Beyond Radical Secularism
By Pierre Manent
St. Augustine’s Press, 2016
160 pages, $24
To order: staugustine.net
Beyond Radical Secularism was originally published in Europe in the fall of 2015, when it caused quite a ruckus, and became even more relevant with the Nov. 13, 2015, incident of terrorism in Paris. The author, Pierre Manent, is a Frenchman who wrote the book after the earlier terrorist attack in France the previous January.
Manent’s main thesis is that radical secularism does not have the capacity to counter the challenge presented in our era by Islam.
Although he believes that the threat posed by Islamist fanatics requires a resolute response, security measures alone are insufficient to protect the French (and European) way of life and to assimilate the large numbers of Muslim immigrants in their midst.
Manent believes that the several-centuries-old Western tradition of the secular state should be maintained and cherished. However, he argues that trying to “solve” the problem of Muslim assimilation in France by attempting to turn them into model French secularists as adrift morally and religiously as many of those they find themselves among will fail. Instead, France must recognize and accept its Christian heritage and culture, as well as its small-but-significant Jewish presence, as foundational to its national identity.
So what is the solution?
Manent reaches for a way of recognizing and defending European roots while retaining religious tolerance.
In Manent’s view, Muslim immigrants seeking to make a home in Europe must make their peace with having moved beyond the borders of sharia (Islamic law) and to a certain extent be willing to shift mindsets. However, the established French customs, mores and traditions that make up the structure of a healthy culture have already been rejected by the radical secularist. That’s why Manent insists that France must rediscover her national form, which at some point will require secession from the European Union. Meanwhile, he recommends forbidding Muslims in France from taking money from foreign powers, whether governments or religious organizations. This would better establish their identity as French Muslims.
His second major recommendation is to invite Muslim immigrants to enter into French common life. After all, in order to enter into the fullness of French citizenship or identity, they need to contribute to the country’s well-being in ways that go beyond the economic benefits of a young labor pool.
Manent’s many specific observations and proposed solutions can be debated without affecting the force of his central insight.
“Without vision, the people perish,” says one of those outmoded Judeo-Christian books that the French secularists — and radical secularists elsewhere — have tossed into the rubbish heap of history.
Whether the Western people perish in the near or intermediate future will likely depend a lot on what identity they embrace.
Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian.