Xavier Ternisien wrote an interesting article about France’s relationship with Islam and Muslims. The conventional view that Islam came too late to benefit from French patronage, that the law that separate church and state must be strictly applied despite the growing Muslim population, contradicts what French legislators and administrators felt when the crafted the notorious law.

According to Ternisien, French legislators and administrators in 1905 and 1907 debated whether or not the strict separation should apply within France’s colonies. They decided that although the law should be en force, it was imprudent to enforced.

Teaching religion in French schools helped integrate Muslim children into the colonial system, as well as to turn Islamic authorities into willing collaborators. Conversely, it was feared that Muslims would revolt against French authorities if religion were not taught in schools. Religious education meant religious control.

Most importantly, many believed that Muslims were too primitive for secularism.

[Senator Eugène Brager] felt that ‘indigenous’ were not in a position to benefit from secularism. “We say that the continuing movement of modern ideas should necessarily lead to the separation of the two powers. Should these considerations be applied to the colonies? Do the natives of Congo, Madagascar or Tonkin possess the intellectual abilities capable of understanding the progress made by modern ideas?” [Crappy translation is my own.]

Islam is another example of France dispensing with republican uniformity for practicality. Not wanting to deny themselves a tool to strengthen its hold on the colonies, exceptions to strict separation were written into the laws of secularism. Consequently, there is a legal basis for allowing exceptions to those laws for France’s current Muslim population. (Of course, the issue is not accomodating them, but making their faith more French.)