John Bowen offers a masterful response to those who would, in the wake of the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, double-down on Jacobin republicanism and radical secularism as the only means of protecting French national identity and “integrating” France’s Muslims. As he observes, there are other long-standing French political traditions that could sustain a more inclusive France, where it is possible to be both Muslim and French.
Bowen focuses in part on civic associations because associational life has been a key feature of the “return” to Islam by the children and grandchildren of immigrants from the Maghreb and West Africa. As Bowen’s work and mine shows, hundreds of local Muslim associations dot the country, offering after-school programs, job counseling, weekend social activities, and Arabic language classes; some also offer seminars on Islam, as well as on political issues in France. A few host voter registration drives. Although many have the title “Muslim” in their name, most of these associations do not restrict their activities to Muslims. They see themselves as instilling values of both Islam and citizenship: self-respect, care for neighbors, personal responsibility, political awareness, and concern for the natural and built environment.
Republicanism itself is the barrier to acceptance.
In other words, these Muslim civic associations are part of a long tradition of republican citizenship. According to historians Sudhir Hazareesingh and Philip Nord, associational activities, including those of Jewish and Protestant associations, played a constitutive role in the making of French citizenship and the growth of participatory democracy in the late nineteenth century. Republican thinkers believed that voluntary associations trained men and women in the habits of democratic life.
Yet, republicans routinely accuse Muslim associations, even those that express a clear commitment to practicing citizenship, of promoting an inward-looking, separatist identity. These republicans argue that it is contradictory to claim both a publicly Muslim identity and French citizenship and find it paradoxical to “use Muslim values . . . in order to construct a political and citizen-oriented sense of collective belonging,” as the anthropologist Dounia Bouzar puts it.
In disparaging Muslim French for highlighting their Muslim identity, these critics emphasize the unmediated relationship between citizen and state central to the French republican project. This leaves no room for particular interests and culminates in a universal, abstract general will.
But the general will has never been abstract or universal. Rather, it has represented, and continues to represent, a set of particular, embodied identities—usually white, male, bourgeois, heterosexual, and secular or Catholic—that have proclaimed themselves universal. The colonial history of Algeria plainly shows this. Indigenous Arabs were governed by Muslim personal status rather than French civil law and were not made French citizens until just before independence. Yet republicans have continued to enforce a notion of citizenship as abstract, of the public sphere as neutral, and of the general will as universal.
The barrier to inclusiveness, then, is built on more than the history Bowen emphasizes. The obstacle is inherent in the philosophy of the general will. The alleged contradiction between being a Muslim and being a citizen—which underpins the criticism of Muslim associations as communalist as well as hand-wringing about Muslims’ refusal to integrate—is not generated by Muslims. It is contained within French republicanism.
As in colonial Algeria, Muslims in France are consistently tethered to their embodied, communal, racial, and religious difference. I was struck by how many Muslims in France felt compelled to declare that the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office were “not in my name.” They did so because they knew they would be held communally responsible. Muslims are not presumed to be individuals but rather members, a priori, of the “Muslim community.”
The irony of this communal overdetermination of Muslim French is that republican citizenship demands, at least of its minorities, the abstraction of any communal attachments. Muslims are therefore put in an impossible predicament: they must disavow, yet they are constantly reduced to, their communal belonging. I am less optimistic than Bowen, then, about France’s inclusive capacities, for the state’s history of compromise is matched by an equally long history of exclusion engendered by the internal contradictions of republicanism. I hope to be proven wrong.