In December 1996, I came within fifteen minutes of being in a Paris train station in which a bomb was detonated. In the quarter century since then, Islamist terrorism has become a regular part of life in France, from the attacks in the headquarters of Charlie Hebdo in 2015 to the beheading of a Tunisian migrant in Nice last fall. Yet terrorism is only the most visible manifestation of an explosive problem with the French Muslim population.
Back in the nineties, I had gone to France to read collections of correspondence left by some of the founders of French sociology. The focus of my dissertation research was Émile Durkheim, whose work on religion extended the great study of the ancient Greco-Roman world’s debt to religion authored by one of his mentors. In The Ancient City, Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges had demonstrated how all basic institutions in classical Greece and Rome—those of property, marriage and family structure, rules of kinship and inheritance, political order, law—were consequences of primitive Indo-European religious beliefs and practices.
Even as Christianity seemed to retreat in the wake of the French Revolution, it remained clear to Durkheim that the moral principles of European civilization were tied up with those of Christianity. Durkheim showed how the differences between primitive Indo-European religion and Christianity were essential to the creation of the modern European state. Christianity made possible a political order in which the individual per se became the object of law. In the Christian conception, the individual was a sacred entity, surrounded by rites and taboos, to be treated with consummate moral care. This transformed the entirety of institutional life in Europe, from family law to property rights to the criminal and commercial codes.
Durkheim’s contemporary, the German sociologist and political theorist Max Weber, described the deep differences in the social strata that gave rise to European political order under Christianity, on the one hand, and those that created Muslim civilization on the Arabian peninsula, on the other. Ancient Christianity had been a religion of “a semi-rural artisan, and his missionaries . . . wandering apprentices, the greatest of them a wandering tent maker.” Throughout its rise to dominance in the West, Christianity exerted particular influence in the non-privileged, lower middle classes. The religion of Muhammad sprouted from a warrior class, with religious commandments heavily focused on the rules by which to extract tribute from militarily defeated peoples of differing faiths. Conquest, booty, and brides were explicitly celebrated as core goals of the faith, and the role of women in the cult was minimal and clearly subordinate. By contrast, in early Christianity, women frequently played important roles in consecrated orders and were numbered among celebrated early martyrs. As Durkheim and Weber knew, nations have cultural and moral foundations, and religion is historically at their core.
The secularist, from his perspective outside religious faith, fails to see why a Christian and a Muslim cannot agree to disagree and fall into peaceable line in a republic. This is because he imagines Christians and Muslims who do not take their respective faiths seriously. Only if neither adheres to basic principled claims of their faiths is it plausible to imagine all potential religious and cultural conflict between the two disappearing. Both religions are evangelical at their core and require adherents to preach the faith and convert those outside their ranks. A secular republic requires citizens with religious beliefs to leave them at the door when they enter the public sphere. But seriously practicing Christians and Muslims cannot realistically do this, and when they bring their religions into the public square, they will inevitably find themselves in conflict on many matters, including serious ones—e.g., the veiling of women, or marital and family law—that can justify efforts to resist and dominate the other group.
Islam in Modern France
This latent conflict might be assuaged if the numbers of the religious minority in a multi-faith nation are held below a certain threshold and if they are required to culturally assimilate in basic ways—linguistic, certainly, but also moral. But France has now sailed into unfamiliar territory on both. The Muslim minority has been growing for years, with no sign of serious political effort to mitigate that trend, and the French elite’s former adherence to an assimilationist immigrant policy has moved to something closer to the view of the multiculturalist American elite.
According to a 2016 survey, a third of French citizens have an unfavorable view of French Muslims. The multiculturalist is adamant that this is about prejudice. But perhaps we should consider an alternative explanation. Might the antagonism have something to do with the worldviews of French Muslims and their rough fit with French cultural values?
Prejudice does obstruct objective consideration of this problem, but it is not the type imputed by the Left. The skewed French Republican view of the nature and requirements of citizenship is what renders accurate understanding difficult here. What is a French citizen, in the French Revolution’s philosophical anthropology? Any individual who accepts and abides by its rational principles—namely, equality before the law, the rejection of class privilege, freedom of speech and opinion, and freedom of religion. But the revolutionaries had not accurately understood human nature, and they had especially failed to grasp the depth of the contribution made by religion to political community. A human individual in the mold of the Revolution—an abstract calculating and reasoning machine, untainted by culturally and normatively unique attributes—has never been discovered. The Revolution did not make it possible for them to spring spontaneously from the earth.
Islam in the United States
Though the French Revolutionary tradition gave secular republicanism a particularly extreme spin on this question of the religious bases of polity, the problem is by no means confined to France. The United States finds itself facing a similar dilemma. Though our country has a civil religious tradition that has historically helped to counterbalance purely secularist republican ideas about the nature of American polity, this has demonstrably not been enough to prevent drift in the same direction in which France has gone. As Samuel Huntington has observed, the American political project owes its fundamental value orientation to an Anglo-Protestant religious and cultural framework that has been steadily diluted over the years and that is now increasingly rejected and even denounced by American elites.
The Christian majority in the United States is declining rapidly, having fallen nearly 15 percentage points in a little over a decade. Though Muslims make up only slightly more than 1 percent of the US population at present, that percentage has grown rapidly over the past quarter century and it is projected to continue to grow. According to Pew estimates, in two decades, Muslims will outnumber Jews in the United States. In three, they will double their current numbers.
American immigration policy has since the mid-1960s been based, for all practical purposes, on the same idea of citizenship that informs French republicanism. All individuals are interchangeable, culture does not matter, and it is unnecessary and perhaps even pernicious to try to assimilate immigrants to an existing core national cultural world of values and meanings. Immigrants from anywhere and everywhere, admitted easily and in profusion, can only be a boon to American society.
Twenty years after 9/11, and after a long list of other Islamist terror attacks—most of which are largely unknown to the American public—planned in the United States and thwarted only by intensified intelligence and police attention, it is easy to forget how much that day’s events owed to the multiculturalist failure to attend to the seriousness of these deep cultural differences. How many recall—or ever knew—that of the nineteen people who carried out the four hijackings in September 2001, nearly a third were in overstay status or had failed to fulfill some central requirement of their visa? Or that the leader of the operation, Mohamed Atta, had been pulled over in a traffic stop while there was an open warrant for his arrest for failure to appear in court for an expired driver’s license, yet he was not detained because of the failure to effectively coordinate databases on immigrants with such warrants? Why would we want to attend more strenuously to such aspects of immigration policy, the secular republicans might ask, unless we were just the morally bad people the multiculturalists say we are?
The Costs of Utopian Ideology
For a strong country to fall apart under the weight of a minoritarian foreign cultural force, assiduous undermining work must be done by indigenous actors with social power. Secular intellectuals with utopian ideologies are eager to do this work in both France and the United States. An elite class that understands all human beings as fully interchangeable, as desirous of the same things, and as free to empty themselves entirely of the history and the values of the cultures from which they spring, will inevitably fail to make rational decisions about immigration, which require a careful eye to both the culture of those being considered for entry and to the dominant culture of the existing society.
French Republicanism, like secular democratic rule throughout the West, faces a profound challenge. The purportedly secular principles of the Republic rest on a political philosophical elevation of the individual and his rights that is Christian in origin and tenor. The Republic has now effectively forgotten about the cultural prerequisites that make it more likely that any given immigrant will be a good fit for such a polity. Most Muslims living in France are not terrorists or criminals or polygamists, and many are exemplary citizens. A moderate number of assimilation-minded Muslim immigrants can certainly be successfully integrated into French culture. But when the political class destroys the possibility of their assimilation, cracks in the edifice are inevitable. Even law-abiding, cooperative Muslim immigrants, multiplied to too great a number, will shift French cultural dynamics, through the simple act of adhering to the religion and values they have and voting accordingly.
In the nineties, I was told by incredulous French friends that the absurdities of American universities—the rise of multiculturalist ideologies that ridiculed and undermined notions of national culture based on tradition and history—could never happen in France. They were wrong. Disintegrative, destructive multiculturalism insinuated itself into every elite institution in American society, and it has now taken root in much of the West, including France.
Although Emmanuel Macron has, under public pressure, recently made some critical statements about “identity politics,” such verbiage will have little effect on the inevitable demographic trends in France today. The current French president, like much of the rest of the French elite, is quicker to blame purported French racism for failed Muslim integration than he is to speak to the question of the true, deep cultural-religious essence of polity. There are some political figures in France who recognize the true nature of the problem, but French politics has produced effective institutional ways to keep them marginalized from real power.
In the wake of the Revolution, Chateaubriand wrote that “there is nothing beautiful, sweet, great in life but that which is mysterious.” The French cultural spirit is itself a beautiful mystery that took many centuries to emerge, through a rich, complex, organic process in which Christianity was an indispensable element. Unless France can summon the will to preserve it, that beautiful, sweet, great accomplishment will pass into history.