The online headlines read
Historic Hollande-Rouhani dinner scrapped die to insistence on wine and non-halal meat;
The Telegraph –
Francois Hollande – Hassan Rouhani lunch binned over “wine row”;
The Washington Post –
France won’t dine with Iran unless win is served.
France has a Secular constitution separating state and church/religion. This is laudable but is there a risk that if the state simply does not talk about religion and does not teach it, at least in an academic manner, that people will lose touch with the rational elements of “religious” practice? People of faith become isolated and ignored by their state.
Have we sort of not been here before? Anti-Semitism before the Second World War was presumably normalised and few knew how to engage with Jews on a spiritual or moral basis because they simply had no grasp of what Judaism was. In any event Jews killed Jesus. Best not to engage except peripherally. Jews were isolated specifically in Germany and we know the consequences.
Is Secularism is on the verge of becoming the new religion? Has it already achieved that status in France?
Surely Secularism has to be informed tolerant and able to engage with religion, however tangentially, sufficiently so that it can understand some of the underlying principles underpinning religions. To be fair that’s not going to be easy because often people of faith also cannot explain their religion’s underlying values comfortably. There is unease and friction whenever and wherever Secularism and religion come into contact.
I have to admit to struggling to understand Christianity even though I label myself a Christian – as a flag of convenience as much as anything. Christianity does not exist as a homogenous concept and if you unpick it in a historical context you begin to realise that Western, Roman or Pauline Christianity may be very different from the philosophy promoted by Jesus.
I do not want to go into detail here except to say the first Christian movement was merely one of a number of Jewish sects – not even Judaism existed as a single settled homogenous faith system in Christ’s time, any more than Christianity exists as a homogenous religion today. It is, however, important to remember that, as Jews and if they ate meat, Christ and his followers would have been very comfortable with Jewish kosher practices. In addition they spoke Aramaic which is linguistically very similar to Arabic so they may well have been familiar with terms that we associate with Islam, which was not codified until the seventh century.
I believe there is a difference between the sect and the philosophy that Jesus espoused and that promoted by Paul. The Western Christianity that we know absorbed “pagan” ideas as it was assimilated into the Roman Empire. This is sufficient for Western Christianity not to have empathy with its co-religions – Judaism and Islam. This is highlighted by Christians comfortably eating pig meat and generally not associating itself with kosher and halal food hygiene codes.
We also need to recognise that the way in which much Western civil society is structured can be attributed to foundations laid by the Christian Church – especially health and education. I guess that until the Enlightenment what is now an independent university system may have been very much associated to with the Church. In the Middle East academia and Islam went hand in hand.
Now if that influence has largely come from Western Christianity it is easy to see how Secular Western society has little little empathy with either Judaism or Islam.
To keep this brief, you can see from Jewish and Islamic codes that among things personal and public health concerns were paramount and still are but this is not taught in a Secular world, which is largely informed by Western Christian thinking. “We” find comfort is presuming that Bronze Age and later Biblical peoples cannot possibly have understood modern concepts of food hygiene. For sure they could not have known about germs but they would certainly have clocked that there was a good and bad way of cooking food. They would surely also have worked out that there was a good and bad way of killing animals to eat. Get these practices wrong and you get food poisoning from the former and tough and uneatable meat if animals were not killed in a humane stress-free manner.
These observations informed first, Jewish and later Islamic codes. They were cultural rather than religious. Some Christians have retained these cultural practices. Kosher and halal dietary rules are
Now if this is not taught and specifically excluded from state debate when the President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, knocks on your door in attempt to rebuild bridges between his isolated state and the West, and in this case France, how can you entertain him? How does this look to the people of Iran when their leader relaxes his attitude to the West, makes a conscious effort to re-engage, and is rebuffed by the very people who demand that Iran should re-engage.
The roots of anti-Semitism can in part be attributed to Christianity’s blaming Jews for the crucifixion of Jesus and in part Christianity’s losing touch with kosher/halal dietary codes. You can see these traits in Secularism.
It strikes me that Secularism has to be flexible. If Secularism is truly objective it will be able to grasp the rational behind kosher and halal codes but it cannot. Secularists are quick to point to “sky pixies” and “imaginary friends” when these codes have as much relevance today as they did two millenia ago.
Many blame dogmatic religion for many of the world’s ills (they may not be wrong) but is Secularism at risk of becoming equally dogmatic and isolationist or insular?
For sure it seems that in France a form a aggressive Secularism has prevented state officials from knowing how to accommodate a leader who is trying to make amends with the West.
France appears not to be a good place right now. Its brand of Secularism has led it there.