In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Paris, John Bowen’s insightful call for religious toleration and pragmatic pluralism is particularly welcome. I am sympathetic to most of his proposals, which boil down to the equal treatment of all religions—instead of the current obsessive focus on Muslims—and reasonable accommodations of religious practices rather than the multiplication of legal boundaries against a putatively dangerous Islam.
However, I would argue that his emphasis on religion—hence the appeal to a more flexible secularism, the demand for more Muslim chaplains in prisons, the invitation to develop Islamic education, etc.—may obscure the central challenge, which is more social and political than religious.
Religion is not the problem. Domination is.
Islam is frequently a proxy for class and race. Muslims are often discriminated against or stigmatized not so much owing to their religion but because they belong to the lower segments of society, live in disadvantaged neighborhoods, and differ by the color of their skin. This is not a recent phenomenon. In colonial Algeria, the Arabs were designated as Muslims, their religion serving to differentiate them from the French settlers starting in 1834 and from Jews after 1870. Being Muslim meant being subject to the Code de l’indigénat, a set of laws codifying the inferior status of natives and allowing for their policing by the colonial power. But the point was not to denigrate Islam; it was to ensure power over the colonized.
During my study of law enforcement practices in the banlieues between the 2005 and 2007 riots, I was surprised to find that racism directed against African immigrants, Arabs, and blacks was not associated with Islamophobia. I never heard a disparaging comment on religion even though almost of all those who were stopped, frisked, and arrested were Muslims: they were mistreated as Africans, Arabs, blacks, or “bastards” as the police called them—not Muslims. Of course, this may be changing, as anti-Islamic rhetoric has become more common in the public sphere, among politicians, in intellectual circles, and even at the highest level of the state under Sarkozy’s presidency.
In the overcrowded prison where I conducted fieldwork between 2009 and 2013, half of the inmates were Muslim, but their disproportionate representation behind bars had nothing to do with their faith. In the past three decades, the French prison population has doubled thanks largely to the criminalization of low-income men belonging to ethnic minorities and residing in housing projects—most of whom happen to be Muslim. Addressing prison radicalization therefore requires not just the identification and isolation of those suspected of Islamic extremism, as the government has recently decided. More important is to reduce the number of people, mostly Muslims, who are incarcerated for minor offenses. Alternative sanctions for petty crimes would reduce exposure to the dangerous influence of jihadists.
Returning to the recent events, the attitude of the vast majority of Muslims, who condemn the attacks but at the same time disapprove of insulting caricatures of Muhammad, has raised suspicion. Why would they not say, “I am Charlie”? Why would they not recognize the inalienable right to free speech? Why would they not profess the secular creed of the republic? After all, the pope has also been lampooned, and Catholics did not protest.
Again, it is not enough to interpret these tensions in terms of religion—even if it could be argued that ardent secularists and defenders of free speech often adopt a religious tone. Power factors are at work. The sensitivity of Muslims to the insistent ridiculing of their faith occurs at a time of persistent and profound marginalization. Ten years ago, the most respected national newspaper in France published a front-page op-ed entitled “I Hate Islam.” A decade later, not much has changed: a popular right-wing intellectual proposes deporting five million Muslims, mosques are frequently the object of aggression and degradation, and governments remain timid in their responses to Islamophobia or even openly encourage it. Satire definitely has a different meaning when the target is the dominant, as has traditionally been the case, and when it is the dominated, as in the case of French Muslims. Their susceptibility is not just a function of Islamic values: it is first and foremost a function of their domination.
I do not mean to contradict Bowen’s sound recommendations. But the changes he envisages might be more difficult to achieve than he thinks precisely because the roots of the problem are deeply inscribed in history and because they involve not only religious intolerance but also racial discrimination, social inequality, and political oppression. Islamophobia is only the new face of an older phenomenon, which finds its current justification in the violent radicalization of a few individuals.