In an alarming twist, a French secularist organization is championing the “free exercise of religion” for Muslims praying on the street in a Paris suburb, right after the same group cheered the removal of a cross from a monument to Pope John Paul II. The secularist group condemned a large protest against street prayers as a secretly racist attack on Muslims.
“It is the Union of Muslim Associations of Clichy which respects secularism,” the National Federation of Free Thought (FNLP) declared in a press release. The group defended street prayers as a necessary protest against the Paris suburb of Clichy la Garenne, which is “calling into question the free exercise of religion.”
The Union of Muslim Clichy Associations (UAMC) started the street prayers after the closing of a prayer room, which the UAMC claimed hosted daily meetings with “between 3,000 and 5,000 faithful,” according to the French paper Le Monde. UAMC rented the premises from the town hall since 2013, when Socialist Mayor Gilles Catoire turned the location into a place of worship.
The lease expired in July 2016, and Republican Mayor Rémi Muzeau (elected in 2015) decided not to renew it. He repurposed the location for a media library. AUMC refused to remove the premises, despite a decision to expel them in August 2016, confirmed by a higher court in November 2016.
Police cleared the Muslims from the premises on March 21. Ever since, the UAMC has organized street prayers every Friday in front of the town hall.
Earlier this month, a hundred protesters — including elected officials, members of the Republican Party (not to be confused with America’s Republican Party), the Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI), and National Front — marched behind a banner reading, “Stop the illegal street prayers.” Protesters chanted, “No cult, France is secular!”
Ironically, the National Federation of Free Thought took the side of the Muslims praying in the street, denouncing Mayor Muzeau’s actions as “contrary to secularism.”
“It is the City of Clichy which bears full responsibility for the conflict by its attitude clearly contrary to secularism,” FNLP claimed. The secularist group claimed that Muzeau had promised to renew the UAMC lease, but broke his word “in the race for the identity bloc of the Right after the National Front.”
The Federation pointed to a 1905 law of Separation of the Churches and the State, arguing that the law “guarantees everyone’s freedom of conscience and freedom of worship” and that the street prayers are “similar to religious processions.”
The National Federation of Free Thought argued that since the street prayers “do not constitute a manifest disorder of public order,” they “are authorized like any manifestation on the public road.”
The FNLP defense of Muslim prayers seems an odd position for an organization whose website tagline is “neither god nor master.” This is also the same organization that opposed the cross above a monument to Pope John Paul II on the grounds that “it is clear that excessive consumption of crosses … can seriously affect mental health.”
At the beginning of November, the National Federation of Free Thought celebrated the French High Court’s decision to order the removal of a cross from a public monument in Ploërmel to Pope John Paul II. The Federation had advocated for the cross’s removal.
In celebrating this decision, FNLP smeared Roman Catholics concerned about the presentation of the pope by comparing them to people suffering from mad cow disease.
Mentioning the outbreak of Kreutzfeld-Jakob disease among cows in England in 1996, FNLP noted that “Hindu fundamentalists had offered asylum to mad cows because ‘they were sacred‘. French Catholic clerics have formed an association ‘Do Not touch my pope‘ because ‘it is sacred.’ It is clear that the excessive consumption of crosses and hosts can seriously affect mental health.”
French novelist Charles Demassieux attacked the FNLP, arguing that this secular organization “aims purely and simply at the disappearance of the Christian identity of France, while it is, almost everywhere in the country, evicted by Islam, which enjoys a much greater tolerance from this association.” Even an atheist organization has attacked FNLP for its Muslim bias.
While it is arguable that a public monument showing a cross is not the same issue as a public demonstration of prayer, it is remarkable that an organization claiming to oppose religious intrusion into public life would be so biased in favor of one particular religion. Perhaps the FNLP is more focused on opposing Christianity than supporting secularism.