The Other Within: Can Muslims Be French?

BradleyCollege Papers, Graduate Work, History0 Comments

Is the Hijab French?

Whether or not Muslims can be accepted into European countries as more than just itinerant travelers, whether that is possible or even desirable, is a question that has been addressed by scholars, “talking heads,” politicians, and average citizens the world over. The situation of Muslims in European countries is difficult to generalize, because each country has its own specific set of circumstances that led to the addition of immigrant populations. However, this paper will analyze how Muslims have been presented in Europe generally and then focus more narrowly on the specific context of France, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population. This paper will cover Europeans’ conception of what Europe is, what an authentic European is, and the role that Islam plays in creating that image.

Additionally, I will argue that Muslims in Europe, and specifically in France, have been subjected to a type of criticism that implies that Muslims are a homogenous and mutually responsible group that is inherently violent, with Muslims in France being held to a standard that is unachievable in terms of becoming truly French. I will argue that Muslims in France are already French, addressing their issues from a position of wanting their rights to be observed, rather than requesting rights in the sense of the American Civil Rights movement. Additionally, I will argue that France’s particular system of government and conception of laïcité (a type of secularism) precludes the successful integration of minorities.

In a book section titled “Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?” written in 2002, Talal Asad analyzes the way that Europeans have traditionally understood Europe and what it means to be European in order to understand whether or not minorities can be successfully integrated. Asad belives that the modern discourse on European identity is concerned with exclusions and anxieties about non-Europeans and contains an implicit demand that the rest of the world recognize Europe based on its self-proclaimed identity.[1] In a sense, Europe is creating propaganda in order to shape world opinion about Europe’s role in world society. Asad begins his analysis by tracing the historical development of the concept of Europe to the Middle Ages, where Europe and Christendom were synonymous terms, often used in contradistinction to the Ottoman Empire, which was Islamic.

The idea of what Europe was, and is, inherently tied to religion and remains that way today, regardless of the new ascribed secular nature of states.[2] Asad develops this idea by noting that Balkan states who have populations that are indistinguishable from other white Europeans, that have secular political institutions and are geographically within Europe are still somehow not European. They can be in Europe, but not of Europe.[3]

Asad also introduces the idea of European civilization, which is based on the idea of a shared history that includes the Roman Empire, Christianity (as noted above), the Enlightenment, and industrialization.[4] The fact that Muslim immigrants have not shared in these experiences are what Asad believes creates a sense of Muslims not belonging in European society. This also disconnects the idea of Europe from a geographic space, explaining how it is possible to be in Europe but not to be of Europe. In other words, there is something essential to being European, but becoming fully European would require one to shed his or her own essential identity and replace it with a European one. If something is essential to one’s self, it is a defining factor in one’s identity. Can it be removed?

Asad builds on this understanding of essential qualities to argue that because assimilation requires the forfeiture of one’s self and the assumption of European identity, there is no place for minorities in Europe. An interesting quote found in Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship greatly illuminates this problem of secularism and personal identity. In her discussion on Muslim identity in France, the author, Jennifer Fredette, argues that “Karl Marx would tell us that pretending it is possible to separate the public from the private so neatly is secularism’s greatest conceit.”[5] Fredette is placing Muslim identity in Europe in perspective by first exploring the underpinnings of the modern conception of citizenship. She argues that it is impossible to separate the personal from the public, which agrees with Asad’s assessment of essential characteristics of people.[6]

What we are meant to understand from this is that one’s private beliefs and private nature influence our public behavior and the way we are perceived by others. In a secular state, there will still be some influence from privately held beliefs. This becomes important when one tries to understand why Muslims are considered unassimilable into European, and specifically French, societies. Secular, modern conceptions of citizenship in France are predicated on possessing a French passport and having some cultural attachment to the country, such as speaking French. The majority of Muslims in France, at this point, have never lived in another country. They were born in France, speak French as a first or only language, and have to search generations back into their ancestry to find a connection to immigration.[7] Some Muslims are converts and have no link to immigration, yet there is something about them nonetheless that causes them to be outside of the scope of French society. The qualifier has shifted from secular understandings of citizenship to personal beliefs, creating the idea of deserving and undeserving citizens.

Fredette situates her argument not in terms of whether Muslims can become French, but instead looks at why this question is being asked, how it affects Muslims in France and how they respond.[8] Fredette finds that most Muslims in France are, in their own understanding of themselves, integrated into French society. They identify as French and are capable of using the French political system, speaking French, and navigating French society. French Muslims’ complaints are not about receiving rights, in the sense of African Americans during the Civil Rights campaign, but rather are about having their rights respected. This is a nuanced but important difference. Muslims are demanding neutrality in law, in the sense of not having Islam be the focusing issue of political debates involving immigrants and descendants of immigrants. Muslims also demand recognition of the social abuses they suffer.[9]

Social abuses can elevate to an accepted discourse that becomes prevalent in society and creates a feeling of second-class citizenship. For example, a Muslim woman’s employer refers to all Muslim women as Fatima. Or, a Muslim woman helps an ethnically French woman lift her pram onto a bus and the bus driver closes the door on her, almost crushing the baby in the process, in order to slight her.[10] Fredette is drawing a distinction between integration and assimilation, as well as between political and social integration. She argues that it is possible to be integrated into a country politically and theoretically have equal protection under the law, but to be socially excluded based on personal beliefs in such a way that it undermines the conception of citizenship, leading to the previously mentioned discourse on deserving and undeserving citizens.[11] Fredette’s understanding of assimilation without integration builds on that presented by Sharif Gemie in French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France, where she defines integration as comprehending the manner in which society works, or the acquisition of that competence. She argues that this understanding avoids the ideological fog of ambiguous ideas revolving around values like “fair play,” “toleration,” “motherhood,” and “apple pie.”[12]

Understanding the way that discourse is produced and shaped in France is essential to understanding why Muslims feel socially marginalized. Fredette identifies three major groups as being responsible for producing and maintaining popular discourse in France: politicians, the media, and intellectuals, which she collectively refers to as the French elite. She argues that discourse production in France is unusually unified in that these groups of people are all from the same social strata, attend the same schools and share ideas with one another, creating a unified bloc of information producers.[13] The media are arguably the most important of these discourse producers, given their role in shaping and transmitting the messages of the other two groups to the public.

According to Fredette, today’s modern, elite conception of what it means to be a deserving French citizen involves the possession of five unique traits: complete liberality in sexual relations, refraining from references to religion in public and social affairs, an aversion to cultural pluralism (implying being strictly French in the full sense with no hyphenated identity), adhering to a theory of abstract individualism, and having an ancestral origin that is within the accepted boundaries of Europe.[14] This understanding of Frenchness is antithetical to minorities in general and Muslims in particular. There is no room for difference in this definition of being French. Because Catholicism is so ingrained in French culture, adherence to Islam in any shape or form is seen as cultural pluralism. Religiosity usually involves sexual restraint, which also infringes on the popular elite perception of fraternity, which has become inseparable from a notion of mixing of the sexes.[15]

Understanding the elite discourse on Muslims is important in understanding why they are thought to be unassimilable. In line with Talal Asad’s presentation of Muslims as existing outside of European civilization, the media has traditionally depicted Muslims as others, following a general pattern over time that shifted from a sensual, sexualized depiction of Muslims to one of Muslim fanaticism. In an article titled, “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11,” Malcom Brown shows that while there was an academically accepted paradigm shift centered on the events of September 11, 2001, there has always been a wide variety of media presentations of Muslims.[16] Tellingly, however, these media presentations have always shown Muslims as “others”, outside of French society.

Brown notes that despite France’s close proximity to Muslim societies, which would lead one to expect a degree of familiarity that would prevent Muslims from being portrayed as exotic, media representations tended to follow this stereotype well into the 1970s. This was presented in two ways: a portrayed exoticism of the senses and a need to explain the “strangeness” of Muslim culture.[17] During the 1970s and into the 1980s, the common discourse on Muslims in French media highlighted ethnicity and nationality, rather than religion, though Brown notes that a shift towards depictions of fanaticism was underway as a result of the 1973 Oil Crisis.[18]

Brown notes that there is a tendency towards reactionary reporting in the French media. When crimes occur that involve Muslims (and presumably other minorities), the articles produced by the media not only report the event, but take on airs of superiority that place these minorities on a lower run of the civilizational order, or in other words, outside of French society. An example is when a girl was made to swallow several litres of salt water as a supposed Islamic home remedy for epilepsy, causing her death. The event was reported as “causing death by torture and barbaric acts.”[19] The event might have been interpreted and reported very differently if it had been a death caused by a French home remedy. The perpetrators were also accused of multiculturalism, calling into question their Frenchness.

By 1989, media depictions of Muslims in France had shifted and began to associate Muslims with fanaticism. An example is a Le Nouvel Observateur article that juxtaposed an image of Khomeini’s funeral in Iran with the establishment of “Islamist” groups in France.[20] The formation of Islamic groups in France was questioned because they received support from foreign countries, again calling into question the national loyalties and Frenchness of the Muslims who benefited from these institutions. By the early 1990s, French media was emphasizing problems of “integration” of Muslims, linking these problems with “fanaticism” and “fundamentalism.” Muslims began to complain that they were represented in French media by an “Islamalgame” of “terrorist, Islamist, Muslim, North African, Arab and immigrant.”[21] Brown does not fully explain the reasoning behind why this shift occurred, but according to John Bowen, there was a spillover of violence from the civil war in Algeria during this time period.[22] As a result, Muslims’ Frenchness was again called into question.

Another issue that Muslims had to deal with was their status as residents of the banlieues, neighborhoods constructed in isolation by the French government. These neighborhoods were filled with immigrant, mostly Muslim and Arab residents, who had poor employment opportunities because of unequal access to education. Combined with a universal slump in the French economy after the boom years following World War II, they became centers of poverty, drugs, crime and violence. This situation was used to attribute blanket accusations that associated all Muslims with violence, drug dealing, racism, gender violence, and delinquency (unemployment), despite the fact that similar situations, especially of gender violence, were prevalent in other parts of France.[23] It is interesting to note that these accusations are extremely similar to current media debates about the status of African American neighborhoods in the United States, meaning that the problems presented by these neighborhoods are not inherent qualities of the residents. However, French media began to present these problems as universal. Journalists were sent out to gather sensationalist stories that exacerbated the negative image of Muslims in the media.[24]

The exceptional poverty that exists in these neighborhoods, combined with the social exclusion of Muslims mentioned by Fredette, created barriers to successful integration in French society. Moreover, the situation intensified feelings of isolation and oppression that led to riots in October and November of 2005. Rather than the media and, by extension, the rest of the French insular elite recognizing and acknowledging the real problems faced by Muslims in these neighborhoods, references were made to Muslims’ failure to integrate into society, as if the socioeconomic positions they were born into was wholly their fault. Instead, Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior and later president, commented that he would wipe use a high-pressure hose to wipe the scum off the streets, causing even greater rioting and violence.[25]

Another significant way that Muslims have been depicted in the media which is related to the violence in the banlieues is as a security threat. One example of this viewpoint is that of Robert S. Leiken, which he presents in his article, “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” Using a wider interpretive lens like Talal Asad, Leiken analyzes the presence of Muslims in all European countries from the perspective of international security. Specifically, he is thinking of the border security of the United States and how allowing Muslims to live in Europe creates security risks because of the laxity of travel restrictions both within the European Union and between the European Union and the United States.

A look at Leiken’s analysis in detail is useful, in terms of helping one to understand the way that Muslims are thought of in relation to their status as residents of Europe. Additionally, this places the prevailing French media narrative in a larger context. According to Leiken, the laxity of some member states’ asylum laws allow Islamic radicals to enter the European Union, providing the catalyst for radicalization. Leiken’s argument portrays Muslims in a specific way, as a security threat that must be contained. His writing contains distortions and stretches meant to make the threat seem more plausible and imminent, playing to a discourse on Muslims that has become mainstream and widely accepted. His writing portrays Muslims as an intrinsic security threat who by their very nature cannot be part of the European community or Western “civilization.”

Another problem with Leiken’s analysis is his use of a Mecca vs. Medina analogy which, while illustrative, is historically incorrect and misrepresents the foundational period of Islamic history, which is significant in terms of his topic. In his analogy, he states that Mohammed “pronounced an anathema on [Mecca’s] leaders and took his followers to Medina … [where] he built an army that conquered Mecca in AD 630…”[26] Mohammed fled Mecca in the face of persecution and by all accounts was among the last to leave, having first sent a group of followers to Ethiopia and then having sent the remainder to Medina ahead of himself. In Medina, he did not “[build] and army”, he built a community and engaged in the common raiding practices of the Arabian Peninsula.[27] He also built political alliances which were useful when hostilities did break out.

Leiken’s misrepresentation of the situation and glossing over of the long hostilities, political treaties and eventual surrender of Mecca to Mohammed’s men oversimplifies a complicated process in a way that depicts Muslims as naturally violent from the beginning of their history, leading to the teleological conclusion that they must be dealt with in some way to make Europe and the United States safe from their supposed barbarism. This supposed innate violence is evident in the willingness of media to use blanket accusations against Muslims, as evidenced by the earlier complaint of being represented in the French media by an “Islamalgame”, and by the way that social issues in the banleiues are addressed. Leiken’s inability or unwillingness to approach the situation of Muslim minorities in Europe from a realistic position that sees Muslims as people, rather than as potential threats, is not unusual. It fits into a larger trend of using rhetoric rather complicated narratives to explain the situation of Muslims in France.

This trend is oddly not restricted to ethnic French people. There are cases where Muslims have built their careers around rejecting and denouncing Islam in the French media. One example is that of Chahdortt Djavann, a naturalized French citizen from Iran. She is very vocal about her hatred of Islam and writes extensively on her feelings of alienation, betrayal, and feelings of sexual repression based on veiling. For Djavann, there is no possibility of multiculturalism; one must either be French or Muslim.[28] Sharif Gemie refers to her polemics as simplistic, especially in comparison to the French literary giants that Djavann idolizes, and essentially accuses her of selling out to live the life she dreamed of: one of freedom and wealth. Gemie says that Djavann plays her part well, telling “nationalist-minded neo-republicans exactly what they want to hear. She tells them that France is right, and that it is morally and politically better than other countries.”[29]

One thing that Djavann’s choice should make clear, however, is that acceptance into French society as being truly French is absolutely predicated on a complete rejection of Islam, being Muslim, and being culturally and sexually different from the mainstream. French secularism is not about freedom of choice, at least not for Muslims. It is instead about conformity. Talal Asad, though addressing Europe as a whole in terms of democracies and Muslim minorities, would likely agree, because it fits the same model. Where Asad observed that there is no place for a minority voice in a democracy, there is no place for a minority group to find a voice within French society. To be French one must become an abstract part of the whole, subsuming oneself into another identity. Personally, this emphasis on creating a society full of identical abstract people comes across as incredibly dangerous to the mental health of a population. It subsumes individuality into a collective whole, and attempts to render the “self” meaningless.

The issue of Muslims in France and whether or not they can integrate is, like Fredette stated, the wrong way to approach the situation. Muslims in France are French Muslims. Their situations are not uniquely religious or unique to their social groups. They are issues that affect all Muslims in France, but because of their status as immigrants, they are seen as unique in all things. They are uniquely different, uniquely other, uniquely in need of being “civilized” and assimilated. The issues that are inherent to the Muslim condition in France are exacerbated by the media’s portrayal of them as being inherently violent and foreign. Their assessment as a security threat only serves to further isolate them. The elite discourse that demands that all French people be exactly the same is unproductive and unrealistic, and creates unachievable expectations for Muslims in French society, especially considering that there are many accepted French people who do not meet the five signifiers of being French. As the French republic currently exists, as the current definition of laïcité stands, it is not possible for Muslims to become part of France because there would be no such thing as a French Muslim. One would have to stop being Muslim to be French.

 


Footnotes

[1] Talal Asad, “”Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Represent Islam?” in Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, edited by Anthony Pagden (West Nyack: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 211.

[2] Ibid., 212-213.

[3] Ibid., 213.

[4] Ibid., 214.

[5] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 53.

[6] Ibid., 52-53.

[7] Ibid., 39-40.

[8] Ibid., 21.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 21, 23 & Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 73.

[11] Jennifer Fredette, Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2014), 21.

[12] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 44.

[13] Ibid., 32-33.

[14] Ibid., 54.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Malcolm D. Brown, “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11,” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs 26.3 (December, 2006): 297-298.

[17] Ibid., 299.

[18] Ibid., 300.

[19] Ibid., 301.

[20] Ibid., 303.

[21] Ibid., 304.

[22] John R. Bowen, “Recognizing Islam in France after 9/11,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 35.3 (March, 2009): 439.

[23] Ibid., & Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010),78-79.

[24] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 70.

[25] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 74.

[26] Robert S. Leiken, “Europe’s Angry Muslims,” Foreign Affairs 84.4 (July-August, 2005): 127.

[27] Ibid.

[28] Sharif Gemie, French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2010), 49.

[29] Ibid., 62.


 

References

 

Asad, Talal. 2002. “Muslims and European Identity: Can Europe Reprsent Islam?” Chap. 10 in Idea of Europe: From Antiquity to the European Union, edited by Anthony Pagden, 209-227. West Nyack, NY: Cambridge University Press.

Bowen, John R. 2009. “Recognising Islam in France after 9/11.” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, March: 439-452.

Brown, Malcolm D. 2006. “Comparative Analysis of Mainstream Discourses, Media Narratives and Representations of Islam in Britain and France Prior to 9/11.” Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, December: 297-312.

Fredette, Jennifer. 2014. Constructing Muslims in France: Discourse, Public Identity, and the Politics of Citizenship. Philadelphia: Temple University.

Gemie, Sharif. 2010. French Muslims: New Voices in Contemporary France. Cardiff: University of Wales Press.

Leiken, Robert S. 2005. “Europe’s Angry Muslims.” Foreign Affairs, Jul-Aug: 120-135.

 

 

Leave a Reply

Be the First to Comment!

Subscribe to
avatar
wpDiscuz