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From the March 2004 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 51, No. 3)

From the Editor

Clash of Symbols

Alice Chasan

With a mandate from U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, a panel of seasoned diplomats from 16 countries has begun to grapple with identifying and confronting 21st-century threats to global security. One of Annan’s charges to the panel—set to deliver its report in time for the 2004 General Assembly session—is to map the causal connections between “soft” security threats such as poverty, hunger, and disease, and the “hard” threats: failed states, weapons of mass destruction, war, and terrorism.

At the intersection of soft and hard threats, the panel will find what I call 21st-century fundamentalisms—the phenomenon of violent political extremism fueled by an exclusivist, sectarian worldview. This volatile hybrid, plaguing a variety of societies and threaded through numerous religious traditions, endangers security within nations, across regions, and, irrefutably since 9/11, around the globe. Its menace may be easy to identify; pinpointing its causes and defusing them seems to be far more difficult.

Look at the hash some European governments are making of the matter. Faced with burgeoning Muslim populations and worried about the destabilizing effects of sectarian extremism, French and German officials, among others, have responded by governing like it’s 1789 (or at least 1905, the year France codified its strict separation of church and state, known as laicism).

Identifying what he called a threat from France’s “difficult areas” to “tear apart” the country’s “republican pact,” President Jacques Chirac last fall appointed a commission to make recommendations to protect French secularism. The commission advised the adoption of laws, quickly endorsed by Chirac, to thwart sectarianism by banning “ostentatious” religious garb such as Jewish kippot (skullcaps), large crucifixes, turbans, and the Muslim hijab (the head scarf worn by women), from state-run schools and workplaces.

Chirac gave a nationally televised address on Dec. 17 endorsing the proposed ban, triggering a vigorous debate in the European press and beyond about secularism in contemporary society, religious pluralism, freedom of expression, and freedom from religious coercion.

The uncoupling of the political and legal status of persons from their religious confession was a founding principle of republican France and other modern European states. Yet the belief that civic space must be religiously neutral to ensure equality for all citizens remains an ideal that Western democracies, including the United States, often honor in the breach.

Europe’s population is becoming increasingly heterogeneous religiously and ethnically. Muslims now comprise significant and growing religious minorities in Britain, France, Germany, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, as the still-unresolved dispute over whether to enshrine Europe’s Christian roots in the European Union’s Constitution reveals, many of its member states have yet to come to terms with their complex new demographic realities.

If the drive for hegemony of an intolerant religious perspective over the values of the secular state and the willingness to achieve it through violent means are the security threats as seen in European capitals, it is neither sensible nor effective to respond with intolerance toward individual religious expression.

The purported remedy can at best be a placebo, or at worst, a new and equally ominous threat.

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