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Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe

Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe

by Jeanette S. Jouili


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The visible increase in religious practice among young European-born Muslims has provoked public anxiety. New government regulations seek not only to restrict Islamic practices within the public sphere, but also to shape Muslims', and especially women's, personal conduct. Pious Practice and Secular Constraints chronicles the everyday ethical struggles of women active in orthodox and socially conservative Islamic revival circles as they are torn between their quest for a pious lifestyle and their aspirations to counter negative representations of Muslims within the mainstream society.

Jeanette S. Jouili conducted fieldwork in France and Germany to investigate how pious Muslim women grapple with religious expression: for example, when to wear a headscarf, where to pray throughout the day, and how to maintain modest interactions between men and women. Her analysis stresses the various ethical dilemmas the women confronted in negotiating these religious duties within a secular public sphere. In conversation with Islamic and Western thinkers, Jouili teases out the important ethical-political implications of these struggles, ultimately arguing that Muslim moral agency, surprisingly reinvigorated rather than hampered by the increasingly hostile climate in Europe, encourages us to think about the contribution of non-secular civic virtues for shaping a pluralist Europe.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804792875
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 05/13/2015
Pages: 272
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Jeanette S. Jouili is Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

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Pious Practice and Secular Constraints

Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe

By Jeanette S. Jouili


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9489-3



ONE SATURDAY A MONTH, women gathered for a potluck brunch at the Centre d'Études et de Recherche sur l'Islam (CERSI) in St. Denis, a banlieue (suburb) in the north of Paris. When I arrived, many women were already present in the classroom where the meeting took place. The tables were filled with food and beverages: tarts, quiches, baguettes, cheese, and Arabic pastry, along with a range of soft drinks and juices, tea and coffee. Everyone was busily reaching out for snacks and drinks while chatting and laughing with one another. Gradually the women sat down and the chatter slowly decreased. Olfa, teacher of the "Islamic morals" class at the center and main organizer of the brunch, stood up. A thirty-year-old woman with friendly eyes, she was dressed in a djellaba and a long headscarf. After greeting the other women with a warm "Salam 'alaykum, sisters," she sketched out the theme of the day: "How can we reconcile Islamic practice and worship with an active life in a secular [laïque] society?" While we were still eating, Olfa briefly outlined some of the central challenges that practicing Muslims can face in French society, provided some general advice, then invited the participants to share their personal experiences on the issue, both the difficulties they had encountered and their personal achievements.

Aliya, a woman in her early thirties, raised her hand and was the first to speak. She acknowledged that her turn to Islamic practice, in itself already a thorny and lingering process, had furthermore complicated her daily social life, especially on the professional level. An employee in a center for the socio-professional insertion of migrant women, Aliya also recognized that she had been exceptionally lucky to be allowed to introduce her hijab (headscarf)—discreetly tied in the back—into her workplace. And after having hesitated for a long time, she had recently started to pray in her office, because making up the missed prayers in the evening had turned this act of worship into a burden. Generally she would do everything to hide her prayer, even interrupt it in order not to risk being discovered by her colleagues. The preceding week, however, she had not hidden it, and it was the resulting incident that Aliya wanted to share with the group.

Usually, I stop when I hear someone approaching, but that day something pushed me not to do so. During my prayer, I heard steps and could see out of the corner of my eyes a silhouette appearing at my office door. Instinctively I wanted to stand up, but something forced me to resist this impulse and I continued praying. My colleague left immediately when he saw me. I was extremely scared of his reaction afterward. But when he came in a while later, he did not mention anything at all. Only after we had finished our professional conversation and as he was about to leave the room did he turn around and say, "Mecca is over there; you prayed in the wrong direction." Can you imagine that? I was speechless. I couldn't believe what I had just heard. This guy was a Catholic though, the only religious person among my colleagues. You see, we face a lot of setbacks, but at times you encounter goodness and sympathy. We have to acknowledge that. And we need to be steadfast in our practice and pray to Allah subhanu wa ta'ala to facilitate things for Muslims who live in a non-Muslim country.

As Aliya described her colleague's reaction, the women paused eating, and exclamations such as such Masha'Allah and Subhan'Allah went through the room; those in attendance were visibly touched by that unexpected gesture of kindness. After Aliya's concluding remarks, a vibrant discussion emerged. Some participants emphasized the duty to endure patiently the discriminations they encountered. One woman insisted on the importance of tactfully but persistently trying to make space for their religious practice, because that should be part of one's religious freedom anyway. Another woman, again inspired by Aliya's experience, raised the issue of building solidarities with religious people from other faiths. And all present agreed that no matter what approach they pursued, it was their essential duty to teach their non-Muslim peers about the misconceptions they held in regard to Islam and to try to represent Islam in the best way possible.

That Saturday morning discussion crystallizes in a lucid way the struggles that pious Muslim women face in their quest to live according to their religious principles within European secular societies. It is the task of this book to examine these everyday struggles closely. First, it explores how young European-born Muslim women cultivate (orthodox) Islamic subjectivities in a context that has increasingly stigmatized and politicized the practices that go along with these kinds of subjectivities. Like Aliya, many young European-born Muslim women did not rigorously practice their religion while growing up and frequently identified many internal resistances to their efforts to become more pious. Many of the challenges they faced in adopting (socially conservative) Islamic lifestyles can be explained by the fact that these women had been fashioned not only by European discourses and ideals, but also by various nonorthodox approaches to Islam, which, if not outright critical, are at least skeptical toward these very lifestyles. Second, the book investigates how these women cope on a practical level with the everyday difficulties of living a religious life in a society ever more hostile to visible forms of Islamic piety. The discussion that followed Aliya's story revealed the various modes of reasoning that accompany individual responses to that challenge. And most significantly, the debate exposed that the individual's response is rarely only about the practitioner's effort to pursue her individual practice, but also about the overarching duty to represent the Muslim community properly within European society.

What intrigued me in listening to these kinds of debates was the constant, underlying concern to do the right thing. For these women, carefully adhering to one's religious duty was certainly important, but it alone was never enough, because one always had to consider the social consequences of one's individual acts. The women would point to an ethical-political commitment that does not disconnect the individual striving for pious self-cultivation from an understanding that the rituals and other practices that are part of that self-cultivation exist within a web of human relationships and therefore might impact these relationships too.

Ethics and its political consequentiality has become an increasingly important topic within the discipline of anthropology. A now burgeoning literature acknowledges the centrality of ethics in the shaping of human communities and the "moral making of the world" (Fassin 2012: 4). Depending on their authors' respective philosophical inclinations or affiliations, different domains within the vast field of ethical practices are described and theorized—modes of ethical (self-)cultivation, moral dilemmas and choices, or forms of ethical judgment and reasoning that already point to care for and obligation to others. These modes of ethical action can be either tacit and commonsensical or rationalized and intellectualized.

My work contributes to the discussions initiated in this body of work and offers a number of interventions. It especially aims to bring into conversation perspectives with distinct intellectual lineages that are not commonly discussed together, in order to account for the complexity of the ethical struggles that these Muslim women face. Not only have my interlocutors learned to accept, comprehend, and internalize a range of pious practices and modes of conduct, but they also have to enact them in specific social contexts, in various moments of their everyday life, which raises questions about how each practice can or should be implemented in each context. By examining the various deliberations around these practices, I argue that Islamic ethical life quests are not merely hampered or disrupted by a context that stigmatizes and increasingly restrictively regulates, in the name of secularism, Islamic practice. Nor are these quests weakened by inconsistencies that might result from being confronted with and shaped by competing sets of moral codes. Rather, as I show throughout this book, these complicated and restrictive settings produce experiences of ambiguity, suffering, and injustice, thereby simultaneously creating conditions for the intensification of ethical labor. Before returning to this issue, I want to briefly address the specific nature of French and German secularities that contextualize my fieldwork and pose a wide range of challenges to everyday female Islamic piety and, more broadly, to the thriving of the Islamic tradition in Europe.

Situating French and German Secularities

The Islamic revival movement in Europe emerged in the 1980s but gained visibility in the 1990s, not only through the proliferation of headscarves in the streets but also through requests for the construction of mosques, for dietary adjustments in cafeterias, and for prayer spaces in workplaces. If the revival movement appeared in the public sphere mainly through these types of claims to public authorities, its activities were first and foremost geared to Muslim immigrant communities, whose members had arrived from the 1950s onward, to a large extent as part of post-WWII labor migration. By providing these immigrant communities with religious education, the revival activists sought to enable Muslims to maintain their Islamic ways of life, which were perceived to be endangered by a gradual secularization of Muslims in Europe. Through their participation in these new educational facilities, first in and around the mosques, then in separate institutional structures, Muslim men and women who previously had not practiced started to pursue their prayers more regularly, to fast, and, for women, to don the veil.

This new public visibility of the religious difference of an ethnic and racialized minority group posed new challenges to the self-definition of European nation-states (see, for instance, Göle 2002). This holds especially true for France and Germany. While comparative literature on the politics of race and immigration, and on secularism has, in the past, often presented both countries as two (almost) opposed ideal-typical models, they were nonetheless considered to be less accommodating to immigrant-descendent minorities than other European countries. The French model of integration, defined as "universalist" and "egalitarian," builds on a type of republican individualism, which seeks to assimilate individuals who become citizens through a "political choice" (Kastoryano 1996: 9). All other collective identities beyond the national one are here defined as "particularistic" and appear in this model as obstacles to social progress that need to be transcended. Opposed to France's model of the nation stands Germany's model of Volk. This notion of a "pre-political" (Brubaker 1997: 19) German nation was not linked, initially, to the abstract idea of citizenship but instead tried to capture the organic and highly particular nature of Germany as a community of culture, language, and race. In spite of the opprobrium under which the völkisch ideology has fallen since the end of National Socialism, the young Federal Republic's definition of nationality maintained this understanding of the German people. Accordingly, nationality was based on the ius sanguinis (law of blood). The Federal Republic withheld citizenship from immigrants for a very long time, and populations present in Germany for three generations still held the status of Ausländer (foreigners; Kastoryano 1996; Chin 2007; Mandel 2008). After this idea was partially revised by the 2000 reform of the citizenship law (that dated back to 1913), successive debates about German Leitkultur (literally leading culture) tried to grapple (without much success) with the elusive nature of Germanness (see, for instance, Ewing 2008).

At least since the now-infamous headscarf affairs in France, the French concept of laïcité has in many ways become the paradigmatic example of a strict or radical secularism. Laïcité was established through the 1905 law on the separation of church and state, defining the relation between these entities as one of "neutrality" and "reciprocal incompetence" (Tietze 2002: 152). On an ideological level, laïcité expands on the republican norm, as its seeks to ban religion from the public sphere, thereby relegating it purely to the domain of the private. In the French collective imaginary, laïcité continues to be a social and moral ideal, founded on the "providential trinity reason–science–progress," which emerged victorious out of a long struggle between clerical and anticlerical forces (Morin 1990: 38). The concrete and pivotal achievement—literally its sanctuary—of laïcité was the establishment of the French republican school, which was designed to teach students a "secular morality" that is universal, rational, and progressive (see Baubérot 1990: 136). The passionate character of the debates about the wearing of headscarves in schools from 1989 until the passing of the 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols in public schools can be grasped only if one takes into account the place of French public schools in the collective imaginary around laïcité. But in spite of the 1905 law and its powerful symbolic status, in practice, the state continues to carry out certain tasks on behalf of the officially recognized religions. Among other things, it maintains the religious buildings constructed before 1905, and pays the salaries of teachers in those private confessional schools that have received state accreditation.

German society has not known comparable conflicts over the relation between church and state. Traces of institutional cooperation are generally dated back to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, which established confessional (protestant and catholic) states. From then on, the two churches were increasingly brought under the tutelage of the state. German secularism in the 20th century was built on this confessional dualism of the public space, resulting in an "interpenetration of ecclesiastical, social, and political structures." The principles of religious liberty and freedom of conscience materialized in the right of any religious community to constitute itself as a "religious society" (Religionsgesellschaft), which can receive the status of "corporation of public law" (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts). This status, which was initially conceived for the Catholic and Protestant churches, defined the churches' relation to the state as a partnership and allowed for its internal autonomy.

The respective institutional arrangements constituting the relationship between state and religion have determined to a certain degree the ways in which both countries have set out to integrate Islam as a "newcomer" religion. However, at least as important as the institutional arrangements of secularism in each country are the representations of Islam that dwell in the respective national imaginaries. For France, which has an intensive colonial history with many parts of the Muslim world—a history that produced a traumatic memory through the decolonization of Algeria—Islam is considered the racial and religious Other par excellence. This perception is perpetuated in mainstream discourses that question Islam's compatibility with the principle of laïcité. Here, it is the minority religion of post-colonial Muslim populations (rather than the once dominant Catholic church) that emerges at laïcité's main antagonist. The nationwide headscarf debates between 1989 and 2004 repeatedly posed the question of Islam's capacity to integrate into a French secular environment.

As the Islamic revival movement grew in France and as anxiety increased about the possibility of Islamic extremism spilling over from Algeria into France in the 1990s, the state began to put more sustained effort into initiatives that aimed to better integrate the Muslim community and to produce a form of Islam that would be able to become "French." State actors sought to establish a national representative authority capable of serving as an interlocutor vis-à-vis the French state and its institutions as well as of regulating the Muslim community (Ferrari 2006; Caeiro 2006). These initiatives aimed to domesticate Islam, especially by stripping foreign sources of any influence on French Islam and by encouraging a "moderate" version of Islam. They resulted in the establishment of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Islamic Council) in 2003 (see Bowen 2007).

Mosque construction was one instance in which the state tried to regulate Islamic life. Muslims in France had commonly worshipped in makeshift prayer halls (often in the basements of housing projects in the banlieues, densely populated with immigrants and their descendants), which became the imagined spaces of the new wave of Islamism. From the 1990s onward, French authorities called for Muslims to be brought "out of the basements" and helped them to build proper houses of worship. Initially the idea was to build "Cathedral Mosques" that were highly visible in central locations and of prestigious architectural design. Nowadays, the initiatives have shifted to respond to the realities of "neighborhood Islam" (Maussen 2007). Although many municipalities continue to prevent Muslim associations from building mosques, others have shown willingness to facilitate the building of mosques or cultural centers in densely populated Muslim neighborhoods. That willingness was connected to the effort to have some control over these spaces (Bowen 2010; Césari 2005; Maussen 2007). If one sees among these local authorities a wide range of attitudes in terms of their readiness to cooperate with Muslims on this issue, the situation is much bleaker in regard to Muslim private schools. As of yet, none of the very few existing schools has been accredited by French authorities (Bowen 2010).


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Table of Contents

Contents and Abstracts

2'I Want to Instruct Myself to Strengthen my Faith': Learning in Islamic Institutions
chapter abstract

Chapter Two discusses what my interlocutors considered the most pivotal moments in their own process of becoming "committed" or "practicing" Muslims, namely, the phase of studying Islam. For these women, this shift takes place within institutes for Islamic learning that proliferate today in European urban centers. Moving beyond the existing studies of these centers, defined by an interest in institutions and religious authorities, I argue that the significance of these study circles, which employ a quite different pedagogy than traditional Islamic institutions of learning, lies in their role of building new kinds of 'affective' communities and in fashioning new types of Islamic sensibilities and dispositions. Aspiring to live an "authentic" Islam that does not obstruct leading a "modern" and European life-style, these 'new' Islamic communities of young, European-born practitioners situate themselves in sharp contrast to a parental generation, criticized for its traditional and unreflective Islam.

3'Your Nafs Pulls You Down, Your Spirit Up': Struggling for Virtuosity
chapter abstract

Chapter Three studies the many obstacles my interlocutors face in learning and enacting the various embodied Islamic practices that define a virtuous Muslim woman. The ethnographic material looks in particular at ritual prayer (salat) and modesty in dress and conduct. Because adopting these practices occurs in a secular context where the practices' underlying assumptions cannot be taken for granted, this chapter also investigates how the women themselves reason, question, and justify, and rehearse these acts. I link these various and at times conflicting modes of reasoning to the women's effort to find a balance between competing normative claims coming from dominant secular liberal discourses and from the religious tradition as transmitted in the Islamic circles.

4'My Label Is Not a Feminist, It Is Simply Muslim': Beyond Emancipation Versus Submission
chapter abstract

Chapter Four exposes the women's difficulties in finding and internalizing an Islamic language for women's dignity and self-realization that can provide an alternative to dominant languages of equality, individual rights and autonomy. This is complicated by the fact that the book's interlocutors have been shaped by these liberal values as promoted by the mainstream French or German society. While they consider female empowerment intrinsically related to the effort to live an authentic Islam, learning to submit to orthodox Islamic principles becomes equally decisive in the struggle for virtuosity and piety. These principles are justified with their insistence on the primacy of social responsibility, mutuality, and dependency, at the heart of their ethical framework. By linking the study of ethical self-cultivation to an understanding of a broader social ethics, this chapter serves as a hinge between Chapters 2 and 3 and Chapters 5 and 6.

5'Housewife with Diploma?': Educated Women between Family and the Workplace
chapter abstract

Chapter Five continues the discussion of Chapter 2 on the role of knowledge acquisition, but pushes it into the context of secular or academic knowledge. It analyzes the women's understanding of education in its broader societal significance, becoming central to their social ethics. Not only is education conceived as one of the important elements for leading a self-fulfilled life, it is especially significant for defining the (gendered) social roles of Muslim women: motherhood and professional career. This chapter shows how education turns into an ethical practice defined by a devotion to the community's collective improvement, which is complicated by personal ambition, aspiration and desire. Looking at personal trajectories and heated debates in the Islamic centers, this chapter illustrates how the women's understanding of their multiple and at times conflicting social responsibilities exposes the challenges posed to contemporary Islamic discourse to define a coherent image of proper Muslim womanhood.

6Visibly Muslim? Negotiating Appearances in Public Spaces
chapter abstract

Chapter Six extents the ethnographic analysis of Islamic prayer, Islamic dress and embodied modesty codes (began in Chapter 3), but situates these practices in the context of French and German secular public spheres, where they frequently incur hostility. While my interlocutors understand these religious duties first and foremost in terms of self-techniques supposed to fashion and strengthen a pious self, I illustrate how these practices, in hostile contexts, also get intertwined with concerns about representation: The women aspire to secure recognition not only for themselves and their practices but also for the broader Muslim community and Islam in general. Exceeding many current discussions around "identity politics," I expose the complex ethical reasoning that is involved in the women's negotiations of visibilities and invisibilities: They do not merely consider questions regarding personal salvation, but they also constantly take into account their multiple obligations toward the broader community.

7Pious Citizens?
chapter abstract

Chapter Seven, the conclusion, undertakes a reflection about the theoretical consequences of my interlocutors' modes of ethical practice and reasoning for our understanding of citizenship and civic virtues. Even contemporary thinkers of pluralism and multiculturalism still define civic virtues mainly as "secular," considering them as the main condition for enabling a space that transcends (divisive) difference. I use this final chapter to make a case for taking seriously non-secular civic virtues when theorizing accounts of citizenship intended to account for pluralist and 'post-secular' societies. This kind of theorizing is crucial for critiquing the transformations of citizenship in contemporary European political discourse and practice, which prove to be more and more exclusionary for (religious) minorities.

1Practicing Islam in Inhospitable Environments
chapter abstract

This chapter gives an overview of the book's argument, organization and overarching theoretical contributions. It examines the challenges faced by scholars studying Islamic practices within contexts in which Islam has become increasingly stigmatized. The chapter further introduces the book's understanding of ethical practice in its twofold dimension, as non-linear and always emergent and never completed self-cultivation and as a deeply relational and situational moral reasoning. Finally, it describes the interlocutors and the empirical setting of a multi-sited ethnography in two different national contexts.

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