Muslims, Catholics, and the Secular State Inter-Faith Advocacy and Alt-Right Populism in Contemporary France

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Robert William Hefner


France, citizenship, Muslims, Catholics, democracy, public reasoning


Any attempt to explore the relationship between representations of Muslims and public advocacy in modern Western societies must at some point situate both processes in relation to the broader crises of liberal citizenship currently afflicting Western democracies. Calls heard in the 1990s for multicultural citizenship and pluralist “recognition” have long since given way to demands for the exclusion of new immigrants and the coercive assimilation of those – especially Muslims -- long since arrived. This essay examines French Catholic and Muslim perspectives on secularism and citizenship in contemporary France. It highlights disagreements among progressive secularists as well as mainline Catholics and Muslims over how to engage the secular state as well as one’s fellow citizens. It explores the ways in which Catholic advocacy for and with Muslim citizens has been challenged by conservative trends in French Catholicism, as well as the perceived rise of Salafism and, most important, growing support for far-right and Islamophobic movements. The example shows that real-and-existing public spheres look less like the genteelly deliberative public spaces Jurgen Habermas described a generation ago. They are landscapes reshaped by movements, social media, and political entrepreneurs making use of reductionist arguments and media caricature (“fake news”) as much as or even more than deliberative reasoning. These realities present serious challenges to those who hope to use education and dialogue in public advocacy with and for Muslim citizens.

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