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The so-called “affaire du digicode” recounted by Guitton reflects the tragi-comic aspect to these trends. Since the 1990s, Paris apartment buildings have been equipped with electronic keys: numeric pads on which you type a code in order to gain access. While this was a victory for common security, it posed a conundrum for observant Jews living in these buildings. Jewish occupants could not use the electronic key on the Sabbath, of course, but these same Jewish residents also insisted that everyone, gentiles included, assume the cost for installing a manual key for their use. When the gentile neighbors refused, a rash of digicode vandalism broke out: The pads were pulverized, allowing entry to one and all.
Guitton also casts a long and lucid gaze on the extremists in the French Muslim community. Do we need to be reminded? The horrifying murders committed last year by Mohamed Merah are still fresh in our memory. But perhaps we do need to recall the full horror. Guitton, who is merciless in his account of France’s Salafist movement, recalls that Merah had gravitated to this dark matter within Islam. This explains not only his cold-blooded murder of the Jewish teacher and three children, but also his killing of three French soldiers. Believing that all three were Muslim, Merah “executed” them because, serving in an infidel army, they were apostates.
We need, moreover, to recall not just Merah’s motivations, but also the Ministry of the Interior’s estimate that among the more than 5 million Muslims in France, between 1,000 and 2,000 are radicalized fundamentalists. Guitton asks us to recall that the vast majority of French Muslims identify with the French Republic. A study published last year by the statistical agency INSEE polled men and women who were born in France and have at least one parent born elsewhere. The vast majority of respondents were from North and West Africa, regions where Islam predominates. And yet, the researchers found that 90% of their interlocutors accept the Republic’s values and consider themselves fully French.
At the end of his tour de France, Guitton leaves us with a paradox that is both reassuring and troubling: Extremists have more in common with one another than with the communities they pretend to represent. The minority of fundamentalists found within the French Muslim community defend a vision of Islam that is as exclusionary and reactionary as the interpretations that fundamentalist Jews and Christians give to their respective faiths. Herein lies the tragedy: France’s republican model is founded on the revolutionary values of liberty, equality and — last but far from least — fraternity. Implicit in this model is the existence of a secular space, of a common life, where all citizens meet as equals. As this space becomes ever more besieged, it is difficult to argue with Guitton’s conclusion that religion is too important a matter to be left solely in the hands of clerics and theologians.
Robert Zaretsky is a professor of history at The Honors College at the University of Houston and is the author of the forthcoming “A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning” (Harvard University Press).