French-style secularism?

While I was munching breakfast, I came across this story that hit Twitter a few times from the Telegraph, about prayer being banned from the streets of Paris.

What an outrage! This is a suppression of freedom of expression, it’s stigmatising those who pray and discriminating against those of a religious persuasion!

Or is it?

On closer inspection, it turns out the problem is not really about prayer at all. It’s a traffic issue in one particular area of Paris. The headline of banning prayer is a misleading one, as prayer is not really being banned. There is nothing to stop me (apart from the cost of the train fare!) from walking the streets of Paris and praying silently while I do so. I am apt to do this around London quite often, but I doubt many, if any, are aware of this. So this legislation is not supposed to deal with prayer in general, but is solely against Muslims who are too numerous in one area to fit into a small mosque.

This is not an example of the Thought Police in action; the root cause is a gathering of one particular religion in an area that holds up traffic on one day of the week. It would be interesting to visit the scene in question just to find out how bad the issue is. To quote the article, “the prayer problem was limited to two roads in the Goutte d’Or district of Paris’s eastern 19th arrondissement, where “more than a thousand” people blocked the street every Friday.”

However, there are issues raised by this that ought to be considered with due sobriety. For one, there is the understanding (or lack thereof) of the term ‘secularism’ by Claude Guéant. According to the report (if we are trust the content & the translation) “praying in the street … violates the principles of secularism.”

I have outlined my own views on secularism before and why I would describe myself a mild secularist. This, however, seems to completely miss the point of secularism, which is to remove (if there ever was any) religious privilege. One of the architects of secularism was Martin Luther, as his reaction against the overt political power and lack of accountability afforded to the Roman Catholic Church; though it is worth noting that his 95 theses were posted not long after the reign of the Borgias, which is one of the most shameful of periods in Catholicism.

But Luther’s intention was never for an “out of sight, out of mind” approach that we have evident in the thinking of one French minister, and possibly the wider government. It also begs the question why any action needs to be taken on such a wide scale, and why it is not limited to the time and place where the problem occurs.

If the problem was solely due to traffic, then it should have been sorted out as a traffic issue, not as one of religion. I’m trying to avoid going down the “thin end of the wedge” route, but I can’t escape the possibility that some French Muslims may well have just cause to think the wedge was already feeling quite thick by now.

As a side note, there is a march for this French kind of secularism happening in London on Saturday. I couldn’t attend if I wanted to, as there are major engineering works on the routes into and out of the capital this weekend. I won’t say any more about that now, as I can’t better the well-balanced piece that came out of Theos earlier this week.

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