There are other religions besides Christianity (number one in the world, with about a third of people), Islam (number two, over 20%), Buddhism, and the rest. In fact, you could say that a person’s religion is anything in which they fervently and consistently believe, even to the extent of looking down on people with different beliefs. In France, for example, long a majority Catholic country in which the Church dominated politically, there’s a strong belief in secularism, even anti-clericalism, since the French Revolution of 1789. And that’s an important element in the French reaction to the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the attitude of the majority of French people toward France’s immigrant populations.
Most of France’s immigrants, largely the result of its long history of colonialism, are Muslim and/or black, and there’s definitely an element of racism in the general French attitude. Immigrants tend to live in segregated areas, find it harder to get work, and are discriminated against in other ways, causing resentment. But, where French Muslims are concerned (7% of the population), the main problem is that the majority population refuses to accept them as full-fledged fellow citizens – as French – because of their religion and other cultural differences. Muslims tend not to separate the religious and secular realms, and, as noted above, the French insist on that. France, intensely proud of its secular culture, not surprisingly has a history of all-or-nothing assimilationism with regard to its subject peoples.
This is going to be an ongoing problem in the France of today, where, apparently, there are mandated moments of silence for the Charlie Hebdo victims – resented by many Muslims, especially youth, who feel that the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists despised and mocked what they hold most sacred. For many of these youth, their Muslim faith is the only thing they have to be proud of.
What’s the solution? There is no easy one. But being aware of one’s beliefs and prejudices and not acting on them willy-nilly could be a start. Being aware of history and other people’s beliefs and feelings couldn’t hurt either. We’re not all the same, but we are all, by virtue of being human beings, deserving of respect and care. This doesn’t mean allowing or condoning harmful behavior, but it does imply a high degree of thoughtfulness and a realization that other people are always affected by everything we do.
Not all – in fact, perhaps not much of this can be legislated. It’s a matter of each of us taking on the responsibilities of a mature adult living together with others. You’re entitled to your beliefs – just be conscious of what they are, and do some ordering of priorities. Free speech, for example, is an important value, but it isn’t being protected equally for all in France right now (it’s illegal, for example, to express any degree of sympathy for the Charlie Hebdo killers). And, in my opinion, it should be tempered by respect for others as part of living peacefully together in a multicultural world.