It has been revealing to watch the French parliament’s 336 to 1 vote in favor of the ban on burkas this month together with the controversy over the building of a Mosque near ground zero. Both events expose the unabated social apprehension towards Islam and Muslims on either side of the Atlantic. At the same time, however, the controversies also tell us something about how differently that apprehension gets politically framed in either country and brings to light just how different the United States and France’s institutional separation of church and state really are.
France’s “assertive secularism,” as Kuru terms it, embedded in laicité, has helped create the 336 to 1 collaboration between the right and left in France. For once, the ban on the burka sits well with both the right’s defense of French tradition as Catholic and Western and the left’s contestation of that narrative along with their own, alter-defense of France from any political religious identity or authority. In either case, Muslims using the public sphere to express and thus promote their religious values simultaneously plays to the fears of cultural weakness on the right and religious authority on the left.
Such a fear of the public presence of a religion, in and of itself, is much more difficult to politically channel in the US, thanks to its institutionalization of a “passive secularism,” (Kuru’s terms again) which is much more permissive of religious authority in the civil and public, although not political, spheres. While it is true that many in the American right have publically targeted Islam (New York Post comments here), their accusations were inherently less anti-Muslim than the French right, and they tried to articulate that their opposition was to the “radical” Muslims behind the project, not Muslims in general. Likewise, the American left generally defended the project (see an interesting interview with the project’s developer here) and the rights of Muslims to finance religiously-inspired community projects as a desirable expression of diversity and tolerance and something that was quite American.