The Briefing

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The Atlantic

A New Plan to Create an 'Islam of France'

by Karina Piser

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The Briefing

Tuesday, October 20, 2020

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This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

This Tuesday, October 20, 2020. I'm Albert Mohler, and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part

An Act of Terrorism in the Heart of France: Killing of Teacher and Macron’s Call for a French Version of Islam Raise Huge Questions

One of the most interesting situations in worldview analysis right now is taking place in France, and the headlines are nothing less than gruesome. French authorities are categorizing a murderous attack on a French school teacher as an act of terrorism tied to Islam. The attack took place on Friday and the public school teacher was decapitated in an attack that was later understood to have been undertaken by an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant, who was later killed in the encounter with police. He had the murder weapon with him at the time.

So we're looking at a crime that is more than just a crime in France. We are looking at what French President Emmanuel Macron has identified as an attack on France. And all of this comes as the situation of Islam in France is reaching a controversy, which has only analogous to water reaching the point of a boil. It is just about to boil over in France. It has to do with the fact that this teacher in France, a teacher of roughly what would be in the United States, eighth-graders, or 13-year-olds had taught a unit on freedom of expression at a very, very tender point in French history.

Right now in France, 14 suspects are on trial for their alleged complicity in the 2015 terror attacks upon the French Satirical Magazine, Charlie Hebdo. And those 14, now on trial, are accused as being a part of a murderous terrorist attack that killed many people inside the Charlie Hebdo headquarters, but also killed some people in a Jewish grocery store. It was very clearly a terrorist attack, and French authorities are saying that the attack on the public school teacher last Friday is a similar terrorist attack. Emmanuel Macron, the French president says that since this was a public school teacher who was murdered, it is an attack on the public. The teacher was a government official. Therefore, it is an attack on the government.

But this is also at a time when not only is there controversy over the Charlie Hebdo trial, but there is also the fact that this teacher had shown in this unit on freedom of expression, cartoons of the prophet Mohammed. Satirical cartoons that were considered to be degrading by many Muslims. The French teacher had invited those who might be offended, particularly Muslim students to turn their heads or not to be present when the cartoons were shown. Nonetheless, they were, and at least one parent of a student in the room raised the issue publicly. The issue began to increase in controversy right there in France. And then of course, the controversy turned to deadly with the headline of the teacher's killing.

But there's another even bigger issue behind all of this, and that is the fact that the French president has been calling for what is, in effect, a French version of Islam. Macron has been arguing ever since he has been in office, that there is a structural problem in Islam, in France as demonstrated. First of all, in the fact that you have the Muslim minority in France, largely unassimilated into French society. And secondly, that there is clearly a problem with Islamic terrorism, right in the very heart of France. More recently, the French president has been making statements such as the fact that the structural problems in Islam are so deep, that it must be recognized that the final goal of what he called the ideology of Islam is to "take complete control of the society."

Macron is thus launching what he declares to be a French government effort to bring about an end to Islamist separatism, including the restriction of homeschooling of Muslims. And also demanding that Islamic groups would have to sign something of a secular charter, that is an agreement to certain secular principles before they could be legally recognized to operate in France. In his recent address, President Macron also described Islam as, "A religion that is in crisis all over the world today." And that led to an enormous amount of response from the Islamic world, particularly Islamic dominated nations.

Several weeks ago, President Macron gave an address in which he had outlined his declared effort to try to reign in the influence of radical Islam. As reporters for the New York times reported, "AIn a long-awaited speech on the subject, Mr. Macron said that the influence of Islamism must be eradicated from public institutions, even as he acknowledged government failures in allowing it to spread." We are then told, "The measures include placing stringent limits on homeschooling and investing scrutiny of religious schools, making associations that solicit public funds sign a 'charter' on secularism. While these measures would apply to any group," says the Times, "they are intended to counter extremists in the Muslim community."

Macron also said, and this is what's really crucial for us to hear as we're trying to think as Christians consistent with the Christian worldview about this issue, "Secularism is the cement of a United France." He called Islam an ideology and a project that had sought to indoctrinate children to undermine France's values and to create something of a counter society. As the Times said, "That would lay the groundwork for Islamic terrorism." The Islamic population in France is about six million, but that's out of 67 million in the population of France. So you're talking about something close to 10% of the population. But it is a 10% that is indeed, as President Macron said, "not integrated into the larger French society." And the French society is declaring that a part of the project of France, a part of the national character of France is the necessary integration of all people into a common French society.

But that has not happened when it comes to the larger number of Muslim immigrants in France, for some at least clear historical reasons having to do with France's relationship, especially with Muslims in North Africa. The long conflict with Algeria, France's involvement in other portions of the world, and this is even more important, the main reason for the non-integration of Muslims in France is that Muslims are Muslims. Now, you have in Western Europe, very few national leaders willing to speak so candidly. Emmanuel Macron is speaking very candidly. He is acknowledging that Islam is a threat to France. He is naming it clearly.

Part

Secular France Faces a Theological Problem: Why You Can’t Meet a Theological Argument with a Sociological Argument

But here's the fact that Christians need to understand, he is not addressing it theologically. He's addressing Islam as a problem in France, including a terrorist problem. A failure to integrate on the larger context in a French society, but he sees it as largely a sociological or criminological or for that matter, an anti-terrorism issue.

He doesn't face the fact that what he is looking at in Islam is a theological challenge. So just consider as Karina Piser reports for Foreign Policy, "In a country that holds a strict vision of secularism or laïcité at the heart of its national identity and where controversies over Islam are a fixture of daily life, top-down attempts to manage religion are a tough sell." Now this was written back in early October. So just about the time with the French president's speech, but before the attack upon this French teacher. The Journal Foreign Policy went on to say, "Critics say Macron’s proposed law, which French parliament will begin debating in December, will alienate some of France’s estimated 6 million Muslims; others point to thorny legal issues that will complicate its implementation."

Now here's the quandary of France. I wrote about the official secularization and indeed secularism of France in my most recent book, The Gathering Storm. And as I pointed out, this goes back to the French Revolution, unlike the American Revolution, which was more of a reformation continuing the basic pattern of what could be called an Anglo American culture. The French Revolution was an overthrow of all authorities. And at the very center of that overthrow was the theological authority of historic Christianity, specifically the overthrow of the power of the Roman Catholic Church. But as a part of that revolution, which was so explicitly secular that the secularists sought during the French Revolution to turn the Cathedral of Notre Dame into a secular temple, to reason. Even putting an idolatrous statue of what was declared to be the goddess, reason, there in the cathedral.

The French Revolution was avowedly secular in a way that the American Revolution profoundly was not. Just consider the words of the Declaration of Independence itself, which acknowledges the creator as the one who has endowed us with unalienable rights. It's a very different model, but as you're looking at France, modern France is intended to be the continuation of that secularism. The French word is laïcité. And by that, they mean to say, there can be no religious threat to the culture of France, none. There can be no real religious influence in the politics of France. None.

France has rather successfully become so secularized in terms of its Christian tradition, that it is now a validly secular, it has been laicized. But as I've often pointed out, the secularizing European cultures have now completely disarmed themselves for having any kind of competence to deal with a genuine theological issue when they see one. The problem is that in France, it's not even clear that they see it as a theological issue. And that is a profound problem because theology doesn't go away. Theology never goes away. You can declare yourself to be a secular society, but there will be some kind of theology.

In the Bolshevik Revolution in the Soviet regime, the government itself became the idolatrous deity. There is a theology. There is doctrine. There is oculists, there is a liturgy, there always is. In France, on the part of the larger society, it is the idolization of a secular culture. And for one thing, you see the fact that it has become a culture increasingly hostile to any sign of theological influence. But when you're looking at the six million Muslims in Islam, they are for the most part, not secular at all. And thus you have an absolutely disarmed European civilization, and most, especially right now, the French government, trying to figure out how to deal with a genuine theological challenge when they don't really believe that theology could be important to anyone. But don't miss what the French president now wants to do. He wants to create in France, a French Islam. That would be in Islam that is compatible with the secular principles of modern France.

Now, how would that be possible? Well, you have some theological understanding, and thus you understand it is not possible. Only if you reduce all theology to sociology and criminology, or some kind of humanistic secular discipline, could you possibly think that the way to deal with a theological challenge is to come up with a secular government sponsored, largely government controlled, certainly government approved form of Islam. Now just consider the thought exercise of changing the issue here from Islam to Christianity.

But there's another huge problem here and at least some in France are seeing it. One of the most prominent observers of this situation now faced by modern France is Olivier Roy, who is a scholar of religion. He's a Professor at the European University Institute in Florence. He says it clearly, "That's the paradox: to defend secularism with a plan based on the state's intervention in religion." He goes on to point out that's a contradiction. And he says, "That's why for so many years, nothing has been done."

Macron's idea is that by some kind of indirect means, by some kind of government approve, but independent body, you would have Imams or Muslim leaders who would be approved by the state. Now, of course, the fact is Muslims in France, Muslims anywhere who are genuine Muslims, aren't about to accept that. But Olivier Roy points out that wouldn't be plausible. For example, if the French government said, "We're going to tell you who your priest or preacher must be." And this is the incongruity, this is the contradiction. Now there are huge issues behind this.

What does this tell us about immigration and assimilation, or in this situation, the fact that assimilation isn't happening? What do you say about a secular government that seems to be shocked? Yes, still shocked that you do not have integration or assimilation. You don't have people who come with a strong theological identity, willingly assimilating into a larger secular experiment. What do you have here? Well, you have a nation that is trying to live out an impossibility. That's the predicament of France, is trying to live out an impossibility. It is now threatened by terrorism within and without. And since its Muslim population is now up to about 10% of the population and that 10% is not buying into the modern idea of France, France has a huge problem.

And in one sense, it is insoluble. But there's something else we need to note here, and that is the extent of government power that Emmanuel Macron is willing now to employ. He's calling upon the French parliament to follow specific policies, but know what those policies are. The policy would, for instance, first of all, restrict all homeschooling in France. And this means that if on a religious basis, they are going to be saying that the challenge of an unassimilated Islam means there can be no Islamic homeschooling. Then they're also saying there can be no Christian or Jewish homeschooling. In other words, the reality of the Islamic threat means all religious groups are going to have to send their children to the public schools in order that they can be turned into the kind of French citizens that the French government demands.

The same thing is true when it comes to certifying so-called religious schools. They're going to have to meet some kind of government certification. Now, just to consider what this would mean for Christian schools or for that matter Jewish schools, as well as Islamic schools. In an article that recently appeared in the Atlantic, the same French academic, Olivier Roy, pointed out, "The state"--meaning the government of France--"can't interfere in the management of religion or in theological questions. Yet for 30 years, French governments have tried to do just that. The whole project," he said, "is a profound contradiction." As the Atlantic summarizes, "in which a staunchly secular state cobbles together a plan to harbor its own national Islam."

Now from a Christian worldview perspective, just consider the fact that a government that can create its own national Islam is a government that could create its own national Christianity. Why wouldn't it? Well, it isn't because it doesn't consider Christianity a living threat. It does consider Islam a living threat. The amazing thing in one perspective is that the French experiment has yes, largely killed off Christian influence in this sense in France, over the course of the last 200 years. But now this resurgence of Islamic immigration means it has a new challenge. What it thought it had achieved in secularity it is now seeing disappear before its eyes.

And understand this, here's a big point, everything it does now, if it does anything, is a contradiction of its own principles. It says we don't take theology seriously, but now we have a theology we've got to sort of take seriously because some people take it seriously. We don't interfere in religion, but we're about to interfere in religion. We don't consider the state to have any right to speak in theological terms, but we're about to do that because we see no alternative.

So from a Christian perspective, what's one of the issues we should consider here. The fact that Christians must understand that you can't meet a theological argument with a sociological argument. You can't have a theological analysis without having some theology. And that means that the evacuation of France and the larger project of Europe of historic Christianity has created a vacuum. And in that vacuum, theology did not disappear. It has now reappeared, but it's not Christian theology. And because theology always has consequences, will the difference between the consequences of a Christian theology and the consequences of an Islamic theology are now pretty much there as the great challenge to modern France.

But I said at the beginning that there was a huge theological issue here. And I'll speak about it just briefly. And that is this, Christianity is not an honor religion. Around the world you will see other cultures that are honor and shame cultures. You will find other religions that are honor religions. Islam is by definition, an honor religion, which is to say that Muslims see it as a part of their devotion and as a part of their service, that they must defend the reputation, the dignity, and the honor of Islam, of the Islamic book, the Koran and of the prophet Mohammed. Thus, any slight against Muhammad, any kind of satire, any kind of visual representation given Islamic theology is an assault upon the honor of the prophet. Any criticism of Islam in this sense, or any restriction on Islam is understood to be a matter of infliction of dishonor upon Islam, which considers honor a central issue.

Now I said, Christians don't. Why would Christians not consider honor a central issue? Well, it's because God will take care of his honor. He tells us that. He will take care of his own dignity. He will take care of his own reputation. Christ after all, actually told His disciples to sheathe the sword and not to try to defend His honor. He was as the prophet Isaiah tells us, the suffering servant who actually gave up his honor, the honor he had with the father in heaven in order to take on human flesh. And then he went all the way to the dishonor of the cross, bearing our dishonor and our sin in order to satisfy the righteousness of the holy Father.

Now, as Christians understand and as the Scripture teaches, God will establish his honor and the honor due his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. And He will do that on what the Bible describes as the day of the Lord. And that is when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the Glory of God the father. The task given to the church is to preach Christ. To take the gospel to the nations and to make disciples, teaching them to observe all that Christ has commanded. We are not told to be the army of those who defend the honor of Christ. Tragically, in this sense, what we see is the inevitable consequence of the secularization of an entire civilization, as we're seeing in much of Western Europe. And what we are seeing is that in what they thought they had created as a vacuum, it's not a vacuum at all.

It just gave the opening for a new theology, a very challenging theological power to come from Islam. One that, and here's what's crucial, is incompatible. Not only with laïcité, with secularity, it's incompatible with the democratic values of France. The modern liberal values of France. Islam is not going to be reconciled in any classic sense to that. And Muslims are going to fight any effort by the French government in contradiction to its own supposed secularity of creating a new French Islam. What we are seeing here is a warning playing out right before our eyes. Do the Americans who are so fervently working for a secular America know what they're really asking for?

Part

A Battle for the “Soul” of the Nation: Is America Still the Nation with the Soul of a Church?

But next, we shift back to the United States where oddly enough, on Sunday, a major article appeared. A full page article in the print edition of Sunday's New York Times, with the headline, "Battle for Soul of Nation." The subhead, "A presidential vote to settle the question: what do people want to become?" Now, where's this language of a soul in a secular newspaper coming from? Where's the issue of a soul when it comes to the American people coming from? Now, let's just put it in a little theological footnote. Nations don't have souls, human beings do, made in the image of God. But we understand the language. We understand this is a metaphor.

When the New York Times addresses the battle for the soul of the nation, it means the heart or the essence of a nation, the moral center of the nation. Isn't it interesting that our supposedly secular society in this sense, not secular in the French sense, but secular, especially when you think of a newspaper like the New York times? Why is it that they can't actually talk about the nation or about the conversation about the future of the nation without using an essentially theological category? Even if they try to use it in something like a poetic means. Soul, the battle for the soul of the nation. Now Diaz points out by the way that both parties, both major party candidates, Donald Trump and Joe Biden are arguing that this election, the Federal Election of 2020 is a battle for the soul of the nation.

And both candidates are saying to the American people, "A vote for me is a vote for the future soul of the nation. Save the soul of the nation by voting for me." Now, Joe Biden is saying that the Democrats tilting the argument to the values of the left. And you have Donald Trump speaking as the Republican nominee, speaking to Americans predominantly on the right. Both of the candidates in this case, speaking to the basis of their parties with their now quite polarized and distinct understandings and visions of America. But the point is both of them and both of their parties and the supporters of both are actually using the language of "soul."

Elizabeth Diaz tells us, The election has become a referendum on the soul of the nation." And she says, that suggests, "That in an increasingly secular country, voting has become a reflection of one's individual morality. And that the outcome hinges in part on spiritual and philosophical questions that transcend politics." She then asked, "What exactly is the soul of the nation? What is the state of it? And what would it mean to save it?" Fascinating questions. And again, isn't it interesting that in the middle of this election, no, almost at the end, we're not talking about the New York Times saying, "Is there something deeper going on here? Are there some basic theological or philosophical questions, basic moral questions that are behind this election that come down to even the description of a battle over the soul of the nation?"

The article then goes on a great length to look at the Republican arguments about saving the soul the nation and the Democratic arguments for saving the soul of the nation. The Times also says that the question of who could define the soul the nation has been controversial from the start, given many of the moral and historical crises faced by the United States through more than 200 years of history. Abraham Lincoln clearly use this kind of language, but so have other presidents.

But what I found really interesting about this big article in the New York Times is that no one seems to have noticed where a lot of this conversation actually came from. I think the origin of the conversation in this sense would be very interesting. Now you can look at the language of presidents back during the founding era or particularly like Abraham Lincoln.

But the statement about America being a nation with the soul of a church goes to G.K. Chesterton, a very prominent British writer in the 20th century. A conservative Catholic who had tremendous moral insight into the British civilization and to American civilization. Speaking of the United States, he said that the distinction between the United States and Britain is that Britain has a state church, whereas, the United States is a nation with the soul of a church. And furthermore, Chesterton went on to say, there are at least two points that make very clear that America is, in his words, "a nation with a soul of a church." He says, number one, "The American government is absolutely against anarchy." That's the first principle. But the second principle, he said, "The American experiment is actually founded on a creed. A creed unlike Britain," he says, "that even has a state church." In the United States, there's actually a creed. The Declaration of Independence uses the language of the Creator. It is God who has endowed citizens, all human beings as a matter of fact, as those who are equal with unalienable rights.

Chesterton pointed out from Britain, America began with a theological argument. In essence, just about everything we think about and talk about related to this nation and understanding the deep divide in this nation, politically, morally, theologically, and in every other sense we have to recognize that much of that divide comes down to whether or not we really do believe in the creed. A minimal creed, but a very real creed upon which the entire national experiment in ordered liberty was established.

So it turns out that France is not the only nation that includes a large number of very influential people who are stuck in a contradiction. It's not just true about France, it is also increasingly true in this increasingly secular age of the nation Chesterton described as the nation with the soul of a church.

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

I want to tell you that tonight, I'm glad to be speaking at the 7th annual Shepherds 360 Church Leaders Conference, is taking place in Cary, North Carolina. But this year it's going to be virtual and a live stream will be available at shepherds360.org, beginning at 7:00 PM Eastern Time.

I'm glad to say that listeners to The Briefing are invited to join. Again, shepherds360.org, 7:00 Eastern Time. I'm going to be speaking about many of these issues, even discussed today, but with the focus on the local church, ministry, and Christian leadership.

For information and resources, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.

I'll meet you again tomorrow for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

I am always glad to hear from readers. Write me using the contact form. Follow regular updates on Twitter at @albertmohler.

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