Salty Current went to the PEN forum on Charlie Hebdo and challenges to free expression yesterday, and reports on it at her blog.
What she says about the difference between French secularism and US “secularism” is exceptionally useful. Bolding mine.
The conversation covered important differences between US and French law and culture, specifically between secularism as practiced in the US and laïcité in France and between US and French laws surrounding freedom of expression. Critics of the magazine in the US often seem to ignore the difference between US secularism (or “secularism”) and French laïcité. Laïcité as they described goes beyond the separation of church and state – it understands the public sphere and political discourse as a common space in which religion has no role or status, and outside of which religion (for some) is practiced, and respected, privately. In this context, religion is seen as intruding on the public sphere and publicly mocking religious iconography and practices as political targets is acceptable. This can be difficult to understand here in the US because our system is so different in theory and in practice. The US system wasn’t really discussed at the forum, but as I’ve argued many times it’s based on a bogus sort of compromise in which institutionalized religion is (in theory) kept separate from the state, but religious claims and identities suffuse political discourse and public policy, all while people are expected to refrain from criticizing or mocking religion because it’s an allegedly personal and emotional matter. Whatever the problems with laïcité in practice (and Berenson hinted at some, although unfortunately there wasn’t time to return to them), the US system with its tradition and practice of deference to “personal” religion even as religion colonizes public life is ridiculous and anti-democratic.
Thatty that that.
Read it all; it’s outstanding.