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Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge

Beyond Radical Secularism: How France and the Christian West Should Respond to the Islamic Challenge. Pierre Manent. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016.


I have sometimes deplored the liberties that C. K. Scott Moncrieff took in translating Marcel Proust’s sub-titles from À la recherche du temps perdu: how could À l’ombre des jeunes filles en fleurs (In the shadow of young girls in flower) possibly be translated as Within a Budding Grove, or Sodome et Gomorrhe as Cities of the Plain?  But Moncrieff had nothing on the English publisher of Pierre Manent’s latest work, who has published what had been entitled, in French, Situation de la France, with the remarkably longer English title you see above, sharing only the word “France” with the original. And Manent never, at least in the translation outside of the title, uses the term “radical secularism.” But, no doubt, a book with the English title The Situation of France would not sell nearly as many copies in the Anglosphere as has the actual version with its much more provocative title.

But the titular efflorescence should not distract from the importance of this work, both in its specifics (how to deal with the Muslim situation in France) and in its more general implications (how nations containing divergent cultures might still maintain some national unity). The topic which Manent wishes to explore is that of the relationship of French Muslims to the French nation as a whole, and vice a versa. And the first thing I want to note about this topic is how many people will reflexively reject the idea that there is any such topic worth discussing. “French Muslims,” they will say, “are no different then any other French person: they are rights-bearing individuals who are citizens of the French nation, and more importantly, of Europe. And even to suggest that there could be some issue of the relationship of the French nation as such to the Muslim community as such is probably an indication of racism or Islamaphobia.”

But Manent sees such a response as a symptom of an ideological delusion, a deliberate refusal to look at reality. France is an historical entity, not an abstraction, and to be French is much more than to simply possess certain rights. And Muslims do not see themselves as atomic individuals adrift in a Gallic sea of other atomic individuals, but as members of a community of believers, the Ummah, who together share a moral way of life. Thus, the secular liberal response of denying there can even be an issue of how the nation of France relates to its Muslim population is doubly false, and starting, even with great intentions, from a doubly false view of a situation, one typically only makes a further botch of it, like one who is trying to operate on his pet frog, with his eyes closed, while repeating to himself that the frog is actually a pocket watch.

On the occasions when secular liberals are even able to admit that France might have a “Muslim problem,” a typical solution recommended is that France’s Muslims must “Westernize.” But Manent dismisses this as a fantasy: the “modern Westerner” into which Muslims are advised to transform themselves is itself only an abstraction, and not a concrete identity by which anyone could actually shape his life. And many Muslims show no inclination to achieve the status of the spiritually empty, cosmopolitan modern consumer: they seem to actually prefer to be part a community grounded in shared moral precepts. Furthermore, as Manent points out, this request is hardly fair to Muslim immigrants who were not told, when they came to France, that they would have to surrender their way of life as part of their relocation.

Manent’s solution to the problem posed by the Muslim community existing inside the French nation, stated quite generally, is that first of all the French must reacquaint themselves with their own existence as a national community, something of which they have been busy denying the reality. Then the French nation can come to recognize the existence of another community within its borders, one characterized by a different way of life. At that point, the true nature of the problem to be addressed comes into view: the question is how these two communities can establish friendly relations, so as to permit them to coexist peacefully within a single nation-state.

I will look at more of the particulars of Manent’s solution later, but I want to bring one of them up here, to give you a flavor of what they are like. Manent recommends that the French government forbid foreign funding of mosques and Islamic schools within France. To make up for this loss of funding, he suggests that might be appropriate for French governmental entities to actually fund such activities as mosque-building. The idea is that of a friendly compromise: the French nation would be saying to its Muslim population, “You are welcome here, and welcome to continue your own way of life here, but only on the condition that you break ties with foreign governments that may have the aim of undermining the French nation. And in return, we will make up some of the funding that you forgo in order to show your loyalty to France, in order to show our friendliness to you.”

A proposal like this will no doubt drive many secular liberals up the wall, since it runs counter to so many of their principles. (Manent boasts early in his work that “what I have to say has something to please,  and especially to displease,  all parties” [p. 9].) It does, however, have the advantage that it might actually work.

The recognition of the reality of social groups as something other than mere aggregates of individuals differentiates Manent from most liberal thought. A libertarian friend of mine mentioned on social media how puzzling the geopolitical events of the past year were for him. I could explain his perplexity with a single phrase: “methodological individualism.” Manent illustrates why it creates confusion for the adherent. The idea(s) behind methodological individualism, however they are put, turn out to be either false or vacuous. It is just not true that the only good explanation of social events is always at the level of the individual, or that the only final explanation is at that level, or that all explanations must yield to reduction to the individual level, and so on. And insisting that one of these conditions must be true blinds the believer to large social truths. As Manent writes:

“The facts authorize us—no, they oblige us!—to say that Islam as such, Islam understood as a meaningful whole, is in motion, that it strives and struggles, in a world [where] it is an actor on the stage of history that must be taken very seriously. Thus the world in which we must live and act is a world marked by the effort, the movement, the forward thrust of Islam.” (p. 39)

Or, in the same vein:

“As I’ve said, our political regime and our way of life invite us to reduce all spiritual masses to the individuals that constitute them. Finally, however, however much we may desire to see everywhere only rights-bearing subjects and individuals seeking their own interests, we run into a number of great collective facts that are decisive for world affairs.” (p. 40)

Another central themes of Manent is that the modern state, despite its gargantuan size, is actually rather impotent in terms of its ability to affect reality. What it focuses on instead is controlling appearance and opinion:

“By their determination to lay down the law concerning social perception and the words that translate them, our governments are increasingly abandoning actual political action. They proceed as if social life were a spectacle and as if the parts of the body politic were objects the perception of which were subject to command: politics becomes a mise en scène. Through ever more emphatic words and gestures, they go to great lengths to command us not to see.” (p. 75)

And this distortion of reality does not, in fact, actually help its supposed beneficiaries:

“This ridiculous tyranny [of appearance over reality] affects our Muslim citizens as well, forcing them, too, to live on this artificial stage, the vanity of which is as evident to them as to anyone. It is true, as I said, that their first movement is often take advantage of this arrangement, and to enter into the role that is offered to them. In doing so, moreover, they are only participating in the great game of complaint that has for sometime been the preferred vocal register of the constituent groups of our society… In any case, the transformation of the public conversation into a tearful quarrel has deleterious consequences for society as a whole and for each of its parts, consequences that are all the more serious for those parts that are more distant from the heart of national life.” (pp. 75-76)

But where could a movement to resist this elevation of appearance over reality find its center? Manent takes up the question by noting that “The five great spiritual masses that determine the figure of the West are Judaism, Islam, Evangelical Protestantism (mainly American), the Catholic Church, and, finally, the ideology of human rights.” (p. 103)

So where can France, and the West more generally, find the leadership necessary to negotiate a workable, friendly relationship with Islam? Manent’s answer to this question is interesting, important, and controversial. The state, for all its bluster and its giant bureaucracies, is too weak: as noted, it now operates chiefly in the realm of rhetoric and appearance, and typically fails to engage in meaningful action. The ideology of human rights tries to pretend that Islam, as such, does not exist, and only sees rights-bearing individuals, who happen, on some purely private whim, to read the Koran and fast during Ramadan. Manent’s answer will surprise many and offend some:

“Now, it seems to me that what characterizes and distinguishes the Catholic Church within this configuration is, its calmness and equilibrium . . . The Catholic Church is the only spiritual force that approaches matters in such a way as to take into account the views of others in a deliberate and as it were thematic way. This is eminently the case in its relation to Judaism . . . The Catholic Church has not only searched its conscience in a very profound way concerning its responsibility for anti-Judaism and anti-Semitism; it has also reconsidered in depth its relation to the Jewish people . . .  It is Catholics who most often have taken the initiative of these ‘dialogues’ in which one seeks, not only to facilitate coexistence between Catholics and Muslims, but also to give a positive meaning to religious plurality. The Popes themselves, John Paul II most especially, have gone as far as possible in developing the possibility of a perspective common to Christians and to Muslims.” (pp. 103-104)

When it comes to the relation between the Catholic Church and enlightenment liberalism (the ideology of human rights), Manent notes that there has been a very one-sided opening over the last several centuries:

“What is important for us to observe is that the Church has entered into a constant dialectical and moral debate with this [ideology of human rights]… We are obliged to note that this dialectical opening of the Church has not been repaid, the ideology of human rights having taken on a virulence in recent times that seems to be directed most particularly against the way of life that the Church recommends, protects, and promotes.” (p. 104)

Manent’s most important message may be the need for the West, if it is to survive, to find a reason that’s its way of life is something worth defending. He writes:

“Islam has sprung up in a Europe that has dismantled its ancient parapets, or has let them crumble. While speaking of nothing but roots, but no longer daring to be at home in their own countries, Europeans seek repose in movement, a movement that nothing can control or slow down. No border must be allowed to obstruct the free movement of capital, of goods, of services, of people, just as no law must circumscribe the unlimited right of individual particularity.” (p. 111)

Manent concludes that it is only by revitalizing our common, civic life, a revitalization which will require renewed borders, that the West can hope to deal with the challenge of Islam “on the move,” in a way that is beneficial to the West and to the many Muslims seeking to live in the West.

Gene Callahan

Eugene Callahan is a research fellow at the Collingwood Centre at Cardiff University and a Lecturer in Economics at St. Joseph’s College in Brooklyn. He is author of Economics for Real People (2004); Oakeshott on Rome and America (2012); and co-editor, with Lee Trepanier, of Tradition v. Rationalism: Voegelin, Oakeshott, Hayek, and Others (Lexington Books, 2018).

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