John Bowen offers an intelligent description of the situation of Muslims in France today, insisting that remedies for discrimination exist within the principles and practices of the republic.
I think this analysis is correct, but limited, and I find his proposed solutions utopian. That is not because I don’t share the wish that it could be so, but because I think its realization is doubtful. Correcting economic and social discrimination will require attention to the religious discrimination upon which it is based, an issue Bowen downplays.
In colonial France, Islam was at once cause and effect of Arab inferiority.
Throughout his essay, Bowen focuses on the inability of the wider French society to reckon with visible difference in their midst. And while the analogy between African Americans and French Muslims is in many respects useful, it further narrows the focus to visible difference. But the challenge is not acceptance of people who look different; it is acceptance of Muslims, against whom the French harbor ingrained bias.
The degraded status of French Muslims is a consequence of the beliefs and practices associated with colonialism. French imperial expansion was justified in terms of the superiority of Christian and secular people to the purportedly barbaric Arabs and Muslims. If, in the United States, racism refers primarily to skin color, in France it is the religion of Islam that has become the referent for racialized identity.
The philologist Ernest Renan’s views of Islam exemplified the Orientalism that underlay the French colonial project. Renan asserted that, around the age of ten or twelve, the Muslim child
turns suddenly fanatic, full of an inane pride of possessing that which he thinks to be absolute truth . . . . This mad pride is the radical vice of the Muslim . . . . convinced that God gives fortune and power to those who obey him, irrespective of education or personal merit, the Muslim has the most profound contempt for education, science, and everything that makes up the European mind. This strain inculcated by the Islamic faith is so strong that all the differences of race and nationality disappear by the act of converting to Islam.
The solution, Renan maintained, was to end the hold of Islam over the minds of those who subscribed to it. That was the stated aim of the “civilizing mission.”
But the mission was fraught with contradiction. On the one hand, it presumed the possibility of uplifting the colonized by separating them from their religion. On the other hand, Islam was taken to be at once cause and effect of Arab inferiority. These were peoples prone to decadence, in need of civilizing yet innately immune to it. Their assimilation to French society and culture was, for that reason, unimaginable.
These colonial-era beliefs continue to inform perceptions of “immigrant” populations, whose seeming refusal to assimilate vexes officials and private citizens alike. “Défaut d’assimilation” is the essence of French Muslim culture according to judges assessing whether women can be allowed to wear the hijab or niqab in public; to former President Sarkozy, who joined others in his party explaining the 2005 riots as a result of polygamy; to teachers who describe schools in the banlieues as “the lost territories” of the republic, conjuring the striking image of colonial holdings once again forfeit. Religion remains a major factor in French objections to the deportment of postcolonial subjects, despite the fact that many are now citizens of the republic. This is true on the right and the left, as insistence on the secular identity of the nation demonstrates.
Bowen’s hope for a more inclusive France should be tempered by the fervent insistence on secularity as the republic’s answer to the slaughter at the Charlie Hebdo office. As enshrined in the 1905 law separating church and state, secularity simply means that the state is neutral in regard to religion and that it respects rights of individual conscience. But the concept of secularity has taken on a different meaning, specifically targeting Muslims by insisting on the neutrality of individuals in any public space. This nouvelle laïcité, as it is called, makes the absence of visible religious affiliation a requirement for French national identity—an impossibility for many practicing Muslims.
I don’t see how the kinds of measures Bowen and some French political figures call for will address deeply held French prejudices against Islam. Because it is this prejudice that legitimates the economic, social, and political discrimination experienced by France’s postcolonial subjects, and the French majority is not prepared to renounce the benefits this discrimination provides them.