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The perceptive commentators agree on one thing: France has real problems. They disagree on what the root issues are. Most think that my proposal is fine but not easily achieved. Am I hopelessly optimistic?
My essay largely concerns the project of rereading the French tradition, not the many causes of radicalization or the relative strengths of racism and anti-Islam sentiment, issues that were picked up by my colleagues and to which I will return. I focus on the reconstruction of the French tradition for pragmatic reasons. My goal is to move French policies in the right direction.
My argument is an analysis of and corrective to public reasoning, as David Laitin notes. As France moves forward, whatever debates and policy proposals come forth will be tested against that political tradition. Politicians and public observers will ask of any position: Does it contravene laïcité? Does it contradict equality? This is why I challenge the way that tradition is currently read, why I join French scholars in contesting today’s ideologues on privileged terrain: the details of history. Some commentators consider this approach rather hopeless, given how mired France seems to be in its foibles and fallacies. I find it more hopeless to write a country off—as if Renan set France on an irreversible course of anti-Islam politics.
Three-quarters of French people consider Islam incompatible with Western values.
I begin the essay by enumerating several problems. First, discrimination. People who apply for jobs with Arab-sounding names or with postal codes from poor areas are less likely to get called back. (Laitin adds more detail and precision to these long-standing discriminations.) Second, France’s immigration history is misconstrued to political effect. Favored individual heroes of republican assimilation, such as Anne Hidalgo or Manuel Valls, are pointed to as proof that France’s integration machine works. Meanwhile, the massive histories of labor migration from elsewhere in Europe and from Africa are perhaps acknowledged as necessities of an earlier era, but today they are seen as sources of défauts d’assimilation, in the wonderful Conseil d’État phrase Joan Scott recalls. Finally, structural violence is minimized. Colonial policies of division, the scars left by the Algerian War, and enduring practices of labor discrimination are grudgingly and belatedly recognized as contributors to social fracture.
A variety of mechanisms reproduce division, discrimination, and the resentments they foster. Here my colleagues differ. Didier Fassin says I make too much of religion; Scott and Laitin say I make too little. I thank Joseph Massad and Mayanthi Fernando for emphasizing the interactions of secularist and Catholic sentiments and anti-Muslim prejudice. This “Catho-laïc” positioning, something quite French, provides the ideological matrix for groups such as Riposte Laïque (Secular Response), which has attempted to provoke Muslim reactions by, for instance, staging a pork sausage and aperitif party in a heavily Muslim part of Paris. The police wisely canceled the action.
Fernando, Fassin, and Arthur Goldhammer emphasize how racism and anti-Islamic prejudice intertwine, what some have termed the racialization of Islamophobia. I too am less interested in which comes first—racism or religious discrimination—than in how, and in what contexts, “others” are perceived as such and therefore abused. As Fassin documents, police during the 2005 and 2007 riots were laïc as they mistreated people; the objects of police violence and control were bastards (and probably racaille—riffraff), not Muslims. By and large, French analysts and police emphasized that the riots were not about Islam.
But as Fassin and Goldhammer note, political rhetoric since then has given a boost to attacks on political Islam and Islam as a whole—according to a poll reported in Le Monde in January 2013, three-quarters of French people consider Islam incompatible with Western values. Maleiha Malik usefully refers to “anti-Islam ideology”—usefully because she underscores the ideological properties of such attitudes: their emotional depth, and, as Michèle Lamont and Nicolas Duvoux argue, a strong link to perceived class oppositions and status threats.
Malik reminds us that the problem increasingly extends across Europe, both because the prejudices at its base have pan-European origins and because the continent’s far-right parties talk to each other and have tried—so far unsuccessfully—to form a voting bloc in the European Parliament. But each country will have to fashion its own solution to the far-right challenge. Britain’s U. K. Independence Party has roots in anti-elite and anti-Europe sentiment that might make it look like Geert Wilders’s Dutch Party for Freedom and the French National Front, but the latter two have a stronger racist tone and anti-Islam ideology than does UKIP. The Algerian War provides a sturdy emotional foundation for French people who express anti-Islamic and anti-Arab sentiments on the street and at the ballot box. There is no real equivalent in Britain or the Netherlands. Campaigns and policies designed to combat the far right must be specific to national context. In France, policies that emphasize equality are most likely to gain traction. Thus anti-discrimination proposals, such as those advanced by Laitin and his colleagues in their forthcoming book, are particularly apposite.
Laitin points out that “healing divisions is the right thing to do,” but he is skeptical about the capacity of such efforts to end violence. He takes my claim that social divisions are sources of resentment and violence as a claim about the origins of jihadis. It is not. I simply argue that both socioeconomic divisions and discrimination against Muslims aid the efforts of jihadi recruiters to attract young men and women. French analyses of jihadi websites, and debriefings of French Muslims after visits to Syria or Iraq, show how frequently the call to fight draws on the mistreatment of Muslims by the French state. This is how recruiters create what Haroon Moghul eloquently describes as a “reductive narrative” pointing toward violence.
Laitin also challenges my assumption that boundaries are not good for successful societies. (Many of the commentators clearly share my view.) Laitin’s data, which he kindly shared with me, show that whether countries are classed as “assimilationist” or “multiculturalist” predicts little about how Muslims fare. But changing a law or two can tip a country from “multiculturalist” to “assimilationist” overnight, so it is unclear what state characteristics such typologies describe, if any. If anyone needs further convincing of this, France shows up as “multiculturalist” in the 1980 Multiculturalism Policy Index.
Nonetheless Laitin and I agree that policy should focus on institutions. Elsewhere he suggests accommodating everyone’s dietary needs in workplace cafeterias, allowing people to choose which holidays they take off, and creating public-private alliances to train imams. This is precisely where arguing for an inclusive reading of France’s political tradition will help, because these and other measures can be accommodated within it—and not within the nouvelle laïcité.
John Bowen is an anthropologist at Washington University in St. Louis. He has traveled the world, from Indonesia to France, exploring Islamic practice and the reception of Muslim immigrants in a wide variety of social contexts. He is the author of the Boston Review Book Blaming Islam.
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