On Wednesday morning, Paris police raided a building in a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city notorious for its high crime, poverty, and North African population. During this raid, a woman detonated a bomb vest, taking her own life. This seems to indicate there was indeed another attack planned for Paris.
While ISIS is targeting Western countries in general, they are particularly focused on France. In view of ISIS’s recent success in executing a massive Mumbai-style terrorist attack in the City of Lights, it is worth examining why.
There are some obvious reasons: France is the number one global tourist destination and is known around the world. It holds a romantic place in the minds of many in the West in particular. It is the city of love, romance, elegance, and beauty. Everyone dreams of Paris. Attacking it hits a particular nerve because it feels like an attack on part of our mythology. The attack can also be seen as retribution for France’s air strikes in Syria.
But these motivations for the attacks are fairly surface-level. There are plenty of popular Western tourist destinations. And warnings of ISIS’s plan to attack France preceded French involvement in the airstrikes. There is a much deeper reason, one that is rooted in the very concept of the French state, which is the opposite of what ISIS stands for. France is set apart because of its unique political theory of the state and citizen.
The Right to Freedom From Religion
The French have long held to the ideals of universalism and laïcité (or strict secularism). This dates back to the French Revolution, when revolutionaries were seeking a way to give all people equal access to the state in order to avoid favoritism. They felt that to avoid unfair treatment or discrimination all citizens needed to be seen as absolutely equal. Acknowledging differences between them would be discriminatory.
This particularly targeted the Catholic Church and its abuses of power, which is why secularism was seen as so vital. By leaving religious preferences out, there would be no room for religious persecution or preferential treatment.
Of course, it wasn’t as selfless or benevolent as all that. This new philosophy of universalism was also a way to secure allegiance to the newly born French Republic. Absolute equality required that no other entity should come between a person and the government, including not just religion but also regional loyalties. It was a defense against communautarisme (communitarianism, as opposed to republicanism). Attaining equality was, therefore, a pathway for state solidification.
Although laïcité was originally conceived to create absolute equality, it is now woven into the fabric of what it means to be French. Although once a very religious country, in 2009, only 4.5 percent of the population reported going to Mass regularly (mostly from the older generation). Because of this, there is little pushback from French people of European decent against secularism. It is one of the defining principles of the country, and it leaves little room for people who practice religion outwardly.
While the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen did guarantee freedom of religion, it did this by enforcing official secularism. Whereas in the United States we give people the right to express their religion openly, France gives people the right to be free from expressions of religion.
But ISIS Wants A Religious State
This political philosophy has had obvious repercussions for the minority Muslim population, the most obvious and inflammatory being the ongoing headscarf debate that has raged since the 1980s. Because the government runs French schools, they are conceived of as a place where citizens present themselves before the state. Therefore they are a place in which religion cannot play a role. Wearing religious symbols is viewed as inappropriate in this space, first, because it promotes the idea that everyone is not equal and the same, and second, because it indicates allegiances that come before loyalty to the state.
A law was finally passed in 2004 that banned people from wearing “conspicuous” religious signs such as large crosses, yarmulkes, or headscarves. Although the headscarf was being banned in the name of laïcité, many saw this as specifically targeting Muslims because of widespread negative attitudes toward this section of the population. This ongoing controversy has only fueled the chasm between France and its Muslim citizens.
All this makes France an ideal example of what radical Islam finds so appalling about the West. Islam has its own legal code by which to adjudicate daily life, Sharia, which implies an utter lack of separation between religion and the state, or public and private life. Some forms of Islam, like Salafism, also teach that the laws of Sharia should be executed under a Muslim state, the caliphate. What must a group like ISIS, that interprets Sharia strictly and imposes it in its self-proclaimed caliphate, think about a country like France, which fundamentally opposes the expression of religion in official public life?
France is the very antithesis of the Islamist project. Although there are many reasons why ISIS is targeting them, to understand it fully, we have to understand what ISIS believes, and why laïcité is so repugnant to its followers.