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Issue 5

Understanding the French Principle of Laïcité

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a 47-year old teacher was brutally beheaded in northern Paris outside his school. Days before his beheading, Paty had been receiving online death threats for showing his students controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammed which were first published in Denmark and then reproduced by the French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo. In France, the right to offend has always existed. Thus, the horrific murder of Paty was viewed as a violation of these rights that allow the people of France to commit acts that offend religion. The incident sent shockwaves across France because it was also viewed as an attack on education and education lies at the heart of what it means to be French. The outrage created swells of demonstrations and fueled deliberations over the longstanding French notion of secularism.

To understand the notion of secularism in France, it is necessary to examine the French principle of laïcité, under which the state is obliged to adopt a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs. Personal laws, inherent in every religion, find no place in the French Constitution. Thus, there is complete isolation of religion from the public sphere. While the wearing of overt religious symbols is not allowed either in the civil services or public spaces like government hospitals, post offices and government schools, there is complete freedom to exercise religion in the private realm. People are free to attend any religious institution and follow any religious norm as long as they do so in private spaces.

This notion of laïcité, where the state adopts a position of neutrality towards religious beliefs, was not inherent to the French system of governance. A great deal of historical struggle and fighting led to the acceptance of laïcité as a principle. It is important to recognize that religion lies at the heart of all the wars in France.

Between 1562 and 1598, the French witnessed the Wars of Religion. It was a series of nine bloody wars fought between two factions of the same religion, Catholics and Protestants.

Then, from 1789 to 1799, during the French Revolution, Louis XVI, who had exercised complete control of France between 1661 and 1715, was overthrown. A National Constituent Assembly was formed and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed. This declaration was important for France because it established individual rights that were protected by law. The revolutionaries declared the French Republic and stripped away special powers of the Catholic Church in an attempt to tame the Church that had enjoyed centuries of control. For the first time, the Jews, who were an outlawed community, were finally allowed to own property. In 1791, the first French Constitution was adopted and introduced the idea of freedom of religion in the land. The freedom to practice different faiths was allowed.

Between 1799 and 1905, a progressive dilution of the powers of the Catholic Church took place in post-revolutionary France. During this period, the Jules Ferry Laws were established. Catholic clerics were not allowed to infiltrate schools by becoming teachers. Thus, the laws ensured secularity in the schools of France. The systematic chipping away of the powers from the Church eventually led to the creation of secular laws in France.  

Finally, in 1905, the French law, on the separation of the Church and the State was introduced. It was based on three ideas: neutrality of the State, freedom of religious exercise and public powers related to the Church. This means that while the State maintains neutrality, it continues to exercise discretionary powers that allow it to intervene in religious matters. This was the period when the French notion of secularism emerged and the principle of laïcité was established.

When the law came into force, the State declared that the citizens of France would be recognised independent of their religious or ethnic background. Although initially, the immigrants and minority communities of the country did not face issues of discrimination, instances of everyday racism increased after the 1970s.

In the post-war era, there was a steep decline in manpower in France. Thus, France invited male immigrants from many countries to work in the booming industries of the State. While France had existing immigrants from neighbouring countries like Italy, Spain and Portugal, for the first time, this wave of immigrants also included people from non-White countries like Northern Africa, namely Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, as well as sub-Saharan Africa, where Islam is widespread. Leaving their families behind, due to restrictions from the French state, these immigrants lived in poor suburban communities where instances of racism and discrimination were not that widespread.

Problems started emerging during the 1970s economic downturn. Just like most countries, France was also severely impacted by the 1973 oil crisis. This led to the closing of several factories in France. By this time, the French state had reunited the immigrants with their families. Living in the fringes of society, the immigrants suffered due to increasing unemployment and the burden to feed their families. The immigrants from Europe and other white Caucasian countries were able to merge into a predominantly Judeo-Christian France. Physical differences, like the colour of one’s skin, made it difficult for the African immigrants (mostly Muslim) to assimilate into society. Communities of immigrant workers became increasingly isolated and the instances of everyday discrimination started becoming more prominent.

Although under laïcité, rights are given to every French person, these rules were made at a time when the country did not experience a wave of non-white immigrants. Religious diversity was not prominent in 1905. Assimilation of North African communities who came to live in France and the French-born Muslims, proved to be difficult. Adding to this, several disputes started arising with issues of religious freedom and the notion of laïcité.

In 1989, tense debates started growing on the wearing of overt religious symbols in France after three Muslim girls were suspended from a public school upon refusing to remove their headscarves. After years of debate, the 2004 law which banned “the wearing of symbols and apparel by which a student conspicuously expresses religious affiliation in public schools”, was passed by the French parliament. The Jewish skullcap, Christian crosses and the Hijab, all religious symbols we banned. Then in 2010, a law was passed prohibiting the concealment of the face in public, thus banning clothes like the niqab. Such laws, which have created hostility between the Muslims and the French State have only intensified due to the increasing number of terrorist attacks in France by radical-militant Islamists.  

Charlie Hebdo is a French satirical magazine that produces cartoons and jokes about religious heads who promote blind belief, pokes fun at obscure existing norms and calls out forms of absurdity. After the 2015 attacks on the magazine by terrorists of militant Islam and al-Qaeda, people increasingly began looking at Islam as a religion that promotes violence, contributing to the ever-growing Islamophobia in the country.

While the principle of laïcité was intended to instill secularism, it was created at a time when the French Constitution did not need to worry about the practices of a diverse range of religions. Although these controversial laws apply to all religions, the last few years have shifted the focus of discourse to Islamic practices. The complete removal of religion from public spaces may have worked in the past, but growing religious and cultural tensions have raised many questions with regards to the French notion of laïcité. Till what extent is the State willing to go, to maintain its principle of laïcité? If a community feels marginalized, should the state alter its principles?

Shrishti is a Politics, Philosophy and Economics major at Ashoka University. In her free time, you’ll find her cooking, dancing or photographing.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Issue 5

Bidenomics For America and The World

Say all you want about President Donald Trump, one thing you can’t deny is that the US economy soared under his reign – that is before the pandemic…

Prior to the pandemic the American GDP grew in a sound manner, the stock market reached record highs, unemployment rate fell drastically, wages continued to rise and poverty rates were comparatively very low. Donald Trump also successfully challenged the rising Chinese influence over the global economy by calling them out for their intellectual property theft. While Trump did tilt towards protectionist economic policies, it worked in the interest of the American people. His focus on deregulation helped American manufacturing operate at a higher level of economic efficiency. 

President elect Joe Biden seems to have very different views from President Donald Trump on most socio-political issues, and his economic policies seem to be very different as well. So what will Bidenomics mean for America and the world? 

Biden has a history of being a supporter of free trade, he has often described Trump’s protectionist policies as ‘reckless’ and ‘disastrous’. This brings to question whether Biden will get rid of protectionist policies after he has been sworn in. While the shift from protectionist policies to those revolving around free trade seem like the most probable step, there are political and economic restrictions that will not allow Biden to make the move quite so smoothly. The trade war with China was one of Trump’s most significant moves as president, and Biden has been criticised for taking it easy on China. While the trade war has disrupted global trade it is widely supported by the American population, hence pushing Biden to practice protectionist policies. While Biden will probably continue the trade war with China, he will propagate global cooperation with the rest of the international community. Biden claims that forming a coalition with allies and partners is a better strategy instead of the unilateral tariffs imposed by the Trump administration.

Biden’s plan to reverse Trump’s tax cuts on corporations has been championed by the leftists, but how effective is this policy going to be in its implementation?  Biden’s tax policy wants to raise the top income tax rate to 39.6% from 37% and the top corporate income tax rate to 28% from 21%. This move will allow the government to collect a tax revenue of approximately $4 trillion by 2030. While this move sounds good on paper, its effective implementation has several obstacles. Corporates with major accounting teams and an army of lawyers have continued to find safe havens and loopholes in tax laws to legally avoid paying taxes. A tax hike of this rate also increases the probability of tax evasion and tax fraud, which will undoubtedly lead to the creation of a larger shadow economy. Additionally in a post covid world that has witnessed large scale unemployment, increasing taxes on corporations and high bracket earners is gonna push firms to cut costs, thereby creating disincentive for hiring. The increase in taxation may also push firms to switch gears and focus more on international markets such as Hong Kong or Singapore that offer lower corporate tax rates. While progressive taxation is ideally the way to go, the Biden government must ensure that its implementation takes into account all the limitations of the current system.

The Trump administration focused on deregulation in the manufacturing sector to ensure productive and economic efficiency, Biden on the other hand takes a different stand – promising to focus on sustainable development instead. Biden as part of his election campaign has released a 10-year, $1.3 trillion infrastructure plan. The plan aims to move the U.S. to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. Bidens climate change plan in total will cost the US approximately 2 trillion dollars, and he aims to fund it by reversing Trump’s excess tax cuts on corporations and ending subsidies for fossil fuels. While Trump focused on short term economic efficiency, Biden’s plan is for the future. Switching to sustainable means of manufacturing is going to undoubtedly drive up costs for the American economy, but will also create middle class jobs and ensure environmental conservation. This move towards building sustainable infrastructure also displays that America will be joining the global fight against climate change, after Trump pulled them out of the Paris Accords.

Biden also aims to tackle student loans and flaws in the health care system through his economic plan, and has extensively criticised Trump’s approach towards the same. Biden aims to insure around 97% of the American people through his healthcare plan, and doesn’t shy away to take credit for the Affordable Care Act  introduced by the Obama government. Biden also wants to cancel a minimum of $10,000 of student debt per person. He proposes forgiving all undergraduate, tuition-related federal student debt for low-income and middle class individuals (earning up to $125,000). Biden plans to fund this through the hike in corporate tax. The healthcare and student loan support by the government has been a campaign promise by almost all democrats including Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Biden hence seems to be catering to his key demographic.

While Biden and America seem to be optimistic about these economic policies, it can be a cause for great concern if not implemented with caution. An increase in corporate taxation in the midst of an economic crisis can lead to tragic consequences for the American economy. Biden plans to fund sustainable infrastructure, stimulus packages, healthcare, and student debt through his tax plan, while the plan isn’t as optimistic as “Mexico will pay for it”, it still is somewhat overreaching. Even though some may be doubtful about whether Bidenomics will be successful for America, the reversal of the globalisation backlash that we witnessed in the last few years brings some hope for the international community.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Issue 5

Is COVID over? – Why we have stopped talking about COVID-19

“This second and third wave is strong like a tsunami,” said Uddav Thackrey, the Chief Minister of Maharashtra, in his address to the state on Sunday. He also expressed his disappointment at the people of the state, urging them to stop flouting restrictions post-Diwali, as COVID-19 threatens to surge once more. The picture above was taken in his own state on the night of his address, in a KFC outlet in a mall in Aurangabad. Only a handful of people were wearing masks and still fewer maintaining social distancing protocols as the restaurant was running at full capacity without any sanitisation protocols being followed barring in the kitchen. Restaurants, hotels and gyms have been found to carry the highest superspreader risk for the virus. Yet we see an exponential increase in people starting to go to restaurants, on vacations and getting back to their gym routines. Much of Europe and parts of Asia are seeing another wave of lockdowns, and the US is seeing its biggest surge in the number of cases yet. As the holiday season approaches, there are increasing fears of superspreader events in family gatherings. With second and third waves of infection occurring around the world, COVID shows no signs of ending. Why then, has it all but disappeared from our conversations?

Prime Minister Modi initially claimed that even stepping outside your house could kill you. This was in April. Slowly, as signs of massive economic downfall became apparent, it was clear the nation could no longer remain in a state of lockdown and thus began a multi-step reopening. The country is currently at the last stage of reopening with Goa, Andhra Pradesh, Assam and some other states set to open schools and colleges. The government’s rhetoric drastically changed from “leaving home will kill you” to “you are safe if you wear a mask and maintain social distance. In fact, an advertisement featuring actor Akshay Kumar encouraged people to go back to work by saying “if doctors can do their part, so should we.” The conversation at the national level and especially from the PM has been one of reviving the economy. Studies have shown that in spite of one’s logical convictions, one is always susceptible to the words of one’s favourite leaders. Thus, even if one believes the virus to be a threat, they will ultimately believe the messages being propagated by the leaders they trust, which in this case prioritise economic revival and trivialise the virus. Since our leaders have stopped talking about the virus, so have we.

In a similar vein is the idea of ‘cognitive dissonance’. Staunch supporters of Modi and his government believe that all steps are being taken to minimise and eliminate the virus. Statistics clearly show otherwise. Cognitive dissonance is the discomfort one feels when belief and behaviour contradict each other. To reduce this discomfort, one will have to change either their behaviour or beliefs. For instance, when a smoker knows that “Smoking causes cancer”, she will either have to quit smoking or convince herself she hasn’t smoked enough to suffer from its effect. 

Currently, people either have to reconcile with the fact that the virus is still raging or justify their belief in the government’s handling of the disease by living life pre-COVID style, even at the expense of exposing themselves to it. Many people seem to have chosen the latter option. They also seek out news that confirms their belief. Because people want to believe COVID is over, the conversation around it is fast dying out as well.

An article on VICE talks about the hazards of Optimism Bias. It is the belief that around 80% of people have, where we think positively about the future and overestimate the potential of life. The downside to this is underestimating risks or believing that “It won’t happen to me.” It promotes risky behaviours, in this case, exposing oneself to the virus to continue one’s normal life. Additionally, we have been shown statistics of mortality rates which generally seem to be within a 1-2% mark. Recovery rates in India are being declared as the highest in the world, at around 86%. While these statistics paint a positive picture at first glance, we fail to take into account that even 1% of India’s population is roughly 13 million people. Also, being the best in the world doesn’t have an effect on how one recovers personally. But these statistics, in combination with a tendency for optimism bias spells disaster for virus management. Since people do not feel endangered by the virus, it has stopped being a major talking point.

A study conducted in the US points out that the media is still giving the virus much attention — as it did when cases spiked over the summer. But audience engagement is the lowest it has ever been. In India, the media is rather divided on political lines, and a majority of pro-government channels run COVID news that is favourable to the government. Thus, news about rising numbers and dangers of the virus is limited, since it portrays the government in an unfavourable light. Additionally, as the above-mentioned study finds, people are experiencing an information overload and consequently, fatigue. This fatigue leads people to reduce their news consumption, especially upsetting news. Thus while media coverage might be high, people actively avoid interacting with this information to protect themselves.

Media trends have historically shown how crises leave the news cycle. Wars and pandemics and disaster management and mitigation, in general, are threatening events for a standing government. If they fail at handling these properly, they face the threat of being replaced. In order to avoid this, governments have pressured journalists and media groups historically, to run propaganda they see fit. An article on The Nation mentions how the Irish government forced and threatened newspapers to stop running news about the polio epidemic in the 1950s, even when it was at its highest. They instead claimed false victories and undermined the scale of the virus to save face and calm justified public panic. While this had the unintended consequence of increased unrest and disbelief of the government, this strategy continues to date. Donald Trump recently used conservative American media to propagate his victories of having controlled the virus and ended the crises, even when evidence overwhelmingly suggests otherwise. Thus, the media is unfortunately highly susceptible to government control. In COVID times, we have seen leaders from Modi to Trump claiming falsehoods and wrongful victories. Most news publications either voluntarily or by force run this propaganda. Thus, we have seen a rapid decrease in discussions around this virus.

Lastly, this year has been a never-ending downward spiral. One outlet says of the 2020 news cycle, ‘We’re drinking out of a fire hose every night.’ There hasn’t been a slow night, with some days having multiple headline stories simultaneously. Even when COVID has dominated our lives, there hasn’t been a dearth of other major events, like the Anti-CAA protests, riots in North Delhi, Bihar elections, US elections, Bollywood drug busts to name a few. Many of these, like the now-debunked drug scandal, have been used by the media to divert our attention from COVID. And even when they weren’t actively used for these purposes, many of these events were worthy of our attention. COVID coverage got lost in this tsunami of news, and we were too busy trying not to drown to stop and filter out what was important.

Isha is a student of Psychology, English and Media Studies at Ashoka University.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis). 

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Issue 5

Family Law: UAE’s New Marketing Strategy

‘Progressive’ isn’t the first word that comes to mind when speaking about the middle east. But the recent changes made in the UAE family laws, shows that the country is adapting to norms of the 21st century. The recent changes to the UAE family law addresses divorce, inheritance, cohabitation, alcohol and harassment. 

The UAE has been a champion of globalisation, attracting foreign direct investments and hosting people from over 200 nationalities. Almost 90% of the Emirates’ population are foreigners. This mixed population includes low-paid laborers from South Asia, and professionals from the United States, Europe and other countries. This diversity of culture and religion has been in conflict with the country’s laws that are heavily based on Shariah law.

The changes in family law will be significant in ensuring that UAE continues to be a destination for foreign direct investment and people from around the world. 

UAE divorce law now states that couples who were married in their home country but want to get a divorce in the UAE would be allowed to deal with the divorce in accordance to the laws of the country where the marriage took place. Additionally instead of having assets divided by Sharia law, the law of a person’s citizenship will determine how assets would be divided, unless there is a written will. 

Cohabitation of unmarried couples has been legalised for the first time in the UAE. It was initially illegal for an unmarried couple, or even unrelated individuals to share a home in the UAE. 

Drinking alcoholic beverages for those older than 21 years has been decriminalised. The penalties for the sale and possession of alcohol without a license in authorised areas has been removed. Muslims who initially were not allowed to procure alcohol licences are allowed to drink alcoholic beverages.

The new laws decriminalise suicide and attempted suicide. Police are now supposed to provide vulnerable individuals mental health support. Assisting a person in attempting suicide, remains a crime and can carry an unspecified jail sentence.

Men could initially get away with assault and abuse of women that brought “dishonour” to the family by disobeying religious scriptures or promiscuity. Such acts of assault and abuse will now be treated like any other crime, with no special privilege. 

Additionally the law calls for stricter punishments for men who subject women to harassment, including stalking and cat calling. The punishment for the rape of a minor or a mentally challenged individual will be execution.

The UAE has become a hub for foreign investments and has also grown to house individuals from various nations that contribute heavily to their economy. The country has been trying to make its mark on the international community as an economic centre, and the easing of family laws to accommodate people of various nationalities is a move that is bound to help the country achieve its economic goals. 

The new laws can also be looked at as a step to improve the country’s image ahead of Expo 2020, which was scheduled to be held in Dubai during the month of October but has now been postponed until next year because of the coronavirus pandemic. The UAE also normalised its relationationship with Israel, and is hoping to host Israeli investors at the Expo.

The world has been dealing with internalisation and a globalisation backlash, this change in family law brings new hope to those that champion globalisation. While countries like the USA and Britain who initially preached globalisation are strengthening immigration policies and are taking measures to internalise the economy – the UAE is taking measures to give non-Emiratis better representation. The UAE has now developed the most diverse economy in the Gulf, and measures such as this can ensure that it holds its status.

Karantaj Singh finished his undergraduate in History and International Relations. He is now pursuing a minor in Media Studies and Politics during his time at the Ashoka Scholars Programme. He enjoys gaming and comics in his free time.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).