Islam and French Politics: A Reflection

Islam and French Politics-A Reflection artwork

Book Cover of Beyond Radical Secularism; photo of Pierre Manent by Claire Manent.

The freedom that we so easily demand is a freedom without reason, a freedom that does not need to give reasons since it always has a “right” or a “value” at its disposal; so marvelous are these claims that they are established just by being stated. This freedom that no longer gives reasons is not without affinity with the kind of religious law that essentially refuses the test of reason.—Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism, 2016.1

The rights of man, as we have come to understand them throughout the history of European nations, will be of little help in bringing Muslims to see their moral practices reasonably from a certain distance; as we now understand them, human rights imply the pure and simple disappearance of Islam as a form of common life.”—Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism.2

One of the happier things in our current intellectual life—a not altogether promising scene, to be sure—is the number of first-rate thinkers, with solid Catholic sentiments, now to be found in France. We have, among others, Jean-Luc Marion, Philippe Bénéton, Chantal Delsol, Rémi Brague, and Pierre Manent, whose recent book, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, I want to consider here. Further back in recent history, of course, we recall, with much appreciation, Maritain, Gilson, de Lubac, the French Dominicans, Mauriac, Mounier, Daniélou, Marcel, and so many others. Daniel Mahoney, who writes the Preface to this book, also reminds us of Raymond Aron. Bertrand de Jouvenel, as well as of Charles de Gaulle himself, and the role the French played in making Alexander Solzhenitsyn known in the West.

Manent’s book is a brief 115 pages. It is a cross between a “manifesto” to “Arise Fellow-Countrymen” and a treatise on Aristotle’s Politics. It is almost completely counter-cultural, a fact that gives it unexpected authority. Its author can make judgments. It laments the decline of the separate European nations and their sub-divisions. It has little good to say of the European Union, even less for its abstract philosophical presuppositions and bureaucratic overreaches. It has no use for current notions of “rights” and “values.” It recognizes that a state of war de facto exists with the Muslim world. He takes the covenant that the Jews made with Yahweh seriously. Manent has a political place for the religions that is not completely and systematically “separated” out of public life, or suspect in cultural and family life. He casts a cold eye on the moral decadence that has seen Europe almost breed itself out of existence.

Manent is a political realist. He understands that politics in the classical sense has all but disappeared to be replaced by ideologies and continental-wide bureaucracies that have little concept of what a “citizen” or a common good is. What I propose to do here is sketch the general outlines of Manent’s thesis. I basically am in sympathy with his efforts and certainly think his understanding of radical secularism, and its pejorative influence on our civilized life, is correct. Manent realizes that the usual Catholic understanding of Islam has been mostly ill-informed, if not wholly naïve and ignorant of facts.

But Manent is primarily concerned with France and its own Christian, secular, and Muslim population. He does not seek to “convert” Islamic citizens, expel them, or ignore them. He does insist that they must swear loyalty to France, not some foreign power. Every time he speaks of French Muslims, it is with a certain openness and sympathy. But he recognizes the essential problem they present to French, indeed European, public life, the problem of a religious law and community exclusively interested in itself and its inner-worldly mission of political expansion.

The title of the book, Beyond Radical Secularism, is well-chosen. What Manent writes here is basically its obituary, or at least its incoherent logic. Most Europeans, Frenchmen, or Americans do not know that this “radical secularism” is dead and waiting to be buried. It has sucked the life out of what Europe was in world history. Europe was a union of “nations” that organized themselves politically. National civil authority was not, as Machiavelli thought, over and above the citizens. Nor was it Hobbes’ sovereign and mortal God whose chief function was to eliminate anything that stood between it and the autonomous individual afraid of violent death. Europe grew out of world empire, and has often been tempted with the idea, as with the idea of continental political unity in the model of the modern continental state. The post-World War II thesis that it was nationalism that caused totalitarianism was basically wrong. Ideology was the problem, including radical secularism.

Europe did have one society that brought it together, but it was the Church, not an over-arching state. Each separate state configured itself in relation to the ecclesiastical tradition in its own way. All belonged to this tradition, but also to his own national state. Each nation formed itself for political action to achieve the common good of its actual citizens. Germans were not French, nor were Spanish Italians; Bulgarians were not Swiss, nor were Poles English. And then there was Russia and Byzantium, also belonging in a way to the tradition of Christendom. Each nation was composed of families, shires, marks, and provinces. Each had many dialects of the same language which was often a dialect made official. Switzerland and Belgium had multiple languages. What struck us most about Europe was its variety, its traditions, the Cathedrals, the shrines, the rivers, the sports. There was soccer for all, but also rugby, cricket, tennis, golf, later basketball, and always running and swimming and throwing. There were libraries and universities, industries and crafts.

Likewise, there were towns, communes, shires, and duchies. The modern monarchy, beginning with England and France, fought to control these lesser institutions, including the Church. As it turns out, it won at their and its peril. The main instrument of the destruction and control of these “lesser” entities was the theory of “human rights.” Ever since late medieval nominalism, “rights” came to mean what was due to the individual. It was the function of government to expand and protect the “rights” of individuals. Society became merely a series of “contracts” made by individuals with each other, but always subordinate to individual “rights.” “Human rights” replaced natural law with its basis in ontology and revelation. Human nature did not depend on a natural order that it was the purpose of human intelligence to discover and carry out through virtue and prudence.

Moreover, “human rights” were universal. They applied to all men, to humanity. This position meant that every state and organization, including religious bodies and families, were the objects of these ungrounded “rights.” “Secular humanism” became its own substitute for religion. It tolerated no competition to its claims to universalism. No “societies” or corporate groups, including the Church, could be bound together for some purpose of their own, not defined by the state. Only disparate individuals existed. Each sought to accomplish his own will, whatever it was. Each had a “right” to his own self-defined good. He was the sole arbiter. If he claimed it, it was his. Interestingly, Manent sees this thesis not so much in Hobbesian terms of strength of the state, but in terms of its weakness.

In this view, the way to “control” the religions and their claim to truth and to be instruments of human well-being and virtue is to make them to be merely association of bearers of individual “human rights.” If anyone within any group, including the Church, feels his “right” is being violated, then the group comes under scrutiny and control of the state. All religions are neatly reduced to private associations as all families are so reduced. Each association is dependent on subjective “rights” of the members. If a lady feels she should be a priest, the Church is violating her “rights” and hence the state’s obligation to protect her “rights”. While this approach, at first sight, seems to give the state enormous power, it is a destructive power. It destroys all “lesser” institutions. All that is left are individuals with rights and a globalized world in which these “rights” are applied to every country, religion, ideology, or family.

How does Manent deal with this “rights” state? He returns to a basically Aristotelian idea that world empires are impossible as their complexity requires a divine knowledge to rule them. He sees the development of the medieval world as forming the nations of Europe in a more manageable human size. Each nation belongs to Christendom, but each with its own institutions and varieties of rule gradually worked out among all the citizens. Manent prefers to abandon the European Union idea because it was based on an anti-Christian, flawed denial of the classical and Christian origins of Europe and its genius. The places where people actually live demand sentiments of particular loves and loyalties, more human-sized units. Universal “rights,” in this context, are a scourge that destroy families, cities, fraternities, and other forms of association that go to make up a real common good, a good that allows the other goods to flourish and is not itself another abstract good.

The polity needs to be re-founded, brought to life. Real politics has to deal with fallen nature, hence jails, police, courts, armies. But it is primarily an “action” within a “regime” that has a certain configuration whereby it works out by deliberation and decision how to live together for as much good or practicality as it possible. The nation is not a state which claims the power to decide everything for everyone. Only absolutist states make this their goal. Rather, the polity is an organization, an order, wherein its members can work out their own good, indeed their own salvation.

The political formation of the nation is stronger than that of the “rights” state because it understands the purpose and importance of associations, including families, that are not the state’s direct purpose to rule. Most such entities rule themselves but not as disparate, isolated individuals. If there are Jews or Anabaptists or Capuchins or Huguenots or Diggers within the community, some workable arrangement, including those affected, is reached about how they are to live together in relative peace. Everyone requires known limits. This thing is not that thing. The city life proceeds by law, custom, deliberation, discussion, decision, and fraternity. It is clearly recognized that self-control, not unlimited desires for whatever we want or think we are, is the key to good citizenship.

Europe, then, should return to its nationhood if it is to survive. The idea that everyone can go everywhere, and practice whatever he wants, is simply human rights at work to undermine all settled societies. No nation needs to be perfect. But being perfect does not mean doing whatever we want. There is an ought-ness to our nature that we violate at great cost. Many of the things we might “wish” to do are simply wrong. A vigorous understanding of human nature, its tendency to evil, its knowledge of the Socratic principle “that it is never right to do wrong” is what gives life to any nation in which it is worthwhile to live. Churches, universities, arts and crafts, the economy, associations to promote goods of every sort compose the polity. And recalling Aristotle also, rapid increases or declines of population within a polity radically change it to something else. This point is particularly pertinent in Europe today with its very low birthrate. Therefore the composition of a polity is itself a question of retaining its common good.

In the light of these considerations of the nation, Manent proceeds to discuss the relation of France to its Muslim citizens who have been arriving, usually from Algeria and former French colonial possessions, for some decades now. Manent holds that the French state has made an implicit contract with them. It allowed them to come into the country with minimal problems. It did not ask much of them. However, it now recognizes that these same Muslim citizens do not accept or live by the individual “human rights” understanding of what man is. Quite the opposite is the case. While taking advantage of French life, they usually reject it. They often seek to set up Muslim law and custom within their own increasingly separated enclaves. Many French cities are two cities, one Muslim.

The problem is that those theories that sought to tame violence or custom coming with Muslim practices were based on the secular “human rights” principle. It was thought that by becoming secular individualists, Muslims would drop their religious peculiarities. The Muslims themselves often saw the decadence of life of the “rights” regimes. What Manent argues is this: The “rights” regime has undermined any corporate group’s inner cohesiveness. It has made the state exclusively into an enforcer of unlimited “rights” to be defined however we want. There results no loyalty even to the state itself. What happens is that the Muslims now constitute the only group within French society that has its own inner coherence that is based on religion, not “rights.” Thus, the Muslims at the same time feel alienated and powerful, which is also how they are perceived. This situation is the result of the loss of the nation that is France to the “rights” regime that is modern radical secularism.

What do we do about the Muslims then? A recognized place must be found for them to live their way of life within, but only as citizens of the French nation. This place can only be found if we turn away from the “rights” state that undermines all corporate relations. We must turn to the nation in which to pursue a common good of all citizens, groups, churches, and organizations that arise among free peoples. For the Muslims themselves, they will have to make several hard decisions. The first of these is that they must declare strict loyalty to France, and not to Islam, as an international imperial movement designed to replace French law with universal Muslim law. There is no distinction between God and Caesar in Islam. But this distinction is absolutely fundamental for any nation to survive.

French Muslims, henceforth, must accept no civil authority or power from outside of France. They must receive no money from oil nations, like Saudi Arabia, to build schools, mosques, or other institutions within France. They must rely on themselves and French society for these things. No one can deny that a recurring violence stems from the history of Islam. Presently, it is bent on attacking metropolitan France itself, as recent bombings demonstrate. Signs of separatism like wearing the burqa should be forbidden. In other words, the Muslims must be French in their political lives, and affirm it as their principal political loyalty. Manent compares this approach with the history of Jews in France.

What about the religion itself? It is something more than a political arrangement to get along on specific terms. France and Catholicism have worked out this arrangement over the centuries, sometimes with bloody moments. This point is where Manent reverts to the nation state rather than to the “rights” model of the modern state. With much difficulty, a reasonable place must be allowed for the practice of the Muslim religion, provided that it does not violate any reasonable political principles common to all. Whether Islamic law or tradition allows this arrangement remains to be seen. Manent assumes that it can be made possible, at least in France.

In principle, it goes back to the reason and revelation issue that was finally decided in Muslim history in favor of al-Ghazeli. Faith in Allah trumps any rule of reason. In effect, Manent is requiring at least a partial return to reason in areas of blasphemy, dealing with women, violence, freedom of others, and observance of French positive law. French Muslims as a group must recognize that France is a Christian nation by tradition, with other currents that are to be fostered and exercised. Manent’s purpose is to find a feasible place and welcome, within French society, for the Muslim religion. This place can tolerate some things, but on basic issues that affect the common good, Muslims are expected to be responsible French, not Islamic, citizens. Manent is not sure this program will work. He sees it as the most reasonable way to deal with the de facto Muslim presence in France. If this way does not work, we can only expect increased struggle and violence.

Let me stress in conclusion that Manent’s approach here is political. He is concerned with the actual people in an actual civil society. He is thinking his way through the question of how can French Muslims live together within some agreed upon common framework. He is not building a utopia. He again is a realist. He knows about crime, greed, fanaticism, and hatred. What, in other words, is the best practical regime in France granted that there is now among the civic body a substantial community of Muslims? At least some of these Muslims attack French society itself. Muslim French citizens, then, are expected to cheer for the French police, not for the suicide bombers. They are expected to participate in informing officials of threats from Muslim sources within or outside of France. Everyone knows that opposition to Islamic expansion is often met with death, or threats of death.

What Manent does not deal with, as it is not his purpose, is whether Islam is capable of being so nationalized. The very existence of the Islamic religion is based on the Qur’an, its commentaries, and the history of Islamic expansion itself. This history is, in many ways, a bloody affair. In the American Thinker (May 31, 2014), Mike Konrad wrote that some 250 million people have been killed in Islamic related wars and struggles since its beginning in the seventh century. It is a mandate of the Qur’an itself that Islam expand to conquer all nations in the name of Allah so that they might live under its laws. The jihad involves violence, which is considered a holy obligation. Some form of jihad is expected of every Muslim. To kill infidels in its name is praised. Those who die in the cause—even if they kill what looks like innocent people—are considered martyrs. The “peace” that is envisioned in Islam only comes into effect after all other opposition has been subdued.

The Muslim means to be subject to the Law without question. Allah himself is not bound by any distinction of good and evil. Whatever he wills is good, however we might designate it. Indeed, there really is no secondary (that is human or natural) causality in the world. All events are immediately willed by Allah. Each could be its opposite. The Islamic people live in sacred time. All events are seen within that framework. The only events that matter are those involving the status of Islam, and its fulfilling Allah’s will. This includes building a worldwide entity, usually called the Caliphate, wherein finally only Islamic presence is allowed, and where all is subject to Allah. This endeavor is seen as a holy and religious mission. The people who pursue it are not terrorists or fanatics, but devoted servants to the Muslim law. Whenever the Qur’an is present, it is this world-conquering vision that will constantly recur to incite continued progress in the age-old Islamic mission of world conquest. We find it difficult to take this mission seriously. But we have to admit that there are those who do now, and who have always risen in Islam to the call.

The issue that Manent proposes is this: Can this religion—being what it is—on the part of some of its adherents, namely those in France, agree not to pursue, at least in the foreseeable future, this common Muslim goal of world conquest? To do so, they would have to agree to the conditions that politics, in which they also participate, sets down. This agreement cannot be merely a “tactic” to gain time until Muslims, in a given place, are strong enough, and numerous enough, fully to impose their own system on the whole society. Manent is willing to try a political solution. It may work, at least for a time.

Another way to look at Islam, one that is more in the spirit of Benedict’s Regensburg Lecture, is whether there is something intrinsically violent or disordered in the religion itself, such that the only real way to deal with it is after the manner of conversion. Islam is notoriously difficult to convert to anything, be it to Christianity, national citizenship, radical secularism, or Hinduism. It has fought the Persians, the Byzantines, Hindus in India, the African tribes, to the Chinese wall. The Crusades were, in fact, defensive wars finally launched against invading Muslims which, with any luck, would have captured Europe centuries ago. It is not without interest to note that one Christian religious order was designed specifically to redeem Christian captives from Muslim slavery, while the various Knights orders had Islam mostly in mind.

It has been quite clear, at least since Urban II, that Christians had to defend themselves if they did not want to become Muslim. Those who failed to do this, the whole near eastern world after conquest, became mostly Muslim. What we see today in the Mid-East is mostly an effort to rid the Muslim area of any remaining people or signs, including monuments and institutions, of any Christian presence. Christians who suffer the recent persecutions have found almost no effort to defend them precisely as persecuted Christians.

So at the bottom of these reflections, we must somehow be able to address the question of the “truth” of the Qur’an, of this religion. Islam specifically denies the basic Christian doctrines. They cannot be true, and not true, at the same time. Its claim to revelation rests on a theory of revelation of the mind of Allah that has little credibility. And the text of the Qur’an itself is of dubious origin. It contains many contradictory passages. The efforts of German scholars to produce a definitive version of the Qur’an have met with great opposition. It is dangerous even to speculate about these things, let alone research them in a systematic manner.

But, I think, if the classical understanding of truth means anything—as well as respect for what Islam says of itself—that beyond a “political” solution in a given country, we need, in some forum, to address the issue of the truth of Islam itself. It is not enough to talk about everyone worshipping the “same” one God without examining just where there is the “same God” being discussed. The real question is: How is it that one god is so different from another that it can claim universal jurisdiction over all the nations in submitting them to Allah?

When we relate this question to the Christian command—“Go forth and teach all nations”—we see that the content and truth of what we are being sent for makes all the difference. It is, in other words, a question of truth. We can agree politically to get along and respect one another. We cannot agree that what we are being sent for, and who it is that sends us, are the same. That is to say, we really cannot avoid the question of the truth of Islam, or of Christianity. But we can agree with Manent that this should be discussed within the nation, presumably within those reluctant institutions once known as universities, now mostly ruled by “rights,” and oblivious to the urgency of truth questions, especially the truth in religions.

  1. Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, translated by Ralph Hancock and Daniel Mahoney (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016), 54.
  2. Ibid. 81.
Fr. James V. Schall, SJ About Fr. James V. Schall, SJ

Fr. James Schall, SJ (1928–2019), was long a professor of political science at Georgetown University, a thinker of wide learning, and an author extensively published — including, happily, here at HPR.