By Arab News
INTERFAITH dialogue and intercultural engagement is always a healthy thing, but when a political party sponsors a debate that is a thinly veiled attack on one religion’s role in society then it can easily descend into fear-mongering bigotry aimed at stirring up populist anger toward imagined threats.
This is precisely what an interfaith group in France warned yesterday with regard to next week’s public forum on secularism hosted by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s ruling center-right Union for a People’s Movement (UMP) party.
The Conference of French Religious Leaders — which represents six of the country’s most popular religions — has condemned the act as political posturing aimed at drumming up support for right-leaning parties. “Is a political party, even if it is in the majority, the right forum to lead this by itself?” the group asked rhetorically in a joint statement signed by Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Buddhist leaders.
Critics of the forum, scheduled for April 5 in Paris, say this is the UMP’s attempt to woo back defectors to the far-right-fringe National Front Party, which made gains in Sunday’s local elections.
Those who defend the event say it’s an attempt to find ways of accommodating Muslim society in secular France.
The tide of immigrants from the Muslim world pouring into Western Europe may be rising, but it’s not like Europe — and especially France — is dealing with some strange alien culture from another planet.
Since at least the time of Jaques-Francois de Menou, a French general under Napoleon who converted to Islam during his tenure in Alexandria, the French have had a special relationship with Arab-Islamic culture. And France has had no problem engaging the Muslim world in its past colonial adventures in North Africa. Now, migrants are flooding into Europe — many from former European colonies in North Africa — and France is facing this engagement on its own turf.
And why not? One only needs to watch Muslim-themed French films such as “Persepolis,” “Inch’Allah Dimanche,” “Monsieur Ibrahim,” “Le Grand Voyage,” and “Day of Glory” — not to mention books, music and the visual arts by French Muslims — to see that French culture may be enhanced rather than destroyed by this culture.
Like any nation, France has every right to instill a cultural identity. With its Revolution (with a capital “R”) France brought to the world the ideas of liberty and rebellion against tyranny. The modern era, including the so-called Arab Spring, lives in the shadow of this revolution. A country that is the birthplace of modern liberal democracy, feminism and state secularism is justifiably going to make these ideas its “cultural brand.”
But for the far-right in Europe to suggest this brand is somehow under assault or threatened with extinction is hyperbolic, despite isolated incidences, such as the several attempts on the life of Kurt Westergaard for exercising his legal right to offend Muslims with cartoons.
Hopefully, all moderate sides in France can come to some agreement and strike a balance between the expectations and demands of national identity and the expressions of individual freedoms, the freedoms France played such an important historical role in establishing as a human right.
And perhaps it’s better that one political party seeking to win points with the far-right elements in its society does not host such forums under the guise of public debate.