Is Secularism Hurting People’s Right to Peacefully Practice Religion?

Photo via the Brookings Institution


America has a long and complicated history with what Thomas Jefferson called “the separation of church and state.” The religious provisions from the First Amendment supports this idea, as the Establishment Clause declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” and the Free Exercise Clause protects the right to practice religion freely. However, the United States has often been accused of letting religious ideals sway policy, most notably in states where issues such as abortion rights have been restricted. While this is a long-standing issue Americans have grown comfortable with, the French have the opposite issue going on. 

As of 2020, Muslims make up about 7-9% of the French population. After immigrating, many began integrating Islamic culture into pre-established Francophone environments. Rather than accommodating the flourishing incoming Muslim population, however, there has been a growing trend of Islamophobia in France—a trend that dates all the way back to the period of French colonization of Africa. Specifically, the same mentality of forcing people to reject their native cultures in favor of French culture is shown through the ways the that the Islamic community in France is treated today. 

This bigotry stems from France’s aggressive stance against religion in any context besides personal practice. The Atlantic writer Rachel Doniado described the term for this, laïcité, as “a uniquely French insistence that religion, along with religious symbols and dress, should be absent from the public sphere.” In theory, this sounds like a way to ensure a highly secular government where no bias can be inflicted in lawmaking due to preference for a certain religion. However, when put into practice, this law seems to be invading citizen’s right to practice their religion in the public sphere. 

The Muslim population in France is growing increasingly discontented with the unfair treatment they receive on the basis of their religious affiliation. Most recently, the Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, announced that abayas can no longer be worn in schools. This traditional Muslim full length dress is usually worn by women—especially in school settings—and yet the Minister wants it to be impossible to “distinguish a students’ religion by looking a them.” 

This is not the first time that traditional Muslim clothing has been banned in France over the years, and it is just one of the numerous examples of Islamophobic behaviors that the French government has recently expressed. The Interior Minister of France, for example, recently cited numerous forms of prayer—such as fasting—as “signs of radicalization.” According to Time Magazine, rhetoric like this “leaves millions of French Muslims open to accusations of extremism.”

This crackdown on religion, specifically towards Muslims, gained significant traction after terrorist attacks dating back to 2015. A rise of extreme secularism, with 53% of this region being “neither spiritual nor religious”, in many Western European countries has translated into restrictions on religious freedom. This trend, coupled with a growing Muslim population, is creating a rift between the governments and their Muslim populations. In France, this “identity crisis” has created an environment that subjugates and infringes on the rights of peaceful Muslims in the name of preventing terrorism. 

What are the guidelines for the way the French government is restricting aspects of Islam? Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are none. All forms of religious expression are fair game to be labeled as ostentatious and a breach of France’s strict secular policies. It is nearly impossible for any religion to truly practice due to overt religious symbols being outlawed

France’s government is forcing its Muslim population to walk on eggshells. As a result, over half of people practicing Islam in France believe that they are receiving unfair treatment because of their chosen affiliation. In fact, 58% of French Muslims classified themselves as having experienced some form of discrimination because of their religion. 

This is no new issue. France’s quest for secularization has been ongoing, but in recent years, this constitutional principle has been used to target Muslims specifically. The aftermath of these anti-Muslim policies going into place truly wreaks havoc on the Muslim communities in France, and measures must be put in place to ensure the protection of these citizens’ rights to practice their religion—both in public and in private.


This article was edited by Blakely Kehl and Marielle Bianchi.