Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State

Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State

Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State

Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State


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.


Islam and the Republic

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 . . .

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