Special Reports / A new or an old war? Secular state and faithful believers

Recipe for a social disaster

Charles Taylor in an interview with Jarosław Kuisz · 2 September 2014
Instead of stigmatizing immigrants, we should double efforts leading to awake their feeling of membership. Otherwise their frustration and the feeling of exclusion will deepen, creating social gaps, the Canadian philosopher claims.

Jarosław Kuisz: Over 20 years ago you have published a well-known essay about multiculturalism, in which you try to show how liberal democracy is a space where various communities coexist, even if they derive from different cultures and present different visions of common welfare. Today the idea of multiculturalism seems to be less popular. Why?

Charles Taylor: My essay tried to answer a general question: in which way we should approach to cultures which are completely different from ours? People think that they understand different cultures, but very often it turns out that it is not true. Good example of this misunderstanding is islamophobia, common in Western countries. Only a few people know that Islam is a very diverse religion, when it comes to forms of spirituality and relations with other people. In Pakistan and Senegal there are completely different forms of religiosity. That is why, when I hear in television that Islam as a whole is this or that, I turn it off.

Martha Nussbaum says that an example of islamophobia is the French ban on wearing burqas. Nussbaum rejects arguments of the ban’s supporters, who refer to the French rule of secular state, security and women’s right to freedom from religious pressure. Philosopher Alain Finkielkraut, one of the most passionate proponents of sustaining the ban, usually mentions one more argument: people who come to France should obey local rules and culture. Which opinion is closer to your views?

I agree with Finkielkraut in one thing – if some groups do not accept human rights, rules of democracy or equality, it will definitely lead to social tensions. We have to forge a compromise about certain fundamental values.

But introducing the ban of wearing burqas is breaking basic values of liberal democracy in two ways. First of all, it assumes that we know the motivation of women wearing burqas. But in a liberal state, legislator must not decide about the true meaning of a symbol. Secondly, we cannot say that wearing a burqa is against values of the French Republic, because people have different opinions about what those values really are.

Finkielkraut sometimes says nonsense, but I do not exhort to put him in jail, even though his vuews are in my opinion against rules of liberal state. People who think like him want to limit civil liberties. This is really sad.

But many French people, also from the French intellectual circles, are proponents of these ideas, but earlier they did not have enough courage to admit it. According to them, it is necessary to defend the republic and the rule of laicism. Those ideas are quite popular, the last book of Finkielkraut, „L’identité malheureuse was sold in many copies.

I can understand these feelings on a psychological level. Western communities have to take in many immigrants, also Muslims, because of a difficult demographical situation. Sudden social change causes fear. That is completely normal. At the beginning, the problem of assimilation of newcomers might seem difficult, but it is not true. The worst thing to do in such situation is to create unnatural differences, which do not exist in reality. We cannot just make up reasons to attack immigrants.

The present law in France – banning burqas –  break the rule of equality, distinguishing some citizens by putting restrictions which are limited to a small group of people.

Charles Taylor

Finkielkraut would say that it is not about making up reasons to attack, or discriminate, but about applying the same methods to all French people. When in 1905 a separation of religion and a state was introduced, French Catholics had to get used to the new law. Why should we solve it differently with Muslims?

Some sacrifices to which Catholics were forced were needless. Moreover we cannot treat Muslims unjustly, only because in the past someone treated Catholics in this way. The general question is what are the purposes of the rule of a secular state. In my opinion there are two most important ones. One of them is equality – the state cannot privilege one denomination over another. The second is to guarantee freedom of act, according to one own’s conscience. All infringements of these rules need serious justifications. Otherwise they will be unacceptable.

What is your opinion about a dispute between Martha Nussbaum and Alain Finkielkrautem? Nussbaum thinks that Europeans and the new immigrants have to adapt to one another and treat themselves with mutual respect, and that would be a violation of the secular state rule. Finkielkraute claims that newcomers should adapt to local norms or find another place to live. He regards himself as a defender of Western Europe, which he would like to protect from the culture of new immigrants.

The most important rule of democracy says that equal citizens should jointly decide about rules of coexistence. Mutual recognition as equal members of a community is necessary condition of democracy. Present French Law – banning burqas – is against this rule because it distinguishes some citizens, and puts on restrictions, which are not required of others.

Liberal democracy cannot create two different classes of citizens. Finkielkraut, by supporting this ban, is in fact against republican rules, which he wants to defend.

According to him, Nussbaum’s proposition is a form of hidden American imperialism. American philosopher wants to shape all Western countries in United States’ image, with their specific approach toward immigrants. Finkielkraut thinks that this model is not a solution for France and that can be dangerous for French culture.

Partly he is right, because the United States were based on immigration. Countries of Western Europe opened their borders not so long ago ,and they do not know how to cope with this challenge. But solution proposed by Finkielkraut can cause new problems. The 2005 Paris riots were caused by the ongoing discrimination in France. People are judged not only by their names, denomination, but also by the place where they live. People from worse districts have fewer chances to find a job, even if they are qualified and educated. Claiming that people of foreign origin or other denomination endanger French culture can intensify discrimination – people will start to ask themselves a question – why should I give a job to a man who is dangerous for my culture? Such attitudes can destroy Western democracy.

French philosopher claims that he does not discriminate people from suburbs. On the contrary, he defends women who are discriminated in religious communities.

We should not take such statement for granted, since women are the ones punished for wearing burqa, and it is the fear of otherness that is the main reason for such law to be issued, not the will to fight the discrimination of females. Your country has recently achieved an economic success, and as a result it will be attractive to the masses of immigrants. The demand for workforce is also going to rise, what makes for a huge challenge for local community leaders and politicians. On the one hand, the anxiety galvanized by such significant change in society is more naturally understandable, but on the other, it is necessary to pay attention, and not let it slip out of control. If that happens, there is a threat of a big social disaster.

The 2005 Paris riots were caused by the ongoing discrimination in France. People are judged not only by their names, denominations, but also by the place where they live.

Charles Taylor

What are solutions recommended for Poland? Despite the fact that in Polish cities the number of immigrants rises, especially those from Vietnam, we are still not familiar with the social tension that take place in French suburbs. We prefer not to notice problems of immigrants.

Only familiarising oneself with other culture, and a direct contact with its representatives can overcome fears connected with otherness. Otherwise, some false images will take over the reality. It is necessary to find solution, which will prevent creating barriers between social groups. It is important to involve immigrants in local cultures.

The worst possible scenario would be if the immigrants were contacted by the authorities only through the media. They tend to be sensation-seekers, and thus distort the big picture. If I were that all Poles are dumb or xenophobic, I can easily decline such information, relying on my own experience. However, one who had none of that is much easier to get convinced by such simple statements based on prejudices.

The most important European politicians – Angela Merkel, David Cameron and Nicholas Sarkozy, when he still was a president- openly said that policy of multiculturalism is lost, and Western countries should focus on preservation of their own cultures.

It depends what do we understand by the concept of multiculturalism. For me, it is a kind of interaction between immigrants and their new community. For example, Germans did not want to acknowledge the presence of immigrants for a very long time, claiming that they are mostly ‘gastarbeiters’, who do not need to be integrated – when they earn money, they will return homes. In Quebec, where I come from, children of immigrants were instantly included into educational system, where they learned French and local culture. The purpose of that, was to avoid labelling them as outsiders, that they could feel as locals. This is the absolute basics of immigration policy, which was neglected in Germany. Today, there are many children born in Turkish families who cannot speak neither German nor Turkish. Such a situation is a recipe for social exclusion.

Also in France the most serious challenge is second and third generation of immigrants, people who were born in France but still experiencing some forms of discrimination. Those people do not belong to any other country, where they could return, but they do not feel at home in France as well.

Instead of stigmatizing immigrants, we should double efforts leading to awake their feeling of membership. Otherwise their frustration and the feeling of exclusion will deepen.