important stage in the process of the emancipation of mankind.