Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Laïcité - PDF

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LILY SASSOON Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Laïcité E ST-CE QUE VOUS AVEZ AIMÉ L EXPOSITION DU MUSÉE Marmottan? Quel était votre tableau préféré? After my first few nights in Paris, I realized that

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LILY SASSOON Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Laïcité E ST-CE QUE VOUS AVEZ AIMÉ L EXPOSITION DU MUSÉE Marmottan? Quel était votre tableau préféré? After my first few nights in Paris, I realized that these seemingly innocuous questions would become a part of my daily routine. In this case, my inquisitive home stay father, Frédéric, asked me whether I liked the Marmottan Museum s exhibit and pushed me to pick just one favorite painting. But each day he would ask me (in French) about something different my French classes, touristy adventures, or new cultural discoveries. At first, I believed these simple, innocent questions to be merely small talk, an easy and non-intrusive way to ease the initial awkwardness of living with someone you don t know and to begin a conversation. That was, however, before I got to know 1 Frédéric. As my days passed and I spent more time with my host family, I was able to predict Frédéric s reactions to my responses. In fact, they were always the same: the exact opposite of whatever I had said. Father s day is insignificant and it is absurd to thank one s parents, he argued. Monogamy is outdated and impractical. It is extremely unhealthy to eat the peel of fruit. It seemed as if he would say anything as long as it went against what I believed. I often found myself defending views that I had always taken for granted, ideas I had supposed were universal, from minor subjects to grander principles. Frédéric intended his questions to be a gateway to provocative and engaging dialogue in French, which indeed they were. For me, however, they became symbolic of the inevitable struggle and reward of living in a foreign country, and they forced me to grapple with new and clashing perspectives and to reevaluate settled beliefs. The French value of laïcité, like my conversations with Frédéric, confused and complicated my concrete and firm principles. I first learned about laïcité in my French grammar course. It was one of our first vocabulary words, and it was defined as secularism. I saw the word and moved on, knowing in my mind I would later study it, memorize the meaning, and learn how to use it in a sentence. But as I discovered more about French history and culture, both with my French professors and during my own explorations of the city, laïcité took on additional dimensions. I found that laïcité was a spark that ignited tension, debate, controversy, and French nationalism. Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Laïcité 2 Although defined literally as secularism, laïcité refers more importantly to the distinct separation of the French government and religion in France. The first article of France s constitution establishes this division: La France est une république indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale, France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. I initially believed this passage to be equivalent to the American promise of separation of church and state and to the democratic ideals of freedom of expression and religion. But, over my six-week stay in Paris, I realized that the two democratic nations interpret the idea of freedom very differently. Living in the United States, I have taken advantage of opportunities to freely practice Judaism and to honor the religions of others. I have lit the giant Menorah on the steps of Widener during the Hanukah holiday. I have engaged in dialogue and discussion with my roommates and friends about their distinct practices and rituals. The public celebrations of diverse communities on campus have enabled me to appreciate strands of American culture to which my Jewish upbringing did not expose me. This remarkable privilege has become indispensable to my idea of freedom, but my recent summer in France made me aware of a different definition of freedom. After the passing of Loi n (Law # ) in France in March 2004, all religious symbols and clothing were banned from the country s public primary and secondary schools. I was shocked by this sanctioned religious intolerance. The practice of 3 regulating and restricting religious behavior is one that I had always associated with ignorance, racism, and dictatorial regimes. Yet, in this instance, it was the democratic, diverse, and advanced country of France that was controlling and forbidding the religious observance of its citizens. Even more bewildering was my discovery of popular support for these restrictions. Most of the French people I spoke to, Frédéric and his family, my French professors, and other French acquaintances and friends, felt strongly that the French value of laïcité clearly dictates that religion does not belong where the state exists, in this case, government controlled schools. In one of our many debates, Frédéric asserted that the constitution s promise of laïcité necessitated and justified the law. I, on the other hand, saw laïcite as a rationalization for discriminatory laws that allow the government to control which forms of religious practice will not be tolerated. My discussions with Frédéric often left me with a thirst for knowledge in the hopes of eliminating my lingering feelings of uncertainty and fortifying my original views. As Frédéric continued to advocate for the necessity of Loi n , my initial disbelief and disapproval of the law soon turned into curiosity and reflection on its implementation and consequences. The elimination of religious symbols and clothing in schools erases blatant differences that may act as barriers between individuals, thereby encouraging communication and interaction among all students. Students may now find similarities and build Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Laïcité 4 connections where before stereotypes and misunderstandings created unbridgeable distance. Creating bonds based on a common French character fosters a deep sense of nationalism and French pride. In the face of so much diversity, laïcité helps to sustain a strong French identity. My curiosity also led me to discover new information about America s own effort to foster nationalism at the expense of tolerating diverse religious practices. I learned about Minersville School District v. Gobitis (1940), in which the Supreme Court held that it did not violate the First Amendment for public schools to force all students, including Jehovah s Witnesses, to salute the American flag and recite the Pledge of Allegiance. Because of America s impending involvement in World War II, concerns about unity and patriotism trumped the value of religious tolerance. It was unsettling to discover that the Court s decision resembled the reasoning behind Loi n As I evaluated the benefits of Loi n , I considered the high price of creating and maintaining a uniform national identity. With Loi n , the collective French character comes at the expense of individual rights and pluralism. On the most basic level, the restriction on religious expression suppresses individuality; while religious emblems may initially highlight group differences, they are a means to express and celebrate unique beliefs. More fundamentally, the French law inflames fear of differences and the unknown and suppresses the excitement and curiosity that should develop from diversity. But, 5 most concerning, in its most extreme form, unwavering nationalism cultivates racism and intolerance and foments bitterness, resentment, and rebellion among those who are suppressed. Thus, while I recognize the value of nationalism and uniformity, I champion pluralism. I was reassured to discover that the Supreme Court of the United States ultimately reached the same conclusion, though many years before I did. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette (1943), the Supreme Court overruled the Minersville School District v. Gobitis decision passed only three years earlier, holding forced recitations of the American anthem and salutations to the American flag unconstitutional. By overruling Gobitis, the Supreme Court shielded free speech and religious practice from the force of patriotic fervor. The Supreme Court thus affirmed America s commitment to enable all forms of expression to become part of the fabric of the country. My trip to France led to discoveries of French cuisine, improvements in French language skills, interactions with locals, and exposure to French attitudes and perspectives. When I left the United States for Paris, I expected to have these experiences. But my time in Paris also unpredictably opened up my eyes to different aspects of my own country s history and tradition, and it rattled my established beliefs and unquestioned ideas. All of a sudden, doubt, ambiguity, and insecurity replaced clarity and certainty. After ruminating on my new discoveries and struggling Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Laïcité 6 internally with the grand idea of laïcité, I reestablished my confidence in my beliefs and opinions, knowing that I could finally understand, support, and defend them. Along the way, I realized that constant questioning and inspection of my perspectives is ironically what often brings clarity. Now, back in the United States and miles away from Paris, I still hear Frédéric s voice in my head, sometimes correcting my French, but other times, contesting my views, casting doubt on my belief system, and forcing me to reevaluate my opinions. I will probably never change my ideas about monogamy or father s day. But now and then I may take the extra time to peel my fruit, just to be safe. 7
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