Book review: Pierre Manent, Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge, translated by Ralph Hancock (USA, St. Augustine’s Press, 2016, 124pp.)

Jacques Chitayat

 

In 2016, Pierre Manent, a renowned French political scientist and philosopher, published a short and intense essay on achieving better coexistence between Muslims and Christians in France. The fact that its publication arrived shortly after the double terrorist attack in France of January 2016 at the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo and at a kosher supermarket made it all the more relevant and urgently necessary. Its original title in French was sober, perhaps appropriately so: Situation de la France. Thanks to an American publishing house, St. Augustine’s Press, Manent’s book is now accessible to the anglosphere, and millions more can get a peek at France’s relationship with Europe’s largest Muslim population.

While the translation is satisfactory, bilingual readers will notice that the style retains sentence structures better attuned to the French. The translator could have taken more liberty in adapting the writing style. That said, the essay remains clear, concise, and easy to grasp. Its twenty short chapters help the reader follow and identify each step of the author’s logical sequencing. The book is academic in tone yet does not get lost in excessive political and philosophical jargon.

The greatest strength of Manent’s essay resides, first of all, in his deep understanding and knowledge of the fabric of French society. To understand the present, one must know the past: At the start of the essay, he draws a detailed picture of France’s relationship with religion, going back centuries to extract what has left a mark on today’s French society. He describes in great detail the characteristics of France’s unique culture of laïcité, which translates in this version as “secularity.” His explanation of this key component of French society, now converted to English, will enlighten many readers as regards the country’s issues. Whereas, the original idea of the secular state was to separate the Church’s influence from State affairs; this principle, he argues, was stretched out of proportion so as to eliminate all presence of the Church in French society.

Manent then compares the condition of France’s Christian population to its Muslim one, exposing their differences, and explaining what hinders their harmonious coexistence. For example, he argues that in France, as in the rest of Europe, human rights, individual freedom, and the importance of the individual represent paramount values, while at the same time, religion was practically erased from public life.

On the other hand, in Islamic societies, religious law and God still occupy the highest level of importance, which hinders the influence of the State, especially among Muslims living in the West. He argues that this difference, among other issues, is why Christians and Muslims living in France today cannot live together harmoniously:

“Living with the immanence of their moral practices, they will look at France rather as a foreign body, more or less pleasant, more or less convenient, sometimes inconvenient. […] If they are to enter into public life as Muslims, they must succeed in the operation that I have tried to describe, by which the group gives itself and receives itself as a whole. For this to succeed, the group must take real political and religious conditions into account […] It is, therefore, in a country of a Christian mark that French Muslims must find their place.”

The author refers to Judaism and the Jewish people in many instances.  He explains Judaism’s influence on Western society, and how they progressively integrated into French society is presented as a model of assimilation.  He also addresses the antisemitism they have faced, both in the past and today, whether coming from the 19th-century French aristocracy or France’s new Muslim population, as examples. Interestingly, while Orthodox Jews live according to religious law just as do observant Muslims, they accept State secularism; according to Jewish law, one must follow Jewish law, as well as the law of the State where one resides. Manent fully acknowledges the mark Jews have left on French society, religiously, culturally, and socially.

Most importantly, Manent argues, for Europeans to reconnect with their civilization’s roots, they must take into account the Jewish principle of the Covenant, which he describes as “a certain way of understanding human action in the world and the Whole, of understanding at once its greatness and its precariousness. […] [It] opens up a history of freedom, it authorizes and so to speak motivates the greatest human enterprises, while inscribing these deeds in a relation in which humanity gathers itself to be tried, to know itself and to submit itself to judgment”. As noted in the book’s foreword, this principle provides a powerful reminder of the ultimate ground of democratic self-governance and of deliberation and action that respect limits while acknowledging the full range of human possibilities.

As the title indicates, this essay argues that France must look beyond the idea of trying to secularize France’s Muslim population, which the author considers neither possible nor the right way to address the problem. In response, he suggests different and original ways of better integrating Muslims into the French nation. Manent focuses not only on what the French State has the power to do and how it should change its integration methods but also how France’s Muslims must change their mentality to find their place in France better. For example, to properly face the Islamic challenge, France should place its faith back into the nation-State and its Judeo-Christian heritage, rather than in secularizing French society. In better acknowledging its heritage and reaffirming its principles, France would gain a stronger backbone it needs to face this challenge and regain a certain moral compass that Manent says the country needs. This new approach, he argues, must replace the project of secularizing the Muslims. He argues that Muslim citizens, in turn, must accept that they live in a Christian nation, accept the French tradition of freedom to criticize, forgo funding from the Arab States and extremist movements, and make an effort to integrate as new citizens fully.

Pierre Manent displays an impressive knowledge of the history and culture of Christian France, Islamic societies, and Judaism and a solid grasp of political philosophy.  In this short and well-paced essay, Manent explains what hinders peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Christians in France, Europe’s ideological flaws, and new ways to work at building a more harmonious future.

 

Jacques Chitayat is a graduate student in political science at the Université de Montréal, and a Baruch Cohen Internship Fellow at the Canadian Institute for Jewish Research.