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Religious Liberty and the Rawlsian Idea of Legitimacy: The French Laïcité Project between Comprehensive and Political Liberalisms

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Kahn has argued that the French Laïcité project has degenerated, in some of its recent incarnations, into an illiberal public commitment to a ‘comprehensive’ doctrine of enlightened or emancipated autonomy. He suggests it can instead be conceived in a Rawlsian sense, a concept of right derived independently of ‘comprehensive’ conceptions of the good—thus, merely an institutional appendage to liberty of conscience, distinct from any deeper social goal. The attempt at separating out ‘political’ and ‘comprehensive’ secularisms is best viewed through the prism of the headscarved school-goer whom the liberal state deems unfree. Can such a state intervene to ensure the autonomy of its child-citizens with regard to comprehensive doctrines, or is this to impose a conception of the emancipated rational life, freely lived? Is this autonomy of conscience distinguishable from an idea of the good life, a merely ‘political’ guarantee of self-determination—or is this distinction even viable? The figure of the headscarved child-citizen ostensibly challenges the Rawlsian assumption that the state’s claim to neutrality between comprehensive doctrines can transcend or stand outside these doctrines, and represent anything other than an ends-oriented project of liberal emancipation. This arises because, on one view, the state must, in order to guarantee schoolchildren freedom to choose between ways of life, paradoxically first impose such a particular conception, of emancipation or rational autonomy. However, this article suggests that despite its ostensible allure, the dualism of ‘political’ and ‘comprehensive’ secularisms is not the best lens through which to critique the French Laïcité project.

Affiliations: 1: University College Cork Ireland

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