2005 is the hundredth anniversary of the laws on secularism. Yet it so happens that the presence in France of a strong minority of Muslims brings to the centre of public debate problems which evoke precisely those that were asked one century ago during the confrontation between the Republican State and the Catholic Church. Are we dealing with the same problems?
Secularism is something very specifically French, as incomprehensible in the UK where female customs and police officers can wear the veil, as in the US where no president can be elected without talking about God. Likewise, when we talk of Islam, what are we talking about? Of the dogma? But this is the object of various debates and interpretations amongst Muslims themselves. Islam has left the Middle-East and, incidentally, it is precisely for this reason that the question of its relations to French style secularism is being raised. The purpose of this essay is to displace these questions from the theological and cultural domain to the political domain. For the question of secularism is first and foremost a political one. It is a political context and political actions that push Muslims to get integrated in secularism. The acceptance of secular power and the recognition of religious autonomy do not come from religious debates, but from political decisions. Islam is thus transformed on the one hand by a process of secularisation in society (of which the pervading re-Islamisation is paradoxically one of the manifestations, for one only re-islamises what is secularised) and, on the other hand, by a political integration which is negotiable, as is shown by the foundation of the Conseil français du culte musulman. In this way, in every Western country, Islam is not integrated according to its own traditions, but according to the place that each society has given to religion, from Anglo-Saxon benevolence to Gallic suspicion.
Olivier Roy is director of research at the CNRS and director of studies at the EHESS. He is one of the best internationally renowned specialists on Islam.