Editor’s Note: Ruwan Rujouleh is a Middle East analyst at the Centre on Religion and Geopolitics, an initiative of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation. The views expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
If you look at the headlines coming out of France, you might conclude that the country’s famous brand of “laicite,” or secularism, is now being defended by a theocracy that would give Iran a run for its money.
Pictures of a Muslim woman surrounded by armed police on a beach in Nice have rightly caused an outcry. The images show the condescending way law enforcement officers forced the women to undress, while her children watched.
France abandons Western values
France seems to have completely turned against Western liberal values — and there’s a danger that France no longer looks any different from Iran or any other theocratic state, where religious police patrol the streets, monitoring women in public places, and checking whether or not they are following the rules.
The only difference is that France is suffocating individual freedoms in the name of “protecting secularism,” while Iran and others do so to “protect religious identity.” Both have a distinct absence of liberal pluralism that the Western world has so far taken for granted. Extreme secularism in France looks no different to extreme Shia ideology in Iran.
As an American Muslim citizen raised in Syria, I am in shocked by these pictures. Growing up in Damascus, life used to offer a cultural pluralism that most now take for granted. Throughout the Middle East, people look at countries in the West in awe, seeing laws that are enacted to guarantee an individual’s right to practice their faith and live freely without chains or fear.
A turning point in the West?
But we are at a fundamental crossroads — one that is causing those of us who care about upholding these values to worry that this may no longer be the case in the future.
This isn’t a problem only in France and Iran. Left and right, we’re seeing a growing polarization of the political sphere, from Donald Trump in America to Jeremy Corbyn in Britain.
This move toward the extremities should be cause for concern for all those who want to uphold the liberal, centrist values that the West has historically fought for. Not purely because illiberalism is at odds with our nature, but because if we choose to allow this culture to creep into our political life, incidents like what happened to an innocent Muslim French citizen Tuesday could become the norm.
‘Don’t give illiberal populism space to breathe’
If we give these sorts of populist “movements” the space to flourish, the Western millennial generation will be forced to spend their adult lives living in an atmosphere the Western world is no longer accustomed to.
This is a generation who’ve rightly grown up taking Western values for granted. As children they were told that they should live and let live, to appreciate and thrive on the intrinsic differences that some seek to divide us on.
You can see that in the way young people overwhelmingly voted in favor of staying in the European Union. It may sound trite, but they want to be able to enjoy the beach in peace, whatever they are wearing.
We’ve advanced beyond illiberalism, beyond accepting hate and division as a way of life, beyond the insecurity that drives such actions.
The answer has to be a revived, renewed political center as the only political thought capable of owning and enhancing these values. The alternative allows extreme illiberal populism the space to create the type of atmosphere that will lead to more incidents like we’ve seen in Nice.