By Tarek A. Ghanem

Staff writer – IslamOnline.net

12/01/2004
We cannot ignore the distinctiveness of the Muslim community in France

To restrict the discussion of any broad-ranging matter-like that of the forthcoming ban of the Islamic headscarf in France-to parochial references is to add more salt to our multi-cultural wound. It is effortlessly self-satisfying to one’s ideological preferences to allow reductionism to play its everlasting game between two poles: black and white, good and evil, “secularism” and “traditionalism,” Islam and the West-all, of course, are impotent positioning of relationships.

To think or believe that the “forward-looking” gaze-secularism, pluralism, freedom of expression and their sisters from the same modern plane-will enable us to ascend to a man-made utopia has systematically become an academic trance; what has happened to such axioms? Are they becoming mirror images of their medieval opposites? All mainstream religious peoples, non-Muslims as well as Muslims, are getting more and more tribally quarantined by secular forces, equal in absolute values, to that of the unenlightened dogmatists-those of the “backward gaze.” In fact, the fundamentalists within them-in all beliefs-are making things even worse for them.

The Context in Space

Here, we are trying to pave a path for our contextual assessment. Let us knock on the doors of the global world, first of all. Does the bankruptcy of the nation-state project still need an official announcement in order to be confirmed? It must be noted that the people at stake are not clandestine immigrants, because the majority of Muslims in France are French. Therefore, under trans-global skies, the French government is still looking upward and contemplating the definition of citizenship, both internally and externally constructed.

In the eyes of the French government, to be a true French citizen you must be stripped of any milieu or identity and conform to the plea (prescription?) of the state in order to assimilate-can we call that fascist pluralism or secular fundamentalism? First, let us see the well-constructed argument by one of the best scholars in cultural studies, on the subject of identity and its return to the public sphere:

The logic of the discourse of identity assumes a stable subject [to be French is to be “religionless”], i.e., we’ve assumed that there is something which we can call our identity which, in a rapidly shifting world, has the great advantage of staying still. Identities are a kind of guarantee that the world isn’t falling apart quite as rapidly as it sometimes seems to be. It’s a kind of fixed point of thought and being, a ground of action, a still point in the turning world. That’s the kind of ultimate guarantee that identity seems to provide us with1.

In the eyes of the French government, to be a true French citizen you must be stripped of any milieu or identity and conform to the plea (prescription?) of the state. 

What the French officials are failing miserably in, just like an unmotivated and below-average-intelligence student, is that one needs a personality even before being a citizen. It is simple: no enunciation, no personality; hence no identity, no citizenship. One has to put oneself somewhere, sometime, somehow, before knowing and doing anything at all. A reference point is the prerequisite to knowledge or action. To try to delimit identity in a changing world like ours is to castrate one’s pursuit to “authenticate” oneself, experience, and potential.

In this, ethnicity comes as the middle ground between both identity and difference and is the method of authentication in the face of the modern and global forces of destabilization. Still, the ethnicity we are approaching here is not a tribal one in essence or effect. “It is no longer contained within that place as an essence. It wants to address a much wider variety of experience. It is part of the enormous cultural relativization of the entire globe that is the historical accomplishment-horrendous as it has been in part-of the twentieth century.”2 This ethnicity is saturated in mythical historical dialects. It is the settlement between identity (the one that appreciates and recognizes the plain occurrence of its own form and of others) and difference.

Particularizing the Case: Muslim France

Let us not ignore the distinctiveness of the Muslim community in France. It has been mentioned earlier that the majority of Muslims there are French. In addition, historical investigation shows that the majority of that Muslim French community is North African- Moroccan, Tunisian and Algerian-and the majority comes from the latter, as Algeria was considered a “department,” not a colony as other countries were, under French imperialism. Given that, let us dwell more on the socio-economics and cultural presence of that segment.

French Megherbis are generally referred to as Beurs and Beurettes, although they are born and raised in France, and French is their first language. “In spite of and because of the Beurs’ Frenchness, a large section of the French population resent their presence in France; they are seen as a kind of invasion from the south, responsible for many of the ills of contemporary France-economic social and otherwise.”3 They are looked upon as a constant reminder of the dark side of the society where all dire symptoms of the decay of the French social security are manifested and concentrated: the ghettos on the outskirts of Paris and the main cities, unemployment, vandalism, crime, drugs, religious fanaticism, and all other items on the dreadful list of the ghettos.

Nonetheless, the Beurs have contributed a great deal to French culture in literature, music, and sports-names like Jacques Derrida, Cheb Khaled, Taher Ben Jelloun, and Zinedine Zidane. However, it must not be forgotten that in the eyes of the French administration, conformist as it is, Arabic and Islamic signifiers are still seen as they were through the colonial eyes.

Islam à la Français: Has the Veiled Girl Done Her Homework?

If one really does not fall for the misconceptions and sealed associations, the Muslim community in France has really done its homework-at least on both the organizational and collective levels. The Muslim community in France has been through sturdy secular harassment, varying from banning any Islamic publications and arrest (that was during the time of Charles Pasqua, former interior minister), restrictions on halal slaughter, and foreign finance to mosques, and still no Muslim institution can represent any form but secular architecture (it seems fair to call that aesthetic despotism).

Yet, in any case, the government has been trying to collaborate with the Muslims, which is seen as an acceptable way to cut off foreign finance from the Muslim world.4 In the face of this, most of the Muslim community in France agrees on advocating Islam de France:

They emphasize one or the other of two poles in their public deliberations: either the diasporic networks of Muslims in Europe, Africa, and Asia, united by Arabic and by common political as well as scholarly visions, or the hexagonal framing of Islam within France, distinguished by a commitment to laicité [secularism] (emphasis added).5

Whether this or that camp, both openly agree on maintaining an Islam à la Français. The “diasporic” camp, the majority of whose members gather in the European Council of Fatwa and Research, is represented in the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF). The hexagonal camp stresses more on French style and use of the French language in learning Islam. Many fatwas have been given by Muslim scholars-based on developed Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) particular to Muslims living in France like all non-Muslims-related to specific conditions: the permissibility of mortgages for buying the first house, marriage and divorce under the present civil law, and eating non-halal meat. All these efforts are seen as creating a fiqh de France to manifest the translocality of Islam under the secularist skies.

How “Veiled” is “Visible”?

Central to the issue of the ban of the headscarf in France is the question of “visibility” in the public space. However, before we shed light on the visible aspect of “Muslimness,” let us take a little detour in the dark. Prayer in Islam is of a cardinal essence to maintain one’s spiritual connectedness to the Divine in a physical manner. One does it at a mosque, or any place. Outside of Prayer, there is no physically visible trace that negates secular laws-be they French or whatever-yet one will be surprised to read the following (and I quote from an accomplished paper by John Bowen, with references-emphasis added):

In France, the frequency of performing salat [Prayer] was taken by one government body to indicate the degree of one’s assimilation into French culture. The Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED) defined “assimilation” as the disappearance of culturally specific features, the convergence of behavior into a general French model, and a mixing of populations (Tribalat 1996:254-55). Assimilation implied the reduction of religion to the private sphere and a lessened intensity of religious practices, “in sum, a laicization of behavior” (254). Specific indices of assimilation used in the report include praying less frequently; not following the fast, abandoning polygamy, and making fewer visits to the country of origin…This judgment of assimilation can have very practical consequences for the individual. Each year the French government refuses about one-third of the applicants for admission, and some of those refusals were of candidates who met the formal conditions for naturalization (Liberation 5 April 2000)…Some highly educated Muslim candidates have been rejected on those grounds (D. Bourg, personal communication, 20 August 1999).6

That is that. The ridiculousness of seeing the occurrence (or “visibility” or “conspicuousness”) of religious practices as the return of religion cannot be overlooked. It is relative to its location; that is why “the ‘head scarves question’ in France is symptomatic of extreme partiality and relativity to the nature of visibility. In other words, the Islamic headscarf is visible in France but much less so in Germany and the United Kingdom.”7 Here comes the problem; just like Judaism, Islam is a way of life and functions as a vector pertaining to a collective identity. That is exactly why, in the negative contrast of the absolutist French of “assimilation,” this is exposed as heretical to the secular gospel.

Power-Discourse: French Game and Vocabulary

Jocelyne Cesari, a prominent scholar from the Sorbonne-Paris, lists the following as the main reasons for the “visibility” of Islam within France (and not the return of religion; let us make sure not to make that mistake as he suggests):

“working class”, “immigrant”, “worker” and even “immigrant suburban youth” no longer provide easy identification…offering alternative methods of social or political action…cultural activism…counter mechanism of exclusion…Difficulties of finding employment, the feeling of social relegation and discrimination, perspective of the highly negative public opinion of Islam, the vivid memory of humiliations from the French colonial past passed on by their families (as if that part of their history was not included in the French national identity), and the bankruptcy of a whole series of ideologies such as Marxism or the Third World movement which fired the ideals of elder brothers and sisters.8

A long list indeed. What is significant at this point, in relation to the issue at hand, is to remember that the headscarf not only represents the religious symbolism of commitment but much more. In the majority of all the discussions over the headscarf, the old ideologically supercilious motifs were spontaneously incarnated; it is a sign of male-domination, chauvinism, violation of female rights, patriarchal social order, etc.

Islam is a way of life and functions as a vector pertaining to a collective identity. That is exactly why, in the negative contrast of the absolutist French of “assimilation,” this is exposed as heretical to the secular gospel.

For sure, some Muslim parents force their daughters to wear it. However, in the first cases of dealing with the headscarf in 1989, the Conseil d’Etat (State Council) left it to the Minister of Education, who advised school principals to deal with the cases on an individual basis, by advising discussion and consultation. If it were enforcement (and all the supremacist allegations that come along with it), that would have solved the issue. But no, “by and large, the courts have overturned these exclusions [in case consultation did not take place or work] unless wearing the headscarf has been accompanied by a refusal to attend physical education classes or been associated with protest outside organizations.”9

Secular Blues

The headscarf, and what it represents, is seen as a threat to conformity within the educational system. The ban of the headscarf is nothing but an enforcement of power to neutralize the girls who refuse to attend the sex-education classes or wear the same training suits that other girls do-and their parents, class, beliefs. It is as if chastity has become a modern-day crime; what a cultural menefregismo. Certainly there are militant Muslim fundamentalists in France, and some have imported the Algerian civil war to France, but does counteracting such threats mean the castration of an entire community from its legitimacy, religious, cultural, and historical setting? One wonders.

All in all, the French case against the Islamic headscarf cannot be seen as anything but a manifestation of a power discourse trying to offset a troublesome segment of French society with a (mistakenly seen) potential to upset the balance of social fabric though a discursive conformity. French-style secularism has reached the bottom of self-destruction and defeat. What is the difference between the power of the Catholic Church and the feudal system in medieval times and that of the French officialdom today? None. “Compel them all.” Just substitute the axioms of heretical for religiosity, assimilation for conformity, complete neutrality for freedom of expression, and you will have a perfectly inverted history of the evolution of European secularism taking place in modern day France.

Tarek A. Ghanem is a staff writer and editor of the Contemporary Issues page of IslamOnline.net. He is specialized in comparative politics and contemporary Islam. You can reach him at [email protected]

1-  Hall, Stuart, “Ethnicity: Identity and Difference. Radical America, 23,4 (October-December 1989), p. 9-20.

2- Ibid.

3- Jaccomard, Hélène, French Against French: The Uneasy Incorporation of Beurs into French Society, ( http://www.arts.uwa.edu.au/MotsPluriels/MP297hj.html).

4-  Bowen, John R., Islam in/of France: Dilemmas of Translocality (www.ceri-sciencespo.com/archive/mai02/artjrb.pdf).

5- Ibid.

6- Ibid.

7-  Munoz, Gema Martin (ed.), Islam, Modernism and the West, IB Tauris, 1999, pp. 211-223.

8- Ibid.

9- Leslie J. Limage, “Education and Muslim Identity: The Case of France” [73-94], Comparative Education, February 2000, (Vol. 36, No.1).