The website France 24 carries a story about a survey of French Muslim attitudes which suggests that up to a third of France’s four to five million Muslims reject the legitimacy of the country’s secular laws. This makes for interesting reading, but perhaps not quite in the manner you might expect.
First of all, this poll was done over the telephone and the sample was a small one, so it is highly doubtful that this survey is anything more than the most cursory of opinion polls. In other words, the answers it comes up with are doubtful – but the questions it makes us pose may be useful.
Secondly, this poll might well be taken as a guide to what people really think about the burkini and the hijab; but that is not a very interesting matter. After all, we know that lots of people must approve of the hijab, as lots of women in France wear it; and given the volume of burkini sales, someone out there must be quite keen on this rather cumbersome garment. But in the end, is dress so important?
Far more important than the practicalities of what to wear are the underlying social and religious attitudes that lead people to dress the way they do. And what makes that interesting is the way social and religious questions interact.
For example, if I were a French Catholic, how would I see the laws of the French Republic? I would see them as subordinate to the law of God, naturally, and where they contradicted the law of God, I would refuse to obey them. Thus, as a Catholic, I would reject the law on abortion, and I would do all I could to get it changed, via engagement in the democratic process. But other laws, which were either good, or neutral, I would obey, because I would see in the French parliament the embodiment of the democratic will of the French people.
Democracy is a good system, and we should be committed to the search for consensus; as Catholics we should utterly reject all attempt to delegitimise, either in theory or in practice, the state, which exists, not through divine right, but through Divine Providence, and is there to promote the common good.
What this poll suggests is that there is a body of Muslims in France who would not agree with the position that I have outlined above. They may well obey the laws and live quiet and peaceful lives, but in theory they do not recognise the authority of the state, because they do not believe in democracy or the settlement of questions through the search for consensus. This means, at bottom, that they reject the role of human reason in problem solving, and ascribe to what is often called “Divine Command Theory”: something is right because God wills it, not because it is good in itself and as such discoverable by human reason.
A special note to Catholics: Divine Command Theory, while once held by certain medieval theologians, back in the day, is now regarded by Catholic theologians as utterly mistaken, for it leads to the nonsense of believing that God could command things that are inherently unjust. But this Divine Command Theory is alive and well in Islam, and justifies quite a few things that are utterly wrong, such as polygamy, slavery and the death penalty for sorcery. These are, at least, condoned by the Koran, therefore they must be OK.
So what this poll does that is useful is that it reminds us of the necessity of the role of reason in theology. If God commands the wearing of the hijab, please tells us why that is a good thing in itself? Some attempts are made to do this, but they are not very convincing. (The usual argument is so that the sight of an uncovered female head leads a man into the sin of lust; sorry, but that is not a good argument.)
As for the question of the role of reason in theology, let us remember two people who have pointed to this matter insistently in recent decades. The first was Saint John Paul II in his letter Fides et Ratio (Faith and Reason) and the second was Benedict XVI in his Regensburg Address. These are two texts we need to return to again and again.
The poll may not have realised it, but it uncovers something important: the way religion impacts on politics, and the way religion, when deprived of the discourse of reason, becomes dangerous.