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The Vagaries of Laïcité

[Detail from the cover of Naomi Davidson, [Detail from the cover of Naomi Davidson, "Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France"]

[This is the second of three responses to Muriam Haleh Davis’ review essay of books by Joan W. Scott, Naomi Davidson, and Mayanthi Fernando. For Joan W. Scott’s response, “More on Laïcité in Historical Context," click here.]

A cartoon by the French cartoonist Gil from 10 January, titled Communion nationale,” shows a white policeman frisking an ambiguously raced man standing against the wall with his hands in the air. “Je suis Charlie,” says the man, and the policeman replies, “Yeah, yeah, me too.” In the past month, many of us have seen an explosion of items in the French press about Muslims (be they radical/homegrown/foreign/prisoners/mentally ill/converts/eight-year old boys guilty of “apology for terrorism,” or the famous moderates); about the usefulness of “apartheid” as an analytical term to describe the division of space in French cities and banlieues; and, of course, about what laïcité can and should mean in 2015. Some of these pieces try to acknowledge the complicated intersections of religious, racial, class, gender, and other forms of difference in their attempts to make sense of what it might mean to be Charlie, or to refuse to do so, as I think the Je suis Charlie/Me too cartoon does. Muriam Haleh Davis makes good use of a range of these sources, from newspapers and online forums, in her analysis of French responses to the Charlie Hebdo massacre that also features a review of three books, mine among them.

While at first glance it may not seem connected, I would like to begin my short response to her article by thinking about a more recent piece in the left-leaning Libération (whose offices housed the staff that produced the first post-attack issue of Charlie Hebdo). In an article published 8 February, “The Very Political Nudity of Golshifteh Farahani,” two Libération journalists comment on the recent cover of the magazine Égoïste, which features a black and white nude photograph of the Iranian actress, who has been living in exile in Paris for the last several years. They cite the interview she gave to accompany her cover photograph, in which Farahani says, “Paris is the only place on the planet where women are not guilty. In the Orient, you’re guilty all the time. You’re guilty as soon as you feel your first sexual stirrings, even before adolescence. France liberated me. I think all the women in the world should spend at least a year in Paris, it should be reimbursed and obligatory.”[1]

Farahani does not reference Islam or secularism (at least as cited in the Libération article), referring only to “the Orient,” and its opposite, “Paris.”[2] I do not think I need to remind Jadaliyya’s readers of the long history of French feminists and laïcards transposing the practices of post-1979 Iran onto Muslim French (to use Mayanthi Fernando’s phrase) women, particularly in light of Joan Scott’s presence in this series.[3] I do not bring up the Farahani photo and interview to reiterate the even older Orient/Paris trope, but to highlight the difficulty of parsing laïcité, when it is so omnipresent it need not even speak its name, and when contains so many meanings that it cannot be pinned down.

Both Davis’ post and Scott’s response point to the necessity of understanding the vagaries of laïcité as it has been invoked and interpreted by different historical actors in France, rather than accepting it as a static object to be defended as some would defend the republic itself.[4] Rather than cover the ground that they have explored so thoroughly, I thought I might instead offer some preliminary reflections on the twenty-first-century afterlives of the embodiment of “Muslims” as Muslim over the course of the twentieth century in France. I found myself reading countless articles about Lassana Bathily, the young employee of the Hyper Cacher store who saved the lives of several hostages during the attack by Amedey Coulibaly. Bathily, who repeatedly stated that he did not deserve special praise, was described as Malian, often as Muslim, and always as a sans papiers, or undocumented person, who had grown up and received a high school diploma in France. On 20 January, Bathily was naturalized in a ceremony where Prime Minister Manuel Valls presided personally, speaking of his own immigrant origins; at the same ceremony, Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve spoke of his father’s career as a teacher “of the Republic,” whose classroom brought together children of different religions.[5] The communist L’Humanité emphasized that Bathily, although de confession musulmane, did not want to “insist on his religion,” and he explained in a televised interview that “we are brothers. It’s not a question of Jews, Christians, or Muslims. We’re all in the same boat, we have to help each other to get out of this crisis.”[6]

The very public celebration of Bathily has served to preclude asking many of the questions his life should force us to ask: What would have become of this young man had he not performed his heroic act on that fateful day? His requests for naturalization, in spite of support from his teachers who described him as serious and intelligent, were denied, and he was at one point ordered to leave France before finally getting a one-year residence permit. He is “de confession musulmane,” but does not “insist” on that aspect of his identity: What if his “Muslimness” were more visible and immediately legible, and what if he did “insist” upon it? Even if this young man was not always, or exclusively, described as “Muslim” in print, the photos that accompanied the articles published between the attack and his naturalization ceremony feature a head shot that shows an unsmiling young black man with a thin face, closely cut hair, and a very thin line of beard around the edge of his face. He is wearing a grey hoodie and black jacket. For many French readers seeing this photograph, it may have been hard to distinguish the face of a black, Muslim hero from that of a black, Muslim killer. Certain of Bathily’s many identities, only some of which have been revealed to a larger public in the past weeks, are always already visible.


[1] Marie Ottavi and Johanna Luyssen, “La nudité très politique de Golshifteh Farahani,” Libération 8 Février 2015.

[2] Only one of the scholars cited, the Iranian sociologist Chahla Chafiq, references Islam by saying that Farahani has “broken the wall” established by the veil’s sexual frontiers. The others, French sociologist Geneviève Fraisse and French historian Christine Bard, inscribe her action more generally as “political nudity” as undertaken by the Femen, or other individual activists.

[3] See chapter two of The Politics of the Veil, for example.

[4] I am particularly grateful for Scott’s reminder, in the third point of her response, that the cultural expressions of laïcité have largely exceeded the bounds of the legal meanings of the Law of 1905.

[5] Maryline Baumard, Lassana Bathily, « héros » du supermarché casher, naturalisé français,” Le Monde 20 janvier 2015.

[6] Alexandre Fache, Lassana Bathily, l’ex-sans-papiers devenu un héros,” L’Humanité 12 janvier 2015. Bathily’s expression of universal brotherhood across religious lines is notable for what it does not invoke, that is to say, Frenchness. It would require another response to fully engage with the Hyper Cacher and Charlie Hebdo attacks in order to work through the meanings of the expressions of “Je suis Charlie,” in competition or in tandem with “Je suis Juif,” “Je suis Ahmed,” or “Je suis Muslim,” and the ways in which each of these self-identifiers is construed in relation to Frenchness. It would also be interesting to consider the ways guilt and innocence have been assigned to the victims of these attacks, and the ways in which the victims have been identified and claimed by others, in France and outside. Some readers may be considering these reactions while remembering the infamous remark Prime Minister Raymond Barre made after the 1980 attack on a Parisian synagogue that killed four and injured many others: “This odious attack sought to strike at Jews going to synagogue, and it struck innocent Frenchmen crossing rue Copernic.”

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