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Refuting the Myth of Progressive Secularism: An Analysis of the Legal Frameworks Surrounding Religious Practice in France and Bahrain

Bridget McDonald

This paper explores the idea that a secular state is inherently more progressive than a religious nation (a country with a designated state religion). Looking through the lens of  freedom of religious expression, I argue that having a secular clause in a country’s constitution does not necessitate a higher degree of religious freedom. Decades of Western discourse linking secularism to modernization has created the notion that religious countries cannot foster free and prosperous societies to the level of secular nations. To refute this view, this paper builds on Talal Asad’s critiques of the contemporary secular model as Eurocentric. Additionally, I expand on the policy overlap discussed in John Bowen’s article comparing the French and Indonesian judicial systems. I employ a comparative case study model to evaluate the legal frameworks surrounding religious practice in France (a secular state) and Bahrain (a Muslim state). Findings indicate that although the two countries differ in terms of religion’s place in government, significant overlap exists between their laws impacting religious practice. I argue that in certain cases, Bahrain exhibits a higher degree of tolerance for religious expression than France. I conclude that religious states can value religious identity more than a secular country, therefore enabling select religious nations to foster religious freedom to equal or higher levels than their secular counterparts. However, more comparative research needs to be done to fully evaluate the dimensions of religious freedom in secular and religious countries. 

  1. Introduction

In the 2022 French presidential elections, news coverage of far-right candidate Marine Le Pen’s outlined platform – titled 22 Measures for 2022 – highlighted the second goal on her list: “Eradicate Islamist ideologies and all of their national territory networks.” Le Pen closely tied this sentiment to laïcité (secularism), a French value developed during the Revolution that established the foundation for a formal separation of church and state. Le Pen’s rhetoric has brought forth discussion on the role of secularism in the government and the impact of secular policies on the French Muslim community (Ataman, 2022). Though initially a primarily Western ideology, a clause pertaining to secularism now appears in 71 countries’ constitutions (World Population Review, 2022). These nations, referred to as constitutionally secular countries, are typically associated with higher GDP (Ruck, Bentley & Lawson, 2018), more socially progressive policies, and increased freedom. However, the recent ban on burqas and niqabs in secular countries has brought into question the progressive nature of secularism. France, Switzerland, Belgium, and Bulgaria have fully banned burqas, while various other European countries have banned the burqa to differing degrees. This trend, which has been criticized for discriminating against Muslims, demonstrates the complicated relationship between secularism and minority religious groups. 

France, the first European country to ban the burqa via a law prohibiting facial coverings (Erlanger, 2011), has taken further steps to target the Muslim community, including fining women for wearing a “burkini”– a full body swimsuit for Muslim women, that, unlike a burqa, does not have a facial covering (The Guardian, 2016). Labeled as a tactic to fight extremism, the burqa ban is one of many laws regulating Muslim practices and expressions of Muslim identity, such as pressuring imams to sign a charter of republican values (Williamson, 2020). The targeting of the Muslim community in France challenges the idea that secularism entails socially progressive policies. If secularism suppresses religious freedom, then perhaps it is not as progressive as many Westerners believe.  

This paper seeks to refute the idea that a secular country is inherently more progressive than a religious nation. I will evaluate the legal frameworks of a secular state and a religious state, focusing specifically on areas of law that impact religious expression. This study will center on France, a vocal supporter of secular values, and Bahrain, a Muslim state that has placed emphasis on improving religious freedom over the past decade. Ultimately, this paper argues that the inclusion of a secular clause in a nation's constitution does not necessitate a higher degree of religious freedom. 

  1. Theoretical Framework

In 1870, the term “secularism” was coined by British writer George Holyoake to describe a moral code that exists independently from religious doctrine. Today, secularism is defined as “the principle of separation of the state from religious institutions” (Oxford Languages), though the degree to which secular countries separate church and state varies widely. For example, while Indonesia is constitutionally secular, the Aceh region of the country is under Sharia law. The discrepancies in how secularism manifests in countries’ legal structures necessitates further exploration on how secularism has historically been conceptualized and defined.  

Though many scholars have addressed secularism, much of the discourse has been from a Western perspective, which led to significant bias in early secular theory. Max Weber and Emile Durkheim’s work hypothesized that secularism and modernity were tied (Cannell, 2010); the authors identified the decline of traditional religious belief in Europe as the result of technological advancements and economic growth. One notable criticism of this theory came from Talcott Parsons, who claimed that the patterns of religious participation in Europe should not serve as an indicator for global secular trends (Cannell, 2010). Parsons further argued that Weber’s essay, The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, exhibited a Eurocentric perspective (Cannell, 2010). Additionally, Protestant Ethic displayed sentiments of Western supremacy and presented capitalism as the ultimate economic system (Weber, 1905). Peter Berger is another critic of the theory that secularism is connected to modernization. He argued that traditional religious beliefs were not being abandoned and were instead evolving, and cited the development and upsurge of evangelism in the United States as evidence (Berger, 1999). Despite criticism, however, Weber and Durkheim’s theory remained prevalent for several decades (Cannell, 2010). This skewed academic perceptions of secularism and linked the concept to a Western and capitalist definition of progress. 

The absence of an internationally accepted definition of secularism, and varying religious, social, and governmental structures across the world further complicate how secularism is defined. However, newer discourse on secularism has reflected a more comprehensive view of the concept. In his 2003 book, Formations of the Secular, Talal Asad posited that the Western perception of secularism as progressive is inaccurate and underscored the Western European origins of contemporary secularism. Asad emphasized that liberal secularism should not apply to all societies and that it allows for the prohibition of certain religious practices; this paper adopts Asad’s stance and argues that the prohibition of religious practices legitimizes discriminatory policies. Further, Asad states that “the ideology of political representation in liberal democracies makes it difficult if not impossible to represent Muslims as Muslims … Because in theory the citizens who constitute a democratic state belong to a class that is defined only by what is common to all its members and its members only.” Using this lens, this paper asserts that French laws limiting religious practice in the public sphere further isolate religious minority groups. Asad’s contributions to secular discourse and his discussion on belonging and identity in a liberal democratic state lead to the question of whether constitutional secularism offers a higher degree of religious tolerance within a country when compared to a nation that has an established state religion. Through the collection and analysis of laws impacting religious practice in France and Bahrain, this paper seeks to support Asad’s conclusions and determine the degree to which constitutionally secular nations are able to promote religious freedom.

Although previous comparative case studies on secular and Muslim countries are extremely limited, John Bowen’s article, Religious Discrimination and Religious Governance Across Secular and Islamic Countries: France and Indonesia as Limiting Cases (2010) offers a selection of preliminary findings and sheds light on areas in need of additional study. In the article, Bowen concluded that there is notable overlap in policy between France and Indonesia. Bowen argued that despite having different governmental structures and views on religion’s place in the public sphere, similar policies appeared in both countries. Additionally, Bowen called for further comparative study on the scope of this phenomenon to expand upon his research into other aspects and applications of secular policy. Building on observations on policy overlap between France and Indonesia, this paper explores the similarities and differences between France’s religious policies and those of Bahrain – a Muslim state. This comparison provides further insight into the legitimacy of the theory that secularism fosters higher levels of religious freedom.   

A. Measuring Religious Freedom

The United Nations guarantees religious freedom in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), and the Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief. The UDHR and ICCPR incorporate a number of components into their definition of religious freedom: the freedom to adopt, change, or renounce a religion, freedom from coercion, the right to manifest one’s religion, the freedom to worship, the ability to establish and maintain places of worship, the right to display religious symbols, the ability to observe holidays, and protection from discrimination on the basis of religion. While there is no single, defined approach to measuring religious freedom, the definition provided by the UDHR and ICCPR allows for guidance in evaluation. Additionally, multiple non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have used different metrics to measure religious freedom, which, when combined with international standards for defining religious freedom, aid in understanding how to accurately assess the subject. For example, the Pew Research Center (PRC) measures religious freedom by analyzing both social and governmental restrictions on religious action (2016). Since constitutional secularism exists within the confines of state law, this paper focuses solely on governmental policies surrounding religious expression. The social perception of other religions and religious freedom, while important, does not relate directly to the argument and would be best analyzed in further studies. A second way of measuring religious freedom is through the framework used in Freedom House’s annual freedom reports, which ranks countries on a scale of 1 to 4 (1 being the lowest possible score) in a number of categories, including freedom of religious expression. In its 2020 reports, Freedom House asks, “Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?” to determine the level of religious freedom in a country. This paper uses this question, the presence of governmental restriction on religious action (as outlined by the PRC), and the components of religious freedom listed by the UDHR and the ICCPR as a definition of what religious freedom looks like in practice and utilizes the definition for legal analysis. 

Though there are many laws governing religion in France and Bahrain, this paper focuses on laws that directly impact religious practice. The paper highlights seven categories of law as markers of religious freedom. The groups of law reflect a combination of the approaches used by the Pew Research Center and Freedom House, as well as relevant components of the UDHR and ICCPR’s definition of religious freedom; each section examines an aspect of government restriction imposed on free religious practice (apart from Constitutional Status, which offers critical context on the legal setting in the countries), and categories selected answer whether individuals are free to practice in public and private.

III. Background

France’s deeply entrenched notion of laïcité, which allows for extreme criticism of religion in the public sphere, is contrasted by Bahrain’s stringent anti-blasphemy policies that protect all registered religions from criticism. Each of these ideologies is rooted in the history and culture of the two nations. This difference in approaching public discourse is one of various examples where France and Bahrain diverge in their policies surrounding religion. To understand policy-making relating to religious practice in France and Bahrain, it is necessary to establish baseline knowledge on the histories of the nations. 

A. France

Religious History and Laïcité Before the French Revolution, Catholicism was the official religion of France. The conversion of Clovis I in the late 400s tied France to the papacy, and later monarchs enjoyed close relations with the Church. Hundreds of years of Catholic influence on the French monarchy and corruption within both institutions contributed to growing resentment towards the Church, which peaked during the early stages of the French Revolution and subsequent Reign of Terror. Demands for a secular government were followed by the persecution and murder of Catholic clergy members in the late 1700s. Though Napoleon Bonaparte reconciled with the Catholic Church in 1801, France did not reinstate Catholicism as the national religion. Over the next century, France continued to dechristianize the public sphere, culminating in the Loi du 9 décembre 1905 concernant la séparation des Églises et de l'État (1905 law on the separation of churches and state).  

Since the Revolution, France has developed a unique brand of secularism, laïcité, that goes beyond the separation of church and state, arguing that religious expression should remain outside the view of the public eye. This ideology has manifested itself in laws that prohibit the wearing of religious symbols in public schools and ban face coverings. The concept of laïcité has changed, however, since its original conception. As discussed by Eoin Daly (2012), secularism has moved beyond separating church and state and now acts as a justification to move differing religious identities into a private sphere and promote a French identity embedded in shared national values. A 2020 report by the French government offered clarification on the country’s reasoning surrounding laïcité: 

The freedom to express one’s religious convictions can be limited for the sake of public order, under conditions defined by the law. Freedom must, however, always be the rule, and the limitations the exception, in view of the constitutional principles enshrined in our Republic and France’s international commitments, with which such legal restrictions must be compatible.

An additional outcome of laïcité is the prohibition of data collection pertaining to religious affiliation; this policy makes it somewhat difficult to gain a holistic picture of France’s religious landscape. The Religious Futures Project at the Pew Research Center (2016) estimates that 58.1% of the population is Christian, 8.3% is Muslim, and 31.9% is unaffiliated as of 2020. Notable trends include growth in France’s Muslim population (due to increased immigration from former French colonies in Africa), a consistent decrease in people identifying as Catholic, and increased growth in those identifying as unaffiliated. Of the 12 national holidays in France, 7 celebrate Catholic events, which seemingly contradicts France’s strict separation of national and religious affairs. France is currently scored as 3 out of 4 on freedom of religious expression by Freedom House (2020).  

Recent Events and Political Climate Law surrounding religious practice in France has been heavily influenced by numerous terrorist attacks over the past decades. During the 1980s and 90s, France saw various attacks by numerous groups: Hezbollah, an integrist Catholic group, the Armed Islamist Group, and other non-religious groups like Action Directe (Shapiro & Suzan, 2003). The 2000s brought more deadly attacks, the majority of which had connections to Islamist groups. Following a series of bombings, shootings, and stabbings by various Islamist groups in 2014 and 2015, France enacted laws increasing government surveillance (Law Nº 2669, 2015) and anti-terrorism efforts (Law Nº 1353, 2014). Terrorist attacks led to a renewed emphasis on laïcité in the political sphere. Far-right isolationist parties led by politicians like Marine Le Pen incorporated anti-Muslim messaging in their campaigns, promising French voters safety from radical Islam (Fieschi, 2020). In this climate of frequent terror attacks and the rise of far-right parties, France created and amended legislation surrounding religious practice. 

B. Bahrain  

History Bahrain, located off the coast of Saudi Arabia, fell under the control of various empires before declaring independence from the British in 1971 (Gardner, 2017). Known for its pearl beds and freshwater springs, the island was seen as highly desirable by political entities. This caused numerous changes in leadership. From the 1400-1800s, the territory of Bahrain was controlled by the Omanis, Portugal, Persia, the ‘Utub (a Sunni tribal confederation), and the United Kingdom (Gardner, 2017). Throughout the centuries of changing leadership, Bahrain developed a diverse population. The pearl trade brought merchants from all over the world, and the territory was exposed to many ideologies, religions, and cultures as a result of the various empires that had taken control of the island. Though small populations of Jewish, Hindu, and Christian people have lived in Bahrain over past centuries, Islam has been the predominant religion since its introduction to the indigenous population in the 640s (Gardner, 2017). The majority of Muslim Bahraini people identify as Shi’a. However, a smaller Sunni elite has ruled the country since the arrival of the Sunni al-Khalifa family, who came with the ‘Utub. Bahrain was declared a monarchy in 2002, headed by King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who remains in power today. According to the Religious Futures Project at the Pew Research Center (2016), 69.7% of the population is Muslim, and within that group, roughly 60% is Shi’a and 35-40% is Sunni; 14.1% of the population is Christian, 10.2% is Hindu, and 2% is unaffiliated as of 2020. Bahrain is currently scored as 1 out of 4 on freedom of religious expression by Freedom House (2020). 

Recent Events and Political Climate In 2011, Bahrain served as a starting point for the Arab Spring in the Gulf countries. The country saw massive protests from the Shi’a community, who decried unfair treatment by the Sunni government. The government reacted by killing and arresting protestors, destroying Shi’a mosques, and dismantling the traffic circle that had served as the uprising’s epicenter. Following condemnation by the international community and human rights organizations, King Hamad launched an investigation and resolved to enforce policies to improve tensions between the Shi’a and Sunni groups (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom Report on Bahrain, 2020). While the initial success of these policies was contested, the government has taken significant steps in the past decade to ameliorate the state of religious freedom in Bahrain (USCIRF, 2020). The government, which had rescinded the citizenships of 1000 Bahrainis (most of whom were Shi’a) due to alleged security threats, reinstated over half of their citizenships in 2020 (USCIRF, 2020). While typically met with government hostility, the Shi'a holiday Ashura remained largely peaceful in 2020 and 2021; discourse concerning Ashura between the Sunni government and Shi’a clerics has eased tensions between the parties to allow for the celebration of the holiday. However, despite improvement, tensions remain between the Sunni and Shi’a communities. In terms of relations with non-Muslim groups, the Bahraini government is notably tolerant of other religions. There are 19 recognized religions in the country, all of which are able to practice their respective beliefs freely.   

IV. Methodology

A. Overview

This study aimed to determine whether the legal framework of a secular state fosters higher degrees of religious freedom than that of a religious state. This paper uses a comparative case study approach to ensure a balanced review of France’s domestic policy concerning religious practice. Further, the comparative case study model offers critical insight into the caveats of secular policy when implemented on a national scale. Bahrain was chosen as a comparative subject because it is a Muslim state in which members of various other religious groups reside. The primary goal of data collection was to gain a deeper understanding of the laws impacting religious practice in both countries. To effectively compare the two countries, specific areas of policy were chosen (listed in Table I) following the combined framework of Freedom House and the Pew Research Center described in the Theoretical Framework section. Primary qualitative data concerning policy was taken from law databases published by the French government. Secondary qualitative data was extracted from reports on Bahrain and France by the United States Commission for Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the United States embassy, and Freedom House country reports. The search process yielded a number of pertinent laws surrounding religious practices in France and Bahrain. 

B. Comparing Policy on Domestic Religious Practice 

Information on France’s laws was sourced from the government. Translations were provided by the author unless indicated otherwise. The United States State Department reports informed general knowledge on the legal framework surrounding religious practice. Due to the general inaccessibility of translated laws from a Bahraini government source, information about religious laws in Bahrain was obtained from United States government reports. Recognizing the potential bias of the United States government, only objective data (such as the description of laws) was used in this paper. Areas of crucial law were chosen after general study on legal frameworks surrounding religious practice; the categories of policy listed in Table I were selected because they represent the most direct interaction between the government and religious groups and reflect international standards for religious freedom as expressed by UDHR and ICCPR documents. 

It was imperative that both countries had laws falling under each assigned category, otherwise, policies could not be compared. Laws were evaluated based on the level to which they promoted or inhibited freedom of religious expression, and a compare and contrast approach was used, reflecting the style of Bowen. Larger implications and enforcement of the laws were not considered, as the repercussions of policy were too far-reaching to effectively encompass in this comparative case study. Instead, analysis of laws consisted of identifying common themes and key similarities and differences between the legal frameworks of France and Bahrain. Other peripheral areas of law could be colored by religious or secular ideologies, such as marriage laws. However, to keep the scope of this study appropriately narrow, peripheral policies were not considered.  

V. Results: Analysis of Legal Frameworks of France and Bahrain

A. Constitutional Status

The constitutional statutes of France and Bahrain are, as discussed earlier, on opposite sides of the ideological spectrum. These religious designations are detailed below for context. 

(i) France

Article 1 of the French constitution states “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic.” 

(ii) Bahrain

Article 2 of the Bahraini constitution states “The religion of the State is Islam. The Islamic Shari’a is a principal source for legislation.”

B. Anti-Discrimination Laws (In Reference to Religion)

Both France and Bahrain have clauses in their constitutions prohibiting discrimination against others on the basis of faith. Beyond their respective constitutions, both countries have enacted laws forbidding hiring and workplace discrimination in relation to religious affiliations, as listed below. 

(i) France

[The internal regulation] may not contain provisions which would prejudice the employees because of their sex, morals, sexual orientation, age, family situation, origins, opinions, religious beliefs, physical appearance, name, or disability, when they have equal professional capacity capability (L. 122-35, 2008). 

(ii) Bahrain

The labor law prohibits discrimination in the public sector on grounds of religion or faith.  The law also stipulates recourse through a complaint process to the Ministry of Labor and Social Development to legal bodies in the event of discrimination or dismissal in the work place on the basis of religion (U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, Bahrain, 2019).

Analysis — The anti-discrimination clauses in both the countries’ constitutions have been further developed into active laws. The overlap of anti-discrimination policy in France and Bahrain shows that, in this case, a secular country and a religious state are able to promote religious freedom in the same capacity.  

C. Registration with the Government and Government Funding

Both the French and Bahraini governments have registration processes in place for religious organizations. Recognition of a religious group by the respective governments allows for financial support, whether that comes in the form of subsidization or tax-exempt status. As government registration is tied to financial support in each country, the process allows the state to maintain relative control over the religious makeup of the nation; this is achieved to varying degrees in accordance with the requirements of the law. 

(i) France 

According to the 2019 USCIRF report on France:

In France, religions are not required to register with the government. However, in order to receive official recognition, tax-exempt status or financial aid, religious groups must go through a number of processes. To receive tax-exempt status and official recognition as a religion, groups must apply as associations of worship, and to receive government funding, groups can apply as cultural associations. Religious organizations are able to qualify as both an association of worship and a cultural association, thus receiving tax-exempt status and government funding. It should be noted, however, that government funding is permitted only to go towards non-religious activities hosted by a religious group, such as educational programming. 

Despite Article 2 of the Law of 1905 Concerning the Separation of Church and State stating “The Republic does not recognize, pay or subsidize any religion”, the French government owns and operates religious buildings built before 1905. Approximately 90% of Catholic buildings in France are subsidized by the government, while 12% of Protestant churches and 3% of Jewish temples are subsidized as a result of the law. There are no Buddhist or Muslim centers of worship subsidized by the government (French Senate report, 2015).  

(ii) Bahrain

According to the 2019 USCIRF report on Bahrain:

Bahrain’s government requires that religions register in accordance with their faith. Sunni and Shi’a organizations register with the Ministry of Justice and Islamic Affairs and Endowments and register further with the Sunni and Shi’a Waqfs to receive funding. Non-Muslim groups must register with the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, during which they must provide a number of details (including minutes from meetings, personal information on founders and the group’s bylaws). Religious groups (Muslim and non-Muslim) are not allowed to receive funding from foreign donors, and money collection is monitored by the government. 

Analysis Bahrain’s laws surrounding the funding of religious groups and registration with the government are more stringent than France’s. However, while France does not require registration, restrictions from funding and tax-exempt status for non-registered groups act as significant incentives in pushing organizations to submit an application to the government. In both cases, the government seeks access to information on religious groups, though Bahrain attempts to monitor activities to a more extreme extent than France. While this does not necessarily infringe on the status of religious freedom, the laws in both countries allow significant room for discriminatory funding. An example of this was displayed in a 2015 French Senate report that noted the vast majority of France’s 2,500 mosques receive little to no public funding while Catholic institutions are almost entirely subsidized, but pointed to Muslims’ inability to organize and register with the government as the reason for funding inequality (2015 French Senate report, 23). As this claim is difficult to quantifiably prove, it allowed the government plausible deniability on the lack of funding for Muslim organizations. In Bahrain, disproportionate funding for Muslim organizations is enshrined in the country’s laws. While France’s legal framework surrounding registration is not as strict as Bahrain’s in this case, policies in both countries enable an unequal distribution of funding. 

D. Religion in the Public Sphere: Freedom of Speech and Religious Symbols

The French and Bahraini approaches to religion in the public sphere offer vastly different interpretations of the promotion of religious freedom. Nevertheless, both countries are stringent in their application of the law. 

(i) France

France has various laws protecting freedom of speech. In reference to religion, Article 10 of the 1789 Declaration of Human and Civic Rights states that “no one may be disturbed on account of his opinions, even religious ones, as long as the manifestation of such opinions does not interfere with the established Law and Order.” 

According to the 2019 USCIRF France report:

In accordance with secular law, people employed by the government are not allowed to wear signs of religious affiliation in the workplace or in public spaces. A 2010 law prohibits face coverings in public places, including the wearing of a niqab or burqa; refusing to remove the face covering can result in a 150 euro fine.  


Bahrain has anti-blasphemy laws that apply to all religions. 

The penal code calls for punishment of up to one year’s imprisonment or a fine of up to 100 dinars ($270) for offending one of the recognized religious groups or their practices, or for openly defaming a religious figure considered sacred to members of a particular group. The law stipulates fines or imprisonment for insulting an institution, announcing false or malicious news, spreading rumors, encouraging others to show contempt for a different religious denomination or sect, illegally gathering, and advocating for a change of government, among other offenses. The law prohibits anti-Islamic publications and broadcast media programs and mandates imprisonment of no less than six months for ‘exposing the state’s official religion to offense and criticism (USCIRF, Bahrain, 2019).

Non-Muslims are not required to wear traditional Muslim clothing. The law allows non-Muslim places of worship to display religious symbols. 

Analysis In summary, French law allows for extensive freedom of speech in reference to religion while Bahrain maintains strict laws on speech in reference to religion. Both of these policies purport to uphold religious equality; in France, one may critique any religion, while in Bahrain there is no tolerance for criticism of any religion. These laws are a clear example of where France and Bahrain diverge ideologically, but the difference in approach does not mean one policy is more effective than the other in promoting equal access to religious expression. In France, varying definitions of hate speech and the government’s high tolerance for criticism of religion can be exploited to target minority religions. In Bahrain, anti-blasphemy laws protect all religious groups from hate speech, but policy blatantly favors the interests of Muslim groups. While the laws in France and Bahrain are opposites in intention, they both result in bias towards the dominant religious group. 

When comparing the two countries, Bahrain allows for more freedom in expressing religious affiliation in public spaces. French laws prohibiting face coverings directly infringe on Muslim women’s abilities to fulfill religious duties, and the ban of ostentatious religious symbols in public settings does not allow citizens to express their religion freely. Religious dress is a significant aspect of many traditions, including Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. The prohibition of wearing religious garments violates an adherent’s beliefs and negates religious freedom. Bahrain does not have specific laws regarding religious dress, though it should be noted that societal norms dictate a culture of modesty. That being said, as this paper is reviewing formal law, Bahrain is significantly less stringent in the ruling of religious dress from a policy perspective. 

E. Religion in Education

(i) France

France’s attempts to keep religion out of the public sphere are clearly reflected in policies surrounding religion in the public school system. 

Public schools are secular. The law prohibits public school employees from wearing visible signs of religious affiliation and students from wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish skullcap, Sikh turban, and large Christian crosses (USCIRF, France, 2019).

In terms of private education: 

By law, the government subsidizes private schools, including those affiliated with religious organizations. In 98 percent of private schools, in accordance with the law, the government pays the teachers’ salaries, provided the school accepts all children regardless of their religious affiliation. The law does not address the issue of religious instruction in government-subsidized private schools or whether students must be allowed to opt out of such instruction (USCIRF, France, 2019).

(ii) Bahrain

Because Bahrain is a Muslim state, religious instruction is heavily incorporated in the school system. 

The law regulates Islamic religious instruction at all levels of the education system. The government funds public schools for grades 1-12; Islamic studies are mandatory for all Muslim students and are optional for non-Muslims. Private schools must register with the government and, with a few exceptions (for example, a foreign funded and foreign operated school), are also required to provide Islamic religious education for Muslim students. Private schools wishing to provide non-Islamic religious education to non-Muslims must receive permission from the Ministry of Education (USCIRF, Bahrain, 2019).

In terms of private education:

The government also permits non-Muslim groups to offer religious instruction to their adherents in private schools (USCIRF, Bahrain, 2019).

Analysis While France maintains secularism within the educational system, the banning of religious symbols in schools infringes on religious freedom. As addressed earlier, the prohibition of religious garb violates the ability of an individual to freely practice their belief. Although Bahrain emphasizes Islam in education, the ability for non-Muslim students to opt out maintains religious freedom. Therefore, Bahrain allows for a higher degree of religious expression within the education system. 

F. Anti-Terrorism Policy

The other sections of law described above have direct influence on the ability of religious adherents to practice their belief in the public and private spheres. Though anti-terrorism policy may not initially appear as an area of law that has an impact on religious freedom, both France and Bahrain have employed discriminatory practices labeled as tactics to fight extremism. 

(i) France 

The French perception of religion’s ties to terrorism is demonstrated by legislation that specifically targets religious institutions.    

Counterterrorism legislation grants prefects in each department the authority to close a place of worship for a maximum of six months if they find comments, writings, or activities in the place of worship “provoke violence, hatred or discrimination or the commission of acts of terrorism or praise such acts of terrorism.” The management of the place of worship has 48 hours to appeal the closure decision to an administrative court. Noncompliance with a closure decision carries a six-month prison sentence and a fine of 7,500 euros ($8,400) (USCIRF, France, 2019).

In March 2021, a bill aimed at combating radicalism and separatism (titled Supporting Respect for the Principles of the Republic) was passed through the lower house of Parliament and went to the Senate. On April 13th, 2021, the Senate added stipulations to the bill that were viewed as harsher than the initial proposals (Woods, 2021). The original bill would, among other things, restrict people from home-schooling their children, crack down on polygamy and forced marriages, and make the sharing of someone’s private life and location illegal (N° 3649 rectifié, 2021). Excerpts from the edited bill are detailed below:

If passed, the bill would, among other things, prohibit the wearing of the veil and other ostentatious religious symbols to persons accompanying school trips, allow the internal regulations of swimming pools and public bathing areas to prohibit the wearing of the burkini, and prevent the issuance and renewal of residence permits for individuals who are found to have expressed a rejection of the principles of the Republic (Loi confortant le respect des principes de la République, 2021).

(ii) Bahrain

There are penalties of up to five years in prison for encouraging or possessing materials that support “terrorist activities.” Bahrain imposed one round of sanctions against individuals and entities affiliated with the Iranian regime’s terror-support networks in the region. The government is also able to expel individuals who are suspected of terrorist activity (U.S. State Department, Report on Terrorism, Bahrain, 2019).

In terms of reconciliation efforts between the Sunni and Shi’a communities:

In coordination with the Supreme Council for Islamic Affairs, a team of Ministry of Education-appointed experts routinely reviews and develops the Islamic studies of the public school curriculum to emphasize shared Islamic values between different Sunni and Shi’a schools of thought, reject extremism, and promote tolerance and coexistence (USCIRF, Bahrain, 2019).

Analysis In both countries, many of the laws surrounding anti-terrorism efforts can be easily exploited to target specific groups of people. In France, the closing of worship centers has solely impacted mosques, while Bahrain’s expulsion policy has primarily impacted leaders of the Shi’a community. France’s new bill comes on the heels of a speech by President Macron condemning separatism in the country. While the legislative language does not name any religion directly, the explanatory statement preceding the bill states the following: 

An insidious but powerful communitarian entryism is slowly destroying the foundations of our society in certain areas. This entryism is essentially of Islamist inspiration. It is the manifestation of a conscious, theorized, politico-religious political project, the ambition of which is to make religious norms prevail over the common law that we have freely given ourselves (Loi nº 3649, 2021).

Because the bill refers to Islamism as the reason for the legislation, much of the proposal is aimed directly at Muslim communities. The recently added stipulations show a harsher, more direct targeting of the Muslim community in France. Anti-terrorism policy in Bahrain targets members of the Shi’a community who are seen as causing separatism. This was prevalently displayed when the kingdom expelled a number of Shi’a individuals, who were eventually granted re-entry when no evidence of terrorist activity was found. In this sense, Bahrain and France are notably similar in their reasoning and justification for anti-extremist laws. 

VI. Discussion

The results support the argument that a constitutionally secular country does not necessarily foster a higher degree of religious freedom than a religious state. Despite being ideologically opposed in reference to religion in government, France and Bahrain share overlaps in policy, as seen in the Anti-Discrimination Laws, Registration with Government and Government Funding, and Anti-Terrorism Policy sections of the analysis. Beyond policies that target or disproportionately impact a specific religious group, France and Bahrain employ inclusive anti-discrimination laws in their labor codes. In this case, both countries pledge to condemn religious discrimination in the hiring process or workplace. The countries employ similar registration policies for religious groups, directly tying legal access to practice and tax incentives to cooperation with state entities. A third overlap is in anti-terrorism efforts, often labeled as anti-extremist policies. France and Bahrain have enacted a number of alarming anti-extremism laws, often using vague wording (such as “terrorist activities” or “rejection to the principles of the Republic”) that hand significant power to the government’s interpretations of actions or words; the wording of laws allows for exploitation of the policies to fulfill specific agendas, as seen by Bahrain’s expulsion of Shi’a individuals and French policymakers’ justification for the “Supporting Respect for the Principles of the Republic” bill. While not all of the measures taken to combat extremism negatively impact specific religious communities, both countries have used anti-terrorism policies to target religious groups perceived as threatening to the state. A clear demonstration of the negative impacts of legislative rhetoric is reflected in the interchangeability of anti-terrorist and anti-extremist policies; in both countries, the targeted religious groups have become synonymous with terrorism. The similarities in the justifications and immediate outcomes of laws surrounding religious practice in France and Bahrain aid in showing that the label of “constitutionally secular” does not equate to increased levels of religious freedom, as both states are equally capable of implementing policies that positively and negatively impact religious expression. 

In the sections Religion in Education and Religion in the Public Sphere, France and Bahrain display significant differences in approach. In both cases, Bahrain exhibited higher degrees of tolerance for religious practice in public and for minority religious groups in general. France’s policies on wearing ostentatious religious symbols in public spaces disproportionately impact the Muslim and Jewish communities, all of whom have integrated religious garb into their belief systems. Further, while Bahrain emphasizes Islam in education, the country allows for non-Muslim students to opt out of those classes and does not prohibit students from wearing alternative religious symbols. France has yet to create laws around the ability of students to opt out of religious instruction at private schools, despite most private schools being funded by the government. France’s integration of discriminatory secular policy into the public sphere and the education system strengthens the argument that states with official religions, like Bahrain, can allow for higher levels of religious freedom in some areas of society. A potential explanation for this is how France and Bahrain approach religious identity. At its core, France’s secular ideology attempts to ignore religious identity altogether. Nonetheless, the rise of radical Islam in the country, a Christian-majority population, and the dynamics between France and Muslim-majority former colonial countries led to the French Muslim community becoming an easily-targeted scapegoat. In Bahrain, however, the historical presence of non-Muslim religions and a national understanding of the importance of spiritual affiliation have allowed for a legal framework cognizant of religious identity. This is not to say that Bahrain has created the ideal legal structure, but instead that the recognition of religious affiliation’s significance allows for development in the realm of religious freedom. France has shown regression in freedom of religious expression where Bahrain has displayed consistent progress; this trend further supports the theory that some religious states are appropriately situated to cultivate a society that offers higher degrees of religious freedom.    

The findings of this paper are consistent with Asad’s theory on secularism’s potential to be discriminatory and builds on Bowen’s observations of the French and Indonesian judicial systems. As showcased by secular laws in France disproportionately targeting and impacting Muslim individuals, the label of laïcité creates a wall of Western liberal ideology for policymakers to hide behind. Bowen argues that France and Indonesia, despite opposing views on the role of religion in the judicial system, adopt very similar policy positions. Bowen’s focus on how each of the countries deals with religious discrimination in the courts yields primarily positive observations, and he notes that the foundations of both systems attempt to promote fairness and equality. Bowen’s findings differ from the analysis of laws in this paper, which is likely because this paper focused on policy reaching beyond anti-discrimination laws and did not note the outcomes in judicial proceedings concerning religious discrimination. Even with the differences in tone between Bowen’s findings and the analyses in this paper, the outcomes of the study are in alignment with Bowen’s conclusion; despite being on different ends of the ideological spectrum, a secular state and a religious state bear significant resemblance to each other in terms of the legal framework.  

A. Addressing Inconsistencies with Freedom House

The laws explored in this study paint a picture of France and Bahrain as both employing policies that negatively impact a specific religious group. In some instances, Bahrain displayed higher degrees of religious tolerance, despite the West’s view of secularism as more progressive. However, the findings of this paper are not reflected in Freedom House’s scoring of France and Bahrain on religious freedom in their respective 2020 reports. As discussed earlier, the NGO ranked France a 3 out of 4 and Bahrain a 1 out of 4 in response to the following question: “Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?” The laws discussed in the analysis portion of this paper display France’s various policies against public displays of religious affiliation; these laws blatantly interfere with expression of religious faith in public, implying that France should be scored lower than a 3 within the Freedom House framework. In the case of Bahrain, while there have been numerous infringements on religious freedom (specifically to target the Shi’a community), the report did not provide sufficient evidence to rank the country significantly below France. The report even notes that “non-Muslim minorities are generally free to practice their faiths.” Freedom House then discusses government discrimination against the Shi’a population by citing the events of the Arab Spring in 2011 (a reference that does not reflect the contemporary political atmosphere in Bahrain) and the arrest of Shi’a clerics accused of spreading messages of separatism. However, the report also states that “Shiite communities are free to carry out religious observances, such as the annual Ashura processions,” which exhibits a governmental commitment to religious freedom. Conversely, the 2020 French report describes current tensions saying, “Islamophobic rhetoric from prominent politicians and public figures on both the left and right is not uncommon. Multiple attacks at mosques throughout the country occurred in 2019.” After a review of the 2020 Freedom Reports for France and Bahrain, it appears that there is inconsistency in the way Freedom House scores religious freedom. While there are numerous valid criticisms of the state of religious freedom in both countries, Freedom House ignored many laws in both France and Bahrain when scoring, resulting in a potentially skewed and inaccurate representation of the legal frameworks that unjustifiably favors France. 

B. Limitations of Study

This was a limited case study, so these findings are merely a reflection of the laws and policies addressing religious practice in France and Bahrain. While the framework used in this study could be applied to comparing religious freedom in other nations, other cases were not considered in this paper. Further limitations include the scope of the study, which consisted of governmental restrictions and focused on legal frameworks but did not address political rhetoric involvement in international treaties or agreements, or relations with secular and religious states. Further, this paper did not consider societal restrictions, which include the presence of anti-religious attacks, non-governmental groups that target religious communities, online rhetoric, and general hostility towards certain religious groups. Studies that explore these factors are necessary to gain a holistic understanding of the differing degrees of religious freedom in secular and religious countries.     

VII. Conclusion

Comparing seven key areas of law within the French and Bahraini legal frameworks shows that there is significant overlap in legislation, intention, and policy outcomes. But how does this comparison link to the larger discussion around religious freedom and the validity of secularism? France, a country that prides itself on the value of laïcité, implements a number of discriminatory policies that predominantly impact Muslim citizens. In the public sphere, individuals who belong to faiths that utilize clothing as an expression of affiliation cannot practice their religions to the full extent. The idea of separating the religious self from the public self displays an understanding of religious belief as a secondary identity. For many, spiritual affiliation is a primary identity. Therefore, French laws surrounding religious practice are not applicable in a universal sense, nor do they foster a wide breadth of religious freedom for all faiths. Religious states, who are typically viewed as unable to foster high degrees of religious freedom, have equal opportunity to promote a religiously pluralistic society through legislation. While not all religious states choose to foster a space for minority religious groups, nations like Bahrain have made significant efforts to advance religious freedom. Though this study was limited to France and Bahrain, the countries are not outliers. While Bahrain deviates somewhat from other Gulf nations, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Oman, have legal frameworks in place to support spiritual pluralism and religious freedom. Other countries, such as Bhutan, Liechtenstein, Thailand, Andorra, and Brunei, are religious states viewed as fostering religious freedom. While there are religious states that suppress religious freedom, the analysis suggests that religious countries may be uniquely positioned to create legal frameworks inclusive of a population that views religious affiliation as a primary identity. Although Bahrain has not yet reached the point of fostering equal religious freedom for all groups, national policies show an understanding of the importance of ritual practice and religious identity. 

Beyond supporting the hypothesis, the findings of this paper suggest the need for a shift in thinking when evaluating secular and religious states. As displayed by the inconsistencies in scoring throughout the Freedom House annual reports on France and Bahrain, the West remains biased in favor of secular European systems of government. Moving forward, Western NGOs and government agencies should consider viewing religious affiliation as a primary identity when assessing legal frameworks and government policies instead of using a secular lens as the default perspective. Further research on the capacities of religious states to promote religious freedom is necessary to coherently refute the notion of inherently progressive secularism and change the Western interpretation of which ideologies possess the ability to foster a free and prosperous society.   


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