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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Monday, September 19, 2011

France bans street prayers

As Kenan Malik said in a tweet, this seems like an own goal for secularism ... certainly from a PR viewpoint, but not just that. It looks like a law that is not religion-neutral but aimed specifically at religious speech in public, and at one kind of religious speech at that.

There may be more to it than that, I suppose. If certain streets are actually being disrupted on an ongoing basis, and if secular speech and activity that is similarly disruptive is being treated in the same way, then this action may be defensible (it still may not be ... even facially neutral laws can be contrivances to achieve non-neutral purposes) on "time, place, and manner" grounds or something of the sort.

I'm not happy, however, when I need to sort of bend over backwards to make up possible defences of a government's actions. If this is defensible at all, we need to know a lot more about it. On its face, it doesn't look good.

Secularism is not about suppressing religious expression and conduct, or even about driving it from public places. It is primarily about driving religious influence from government. It means that governments do not make policies and laws on the basis of otherworldly considerations or esoteric religious morality that goes beyond people's civil interests. The government does not govern in accordance with the supposed commands of a god or something like Roman Catholic natural law theory. It does not take action to enforce or endorse, or to persecute or disparage, religious viewpoints.

But that is a very different matter from suppressing the religious speech of individual citizens.

Again, I'd like to know a bit more about this before condemning it outright ... but I'm really not liking some of the actions taken in Europe lately. I support a secular Europe, but on the facts available to me so far this is not the sort of thing that I have in mind.


Anonymous said...

You would probably change your mind if you visited Marseille. It's REALLY disruptive and quite threatening at times.

Perhaps however the laws should be formulated differently.

DEEN said...

It seems more like an anti-Muslim than a pro-secularism law to me. There is no doubt that this law is a response to Muslims praying in the streets due to a lack of space. Surely there must be better ways to get French Muslims off the streets and into more suitable praying locations than a ban on street prayer.

March Hare said...

Secularists, and atheists, have to stand up against this law.

First they came for the Muslims...

Russell Blackford said...

Well, the Anonymous commenter is saying that there's a legitimate and neutral secular reason for it. It's true that the religious should not get any special privileges that enable them to cause a public nuisance when other people would not be permitted to.

But if that's the justification, it still seems like the whole thing - not least the PR aspects -has been handled dreadfully.

More generally, this action worries me for much the same reason that laws against the burqa worry me. People do get to express their religion (or their other views) in public. Secularism isn't about preventing them from doing so, but about getting the government to avoid making decisions on a religious basis. There might be some secular reasons to restrict the wearing of a garment like the burqa, but an outright ban on wearing it in public places doesn't seem like something that can be justified on good secular grounds. It looks like an animus against a particular religion.

steve oberski said...

Hopefully the French government would also ban xtian religious services on the street as well.

Streets are typically a public space and probably not an appropriate venue for inherently sectarian activities.

You probably wouldn't want the local stamp collectors society, bee keepers guild etc. holding their meetings in this location either and many jurisdictions have legislation to control such activities.

To date religion may have slipped through the cracks as most cults have the common decency (and sense of embarrassment I suspect) to grovel to their sky fairies in private.

Axxyaan said...

Here is a dutch person commenting.


According to the person the foto shown is from the "rue de poissonier" in paris on Dec 17, 2010.

Enkidu said...

I think this news suffers a bit from anglo-media beatup. The problem arises from lack of space in local mosques and the worshipers have been given, rented rather, an alternative space of ample size.

We may think a ban on street praying, at least en masse, is overly bureaucratic but such is the French way. As Anonymous above says it is disruptive.