National identity by Nicolas Sarkozy
National identity, an antidote to sectarianism Respect the incomers, respect the host community
The Swiss people have just decided, in a referendum, against building new minarets in their country. This decision can legitimately raise very many concerns. Referenda require people to answer “yes” or “no” to a specific question. Can we answer “yes” or “no” to such a complicated question touching on such deep-rooted issues? I am convinced this can only give rise to painful misunderstandings and a feeling of injustice, and that such a categorical answer to a matter, which has to be resolvable on a case-by-case basis, respecting everyone’s beliefs and religion, can only cause hurt.
But how can we fail to be astounded at the reaction this decision has provoked in some media and political circles in our own country? Extreme, and at times grotesque, reactions against the Swiss people, whose democracy, older than ours, has the rules and traditions of a direct democracy, where the people are used to speaking up and taking decisions for themselves?
Indeed, behind these harsh reactions lies a visceral mistrust of everything emanating from the people. For some, reference to the people already signals the beginning of populism. But it is by turning a deaf ear to the cries of the people, becoming indifferent to their difficulties, feelings, aspirations, that populism is fuelled. This contempt for the people, since it is a form of contempt, always ends badly. How can we be astonished at the success of extremists when we take no account of voters’ suffering?
What has just happened reminds me of the reception given to the rejection of the European Constitution in 2005. I remember the sometimes hurtful things said to that majority of Frenchmen and women who had chosen to say “no”. This implacably pitted the France who said “yes” against the France who said “no”, opening up a split which, had it deepened would never have allowed France to resume her place in Europe.
it was first necessary to try and understand what the French had wanted to express; to admit that the majority had not gone astray, but had, like the majority of the Irish and majority of the Dutch, expressed what they felt and, in full knowledge of the facts, rejected a Europe they no longer wanted because it gave the impression of being increasingly indifferent to the peoples’ aspirations.
Unable to change the peoples, we had to change Europe. The “no France” began to be reconciled with the “yes France” once, instead of judging her, people sought to understand her. It was then that, transcending what had divided her, France was able to take the lead in the battle to change Europe.
So instead of vilifying the Swiss because their answer doesn’t please us, it is better to ask ourselves what it reveals. Why in Switzerland, a country with a long tradition of openness, hospitality and tolerance, can such a rejection be so forcefully expressed? And how would the French people answer the same question?
Instead of condemning the Swiss people out of hand, let’s also try to understand what they sought to express and what so many peoples in Europe, including the French, feel. Nothing would be worse than denial. Nothing would be worse than not being realistic about so many Europeans’ feelings, concerns and aspirations.
Let’s first understand that what happened has nothing to do with freedom of worship or freedom of conscience. No one, no more in Switzerland than elsewhere, is thinking of calling these fundamental freedoms into question.
; it’s in their nature and their culture. But they don’t want the nature of their ways of life and thinking and social relations to be distorted. And feeling you are losing your identity can be a cause of deep suffering. Globalization is contributing to heightening this feeling.
Globalization makes identity a problem because everything in its process contributes to undermining it, while simultaneously increasing the need for it. This is because the more open the world, greater the cross-fertilization of ideas and people and movement of capital and goods, the more people need anchors and points of reference and not feel alone in the world. This need to belong can be met by tribes, nations, sectarianism or the Republic.
This is why I called for a great debate on national identity. We must all talk together about this gnawing threat which so many people in our old European nations feel, rightly or wrongly, hanging over their identity, because if it is pushed under the carpet it could end up nurturing bitter resentment.
The Swiss, like the French, know that change is a necessity. Their long history has taught them that to remain what you are you have to accept change. Like the generations which preceded them, they know that opening up to others is a source of enrichment. No other European civilization has, throughout its history, engaged more in the cross-fertilization of different cultures, which is the diametric opposite of sectarianism.
This cross-fertilization denotes the desire to live together. Sectarianism means opting to live separately. But cross-fertilization does not negate identities, for everyone it means recognizing, understanding and respecting the Other.
For the host community it means recognizing what the incomers can bring them. For the incomers it means respecting what was there before their arrival. For the host community it means offering to share their heritage, history, civilization and lifestyle.
For the incomers it means being willing to integrate smoothly, seamlessly, into the society they are going to contribute to transforming and the history they are now going to help write. The key to this mutual enrichment – the cross-fertilization of ideas, thinking and cultures – is successful assimilation.
Respecting the incomers means allowing them to pray in decent places of worship. You don’t respect people when you force them to practise their religion in basements or sheds. We don’t respect our own values if we accept such situations. Since, once again, secularism (laicité) isn’t the rejection of all religions, but respect for all faiths. It’s a principle of neutrality, not a principle of indifference. When I was Interior Minister I created the French Council of the Muslim Faith so that the Muslim religion was put on an equal footing with all the other great religions. Respecting the host community means striving not to clash with them, or shock them, respecting their values, beliefs, laws and traditions and – at least in part – adopting them. It means accepting gender equality, secularism and separation of the temporal and spiritual.
I want to tell my Muslim compatriots that I shall do the utmost to make them feel they are citizens like the others, enjoy the same rights as all the others to live their faith, practise their religion with the same freedom and the same dignity. I shall fight every form of discrimination. But I want to tell them too that, in our country, where the Christian civilization has left such a deep imprint, where the Republic’s values are an integral part of our national identity, everything which might look like a challenge issued to that heritage and these values would doom to failure the very necessary establishment of a French Islam which, denying none of its fundamental tenets, will have found in itself the way to ensure its smooth inclusion in our social and civic pacts.
Christians, Jews and Muslims, people of every faith, believers, regardless of their beliefs, everyone must refrain from all ostentation and all provocation and, aware of their good fortune in living in a land of freedom, must practise their faith with the humble discretion which attests not to the lukewarm nature of their beliefs, but to the brotherly respect they feel towards people who do not think as they do, with whom they want to live.