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Can Islam Be French? is an anthropological examination of how Muslims are responding to the conditions of life in France. Following up on his book Why the French Don't Like Headscarves, John Bowen turns his attention away from the perspectives of French non-Muslims to focus on those of the country's Muslims themselves. Bowen asks not the usual question—how well are Muslims integrating in France?—but, rather, how do French Muslims think about Islam? In particular, Bowen examines how French Muslims are fashioning new Islamic institutions and developing new ways of reasoning and teaching. He looks at some of the quite distinct ways in which mosques have connected with broader social and political forces, how Islamic educational entrepreneurs have fashioned niches for new forms of schooling, and how major Islamic public actors have set out a specifically French approach to religious norms. All of these efforts have provoked sharp responses in France and from overseas centers of Islamic scholarship, so Bowen also looks closely at debates over how—and how far—Muslims should adapt their religious traditions to these new social conditions. He argues that the particular ways in which Muslims have settled in France, and in which France governs religions, have created incentives for Muslims to develop new, pragmatic ways of thinking about religious issues in French society.
"[A] major contribution to understanding the real world of Islam in France. . . . An insightful and informative study."—Choice
"The book is richly documented, explicitly supportive of the Muslim point of view and deeply sympathetic to them."—Vaidehi Nathan, Organiser
"Bowen's study of Islam [in] a lesser-known social context is very welcome."—Jack David Eller, American Anthropology Review
"The great merit of this book is not only that it empirically answers the question it asks, but in doing so, it opens up a series of questions pertaining to the place of Islam in France and the complex and different relations between citizenship and French religions in a postcolonial society."—Abdelmajid Hannoum, Contemporary Sociology
"[Bowen] makes an important contribution to both the anthropology of France and the anthropology of Islam in the West through his detailed discussion of different Islamic schools of religious interpretation and traditions of jurisprudence. By examining the myriad debates that define a global Islamic space, Bowen challenges stereotypes about the monolithic religion that prevail in the media and across the political spectrum. . . . Bowen does a remarkable job of sifting through and making sense of a vast array of approaches to Islamic norms and of differentiating meaningfully among different Islamic schools."—Susan Terrio, Anthropological Quarterly
"Bowen's study gives no quick and easy answers to this question; rather, it does an excellent job of examining the historical background and current developments that highlight the potentials for—as well as the challenges of—a pragmatic convergence between the norms and ideas of Islam and France."—Lee Ann Bambach, Journal of Law and Religion
"Bowen once again strengthens his position as one of the leading commentators on the French social landscape. What the study lacks in theoretical rigour is off set by a rigorous and vivid narration of the empirical material and by the author's extensive knowledge of the field. Together with Why the French Don't Like Headscarves, the English-speaking student of France and Islam will find here an excellent introduction."—Per-Erik Nilsson, Temenos
"Can Islam Be French? is an erudite and measured approach to one of the most fraught topics of our time."—Chantal Tetreault, POLAR
My title, of course, rests on an indefensible premise. Islam cannot be exclusively French any more than it can be American or Egyptian, because its claims are universal. Although inflected and shaped by national or regional values, Islam, like Catholicism and Judaism, rests on traditions that cross political boundaries.
Let me try another way to understand the question: Can Islam become a generally accepted part of the French social landscape? Of course, it will not have the background status of Catholicism anytime soon-Parisians may not notice a cross or a church; they certainly notice a headscarf or a minaret. But could it become accepted-more or less grudgingly, more or less intuitively-as one among many normal components of the normal social world? Quick off the mark there are signs that suggest yes, perhaps, and others that indicate no, maybe not.
Among the positive signs: A 2006 survey found that French people as a whole think Islam can fit into France. When asked if there is a conflict between being a devout Muslim and living in a modern society, 74 percent of all French people said no, there was not. Only about half as many other Europeans or Americans deny such a conflict. Indeed, French people are more positive about modern Islam than are people in Indonesia, Jordan, or Egypt! This positive answer may be related to an equally hopeful finding of the survey: French Muslims are about as likely to emphasize their national identity over their religious one as are U.S. Christians-and they are much more likely to do so than are other European Muslims. So, at least when talking to pollsters, goodly numbers of French Muslims and non-Muslims seem to think that Islam could be French.
But increasingly, public figures criticize some Muslims as harboring values incompatible with French citizenship, even if they neither break laws nor contravene norms of public behavior. Two incidents from 2008: A court approved a request to annul a marriage on grounds that the wife had lied to the husband about something he judged essential to their marriage. The judgment was in accord with French jurisprudence, but because the "something" was the wife's virginity and the couple was Muslim, public figures denounced Muslims who harbored "archaic" notions about women, and the annulment eventually was overturned. At about the same time, the government successfully kept a married woman with children from obtaining French citizenship because she wore a face covering and stayed at home, proof that her "radical religion" had prevented her from "assimilating" French values.
And consider what Parisians read. I dropped into the Virgin Megastore in Saint-Denis, tucked in behind the famous cathedral and in a largely Muslim corner of town. Free for the taking was the store's magazine, with a picture of a naked woman on the cover and with "pleasure" as the issue's theme. When I entered the store I saw books on Islam, the Qur'an, and how to pray; we were in the month of Ramadan. But the table holding new, small-format books placed near the cash register featured thirteen titles, ten of which approached Islam and Muslims from quite a different point of view. Dishonored and Mutilated each concern violence by Muslim men against Muslim women. Sultana describes the horrible life of a Saudi princess. Both The Sold Ones and The Fatiha (referring to the first verse of the Qur'an, recited at a marriage) treat forced marriages. Muslim But Free is Irshad Manji's story; Disfigured is Rania al-Baz's, each about Muslim misogyny. Gang-Rape Hell tells of violence against women in the largely Muslim, poor outer cities of Paris. Souad, Burned Alive and Latya, Her Face Stolen complete the picture. (I do not count no. 11, a translation of Reading Lolita in Teheran, which suggests that without Nabokov, the Persians might have found themselves bereft of literature.)
Things are not that different on the North American side of the Atlantic, from where Irshad Manji comes and where another denouncer of Islam from within, Ayaan Hirsi Ali (Submission; The Caged Virgin), sometimes lives, and where books on Islam's threat to Europe have taken off: "they're asleep; we're next," we, over here, are warned in While Europe Slept, Eurabia, and the latest, They Must Be Stopped.
Now, in the so-called "public sphere" dominated by such books and their sensationalist televised counterparts (Fox News, Envoyé Spécial), very seldom do we hear from Muslims who are not in the business of denouncing their own kind-save the well-intentioned but not very effective pleas that "Islam is a religion of peace," as if that were a satisfying response to Disfigured and Submission and unceasing reports of terrorism training. ("Whom do you believe, me or your own eyes?") Left largely to the side-either out of their own prudence or out of the "public sphere's" decision that their voices are less interesting-is a broad middle group of Muslims who do not wish to renounce the possibility of just war (yes, jihâd) and do wish to remain true to Islam's norms (yes, sharîa), and who do tune in to scholarly opinions (yes, fatwâs)-and who, all the while, live ordinary, nonterrorizing lives. They do so at the same time that many of their Catholic fellow citizens subscribe to doctrines of the just war, wish to enter heaven, and listen to what the pope has to say (as do, mutatis mutandis, their Jewish and Baptist and Mormon neighbors).
It is a subset of these Muslims to whom I have been listening in France: scholars and educators and public figures who are trying to configure a set of teachings and norms and institutions that will anchor Islam in France, for now but especially for the next generation, and without renouncing the traditions of Islam. Theirs is the question that I intend in this book's title: Can Islam become a workable reality for Muslims who wish to live fulfilling social and religious lives in France? This book concerns some of their answers to that question.
In an earlier book, in some ways a companion to this one, I explored the ideas and anxieties of some non-Muslim French men and women about the visible presence of Islam on their soil. I did so largely through one particular lens, the conflicts over the wearing of Islamic scarves in public schools, but I touched on a broader array of issues, from racism (also aimed at non-Muslim people of color) to the shape of the urban built environment. That study posed the question of whether Muslims who wish to publicly practice their religion can make their way in French society without having to pretend to be something other than Muslims. Can they become citoyens à part entière rather than citoyens entièrement à part, "complete citizens" of France rather than "citizens completely on the sidelines"? Particularly thorny are the issues implied by the phrase "pretend to be something other than Muslims." How far will the French state go in requiring not just obedience to the law and correct public comportment, but assimilation to a particular set of (post-) Christian practices and values?
Although in the final chapter I return to those issues, throughout most of this book I focus on the Islamic side of the same issue: what forms of Islamic ideas and institutions will enable those Muslims wishing to practice their religion to do so fully and freely in France? I explore the development of mosques and of Islamic schools and institutes and, simultaneously, the Islamic reasoning that subtends and suffuses these institutions as it answers such questions as the following: What should an Islamic secondary school look like in a secularist society? How does one teach Islam in a way that remains connected with global deliberations and also provides guides for French living? What should mosques do? Should a marriage be conducted in a religious manner or at city hall? May I borrow money at interest from a bank to buy my home?
As in my previous books on France and on Indonesia, I set out to practice an "anthropology of public reasoning." The "anthropology" part of that phrase means that I look whenever possible at ongoing interactions in social life: at how a teacher reasons or an imam persuades or a city official justifies his actions. I bring in written texts when these enter into social life, when they are used in teaching or read widely, but I begin from social interactions in mosques, schools, public meetings, and Internet exchanges. The "public reasoning" part means that I highlight the ways in which people deliberate and debate in these public settings. It is in these practices of deliberation-justifying one's beliefs and seeking areas of agreement-rather than in a static notion of an achieved consensus that I find hope for pluralistic forms of civic integration.
A critical component of the anthropology of public reasoning is the study of justifications: on what grounds do speakers advance one position rather than another? What kinds of argument do they pursue, and how are these received? In the Islamic context these questions often turn on sources of authority: which past authorities or scriptural texts are cited? Does an argument emphasize the distinctive demands placed on Muslims in France, the universal character of God's call to walk along the straight path, or both? Through these questions I wish to highlight the specific forms taken by Islamic reasoning in these particular French social contexts.
This attention to Islamic justifications should, I believe, extend current social science analyses of how people in different societies justify their positions on policy issues. Some of these analyses have discerned distinct sociomoral conceptions of worth or value that underlie specific acts of justification and that, in weighted combinations, form national (or subnational) "repertoires of evaluation." Parisians and New Yorkers may both recognize that material success, social solidarity, and personal morality are legitimate bases for judging the actions of others, but the two groups will assign different weights to these three values. Repertoires, therefore, can be mapped onto particular territories.
The problem faced in this book is a bit different. Muslims who are engaged in deliberating about Islam in France must navigate between two spatially distinct realms of justification: a transnational one, based on the norms and traditions of Islam, and a national one, based on the civic values of France. The repertoires of evaluation at use in these two realms are not differentially weighted versions of each other but refer to entirely different foundations: God in the one case, the Republic in the other. Each repertoire is a distinct assembly of norms and values that delimits acceptable from unacceptable ways of explaining and justifying actions.
In much of this book, I focus on a handful of individuals, Islamic public actors who find themselves at the intersection of these two realms as they teach and deliberate about how best to create Islamic institutions in France. As Islamic actors, they find themselves engaged in exchanges with scholars who live in Syria, Senegal, Turkey, or Egypt, some of whom post articles on Web sites, have their books translated into French (and other languages), and appear in public discussions in Paris, Lyon, or Lille. Each of those scholars commands his own type of authority-the professor at an established Islamic university, the scholar who commands an impressive range of scriptural texts, or the inspirational leader of a Sufi order-usually at a level far beyond that of any Islamic public actor living in France. As French Islamic actors formulate their own opinions, they must keep in mind the commentaries and judgments that might be delivered by those transnational authorities-and as we shall see, sometimes those authorities deliver quite negative judgments on certain opinions developed in France.
At the same time, these Islamic actors live in France and must respond to the experiences and exigencies of life in that country. On the one hand, they must craft their opinions to the lives of French Muslims, whose questions concern how to live in a secular society: how to worship, work, or marry in the absence of Islamic institutions. On the other hand, they must try and adapt what they say and do to French norms and understandings about religion and social life, lest they be attacked as insufficiently secularist or as overly communalist.
Now, if those French understandings were clear and unambiguous, this task might not be so difficult, but France contains a tension, if not a contradiction, between its Republican political model and the way religion-minded citizens organize their lives. In the ideal world of Republican France, everyone develops similar values and orientations by participating in public institutions, starting from their education in state schools. This direct, sustained contact between the state and the individual underwrites the dual capacity to live together and to deliberate in rational fashion, because everyone lives and reasons starting from the same first principles. On this view, intermediate institutions such as voluntary associations, private schools, and religious practices are to be discouraged, lest they nourish divergent values and create social divisions. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, perhaps the emblematic figure of this philosophy, affirmed the ultimate identity of citizens' interests in the general will, to be expressed through the state and reproduced through its institutions.
But Rousseau also upheld the rights of citizens to form voluntary associations in order to carry out their diverse interests. When in the first few years of the twentieth century the state got out of the business of subsidizing religions, it intended to turn religious life over to private associations of French citizens, who would then, in turn, leave schooling to the state. The Catholic Church resisted these measures, and a series of compromises led to new laws extending governmental support to religious buildings and permitting religious private schools-even financing them if they taught the national curriculum. These compromises never fully satisfied those who saw religious institutions as compromising Republican unity. Struggles for women's rights during the 1960s and 1970s were waged against a Church unwilling to allow freedom of control over women's bodies. State support to religious schools continued to excite passions on both sides well into the 1980s.
When, beginning in the 1980s, Muslims sought to follow the example of other religions by forming religious associations, building houses of worship, and seeking state funding for religious schools, they encountered a double source of resistance and suspicion: as one more religious body threatening Republican unity, and as one element in a global movement threatening the West. Were they trying to resist integrating into the rest of French society? Did they harbor values distinct from those held by others in France? To some degree these questions imply a reluctance to acknowledge the degree of religion-based associative life already basic to France, but they also point to the special difficulties faced by Islamic public actors in finding a stable equilibrium between the French rules of the game and a respect for Islamic norms.
Above, I narrowed the book's title question to, What can Muslims can do to create a workable Islamic reality in France? And yet even in this reduced form the question opens up two more specific sets of queries: given the transnational nature of Islamic public reasoning, how far can or should French Muslims adapt the norms and institutions of Islam to local norms and institutions? And how far will they be allowed to follow a Republican path that is itself internally contradictory?
Neither question is limited to France. From Morocco and Nigeria to Pakistan and Indonesia, we find Muslims wrestling with how to adapt Islamic texts and traditions to local, contemporary ways of life. The issue is posed most profoundly for matters of gender equality, religious pluralism, and the right to choose to leave Islam. In Indonesia, for example (where I have worked for many years), some scholars have contrasted what they see as an overly Arabic-cultural and patriarchal bias in Islamic legal teachings to the more gender-equal nature of Indonesian life, and they have drawn on that contrast to develop a new code of Islamic law for Indonesia.
Excerpted from Can Islam Be French? by John R. Bowen Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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