Mayanthi L. Fernando, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2014.
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Mayanthi Fernando (MF): When I first went to the field, I imagined a more conventional ethnography of the Islamic revival in France. I was interested in how a French (and more broadly European) context, in which Muslims are a minority, transforms the ritual and hermeneutical practices of the Islamic tradition. I was asking, essentially, what effect does the fact that Muslims born and raised in France are, quite literally, schooled in French republican epistemologies and values have on their engagement with the Islamic tradition? Originally, then, I approached French secularism (laïcité) as the background condition for Muslim life in France. That changed over the course of fieldwork as secularism came into focus as my object of analysis. So the book ended up tacking back and forth between an analysis of Muslim French religiosity and the tensions and contradictions of French secularism, long-standing tensions not so much generated but rather precipitated by the presence of Muslim French. I also found that these tensions—for example, between racial/religious visibility and invisibility in dominant conceptions of Frenchness, between the universal and particular bases of French citizenship, between the overlapping spheres of religion and politics whose separation is supposed to constitute the basis of secularism—are often deferred and displaced onto France’s Muslims, who, held responsible for the Republic’s own contradictions, are de-legitimated as viable citizen-subjects.
In rethinking my earlier methodological approach, I was influenced by my late professor Michel-Rolph Trouillot and the distinction he made between one’s object of observation and one’s object of study (or object of analysis). As I noted, I initially envisioned a classic ethnography of Muslim French life, in which my object of observation and my object of study were one: Muslims in France. Paying heed to the experiences of my Muslim French interlocutors, however, led me to widen my analytical lens, turning it towards the source of their often tenuous predicament—namely, the secular Republic’s discourses, institutions, and political and legal practices. For example, if my Muslim interlocutors insisted on their Frenchness, why were their claims so easily dismissed by the majority? If they insisted that the headscarf was both a choice and an obligation, why was this so hard for secular law and public discourse to grasp? In other words, although Muslim French experiences remained my object of observation (the majority of my fieldwork was done with Muslim French civic activists), republican secularism emerged as my object of study.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
MF: My Muslim interlocutors often referred to themselves as French citizens of Muslim faith (citoyens français de confession musulmane); they are women and men committed to practicing Islam as French citizens and to practicing French citizenship as pious Muslims. For them, democratic citizenship and public religiosity are entirely compatible. Moreover, they understand themselves as French, staking a claim to France and its future. This entails working against their social, political, and economic marginalization, and against a dominant imaginary that continually excludes Muslims.
As an ethnography of Muslim French life, and of their interpellation by the secular French state, this book addresses a number of inter-related topics: the French Islamic revival; secularism and public religiosity; minority difference and citizenship; the nexus of race and religion in the figure of the Muslim Other; and the colonial genealogies of many of these contemporary issues. In taking up these various topics, I make three main scholarly interventions.
The first concerns how to approach the Islamic revival in France, which most scholars understand as a reaction to exclusion. They thereby tend to treat Islam as a means for various ends: social valorization, communal identification, existential comfort, and so on. Without disputing the fact that some revivalists begin their self-transformation in reaction to social exclusion and Islamophobia, I try to go further and examine in more depth Muslim French engagements with theological, doctrinal, and hermeneutical debates within the Islamic tradition, and how these engagements end up reconfiguring both the Islamic tradition and the secular-republican one.
The second intervention concerns the complicated nexus of race/religion in France. A number of scholars have privileged an analytic of racial difference in thinking about Islamophobia; I focus on the distinctive problem that public Muslim religiosity poses for the secular state. I think that using a framework that flattens race, religion, and culture or that considers religion epiphenomenal to race (and class) can often lead us to misunderstand both the French state’s exclusions and the kind of counterclaims that Islamic revivalists make. At the same time, I try to keep in mind that the very distinction between “race” and “religion” is problematic, and that race and religion have long formed a nexus for this particular population: in colonial Algeria, for example, “natives” (indigènes), “Arabs” (arabes), and “Muslims” (musulmans) were coextensive terms referring to the same group of people. In tracing the continuities and discontinuities between colonial and postcolonial constructions of race and religion, I show how racialization and secularization intersect to produce contemporary forms of Muslim alterity (including the figure of the secular Muslim). Indeed, I attend to the inconsistencies of racial and religious thinking—to the production of race and religion as distinct ontologies, on the one hand, and to the simultaneous isomorphism of race and religion in the figure of the Muslim, on the other hand.
My final intervention concerns secularism, which in France and elsewhere is generally understood to entail the political and juridical separation of church and state. Many in France laud the way the secular state, through various acts of legislation in the nineteenth century, instituted state neutrality and guaranteed religious freedom. I tell a different story that takes laïcité as a sustained project of governmentality. This story is about the imbrication of religion and politics rather than their separation, about active state management rather than neutrality, and about the production of religious subjects rather than simply the guarantee of their freedom. It therefore treats recent laws against veiling (usually understood as repressive tactics) and the state’s establishment of institutions like the French Council on the Muslim Religion (usually understood as an inclusionary gesture) as part of an array of disciplinary techniques aimed at cultivating properly religious Muslim subjects.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
MF: In the wake of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, I hope this book reaches a broad audience. I have been really troubled by the slippages and amalgamations, the way a conversation about jihadist terrorism so easily becomes a conversation about Islam and French Muslims generally. These amalgamations and the assignation of communal responsibility—what I call the burden of representation—are something I take up in the book. I have also been troubled by the series of myths about French secularism and French republicanism being spun in the aftermath of the attacks, both in France and in the American public sphere. Many are uncritically affirming French national identity and French laïcité and focusing instead on Muslims’ ostensible refusal to integrate. I hope that my book goes some way to demonstrating that the supposed impossibility of being a Muslim and being a French citizen is largely generated by the contradictions of French secularism, and by the majority’s incapacity to conceive of Muslims as French.
While this incapacity to conceive of Muslims as French is obviously much less pronounced in scholarly literature (leaving aside those who favor a “clash of civilizations” framework), it exists in softer form. This is evidenced by the dominant analytic paradigm of immigration-integration that underpins many studies of Arab-Muslim life in France. I am constantly struck by how entrenched the incommensurability between Muslim and French remains in the trans-Atlantic scholarly imagination. Most analyses of Islam in France continue to revolve around the issues of immigration and integration and ask, essentially: Are Muslims integrated, and if not, how can they be? Even studies arguing that Muslims are better integrated than previously assumed reinforce the trope of integration, and with it, the sense that Muslims may be in France but not of France. Studies still invoke “host societies” and “third-generation immigrants,” the latter term a downright oxymoron. By beginning with the assumption that Muslims are French—hence my neologism “Muslim French”—I try to shift the conversation away from the tired trope of integration to ask a different set of questions and engage with a different set of ideas—about citizenship, pluralism, secularism, and justice—all of which will, I hope, unsettle standard notions both of France and of Islam.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
MF: My next project attends to the nexus of sex and religion in the articulation of modern secularity, and to the fraught relationship between the public/private distinction so central to secular-liberal democracy and the secular state’s consistent regulation of minority subjects’ sexuality and religion. I am interested, broadly, in how proper religion and proper sexuality are mutually constituted by secular rule, often in opposition to each other. Continuing to focus on postcolonial France (and more specifically on the legal and political regulation of religious freedom, bi-national marriage and divorce, and immigrant families), I analyze how the secular project of regulating and transforming religious life is interwoven with the project of sexual normalization, i.e. the production of secular, sexually normal immigrants and citizens. I am particularly interested in what I call the cunning of secular power, which incites the subjects of its regulation—veiled women, polygamists, and other “fundamentalists”—both to hide and to reveal their sex/religion, then brings the force of its reprobation down on those who exhibit that which must be hidden.
As part of this second project, I am co-directing (with Saba Mahmood) a Humanities Studio on Regulating Sex/Religion, funded by the University of California Humanities Research Institute. The Studio, which has partnered with Jadaliyya, examines how sexuality and religion come together in the management of minorities in Europe, the Middle East, and South Asia. Bringing together faculty and graduate students from the UC system and beyond, the Studio takes up the following questions: How are religious identities produced through the regulation of gender and sexuality by secular-modern states? And conversely, how is the normative sexuality of the modern citizen tied to the regulation of religion and the production of religious differences by these very same states? How, in other words, does the management of religious and sexual difference intertwine in the construction of secular-modern citizenship?
Excerpts from The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism
From Chapter One: “‘The Republic is Mine’”
L’Autre, or Le Musulman
Héla was born in the Parisian working-class suburb of Sartrouville to Tunisian parents who came to France in the late 1960s. She and her four brothers grew up in a household that was not particularly pious, and it was only in high school that Héla began to engage more self-consciously with the Islamic tradition, reading the Quran and studying the translated work of Islamic scholars. She started to pray regularly and decided to don the hijab at age twenty, much to the chagrin of her parents. “It was catastrophic,” she told me, laughing at her family’s horrified reaction to her patterned headscarves. “They are part of a generation,” she speculated, “that wanted above all to integrate. I don’t think about France like that.” What Héla meant was that she took for granted her belonging, her Frenchness, her integration. “I’m French,” she said, “I vote here, I obey the law here, and once I’m done with school I’ll pay my taxes here.” She told me that the second generation are “much more vocal than their parents because they were born here, they belong here, they are French. Our parents’ generation didn’t dare claim their rights. The second generation, we know our rights, we’re waking up, we’re demanding more things than our parents ever did.”
Unlike her parents, who have now retired to their family’s village, Héla feels little attachment to Tunisia. But with her hijab, she also has a difficult time living in France. “The French don’t like difference,” she told me. “You can’t wear [the headscarf] in schools, no one will hire you for jobs, and you can’t wear it for work if you work in the public sector. Even in the private sector, you’re not technically barred from wearing it, but you won’t get hired because people are prejudiced, and the government does nothing about this kind of discrimination.”
Héla should know. She is currently doing a PhD in sociology with a focus on gender in Iran, despite the fact that she is certain she will never obtain a teaching post in France as long as she continues to wear her headscarf. After all, few people seem able to look past the scarf. In a telling example, her professor of Persian consistently referred to her in class as Madame le Voile. After returning from a year of fieldwork in Iran, Héla has tried to find temporary jobs while she writes her thesis. That has been difficult, too. In 2008, she applied for a job teaching adults computer literacy, but her prospective employers illegally asked her to remove her headscarf, and she refused; they turned her down warning her that she would never find a job dressing as she does. Undeterred, Héla soon found a position tutoring at-risk immigrant-origin youth in another Parisian suburb. Though she started as a temporary replacement for a tutor on medical leave, she was asked to remain permanently. Unfortunately for Héla, the former tutor came to visit her old colleagues, declared it “scandalous” that a veiled woman would be in an educational role, and threatened to take the issue to the local municipal government, which has a contract with the tutoring agency. Fearing a crisis, her employers asked Héla to resign, which she did. When I noted that she had every legal right to remain and should sue her employers for discrimination and wrongful termination, Héla replied that she simply did not want to go through the hassle and expense of pursuing legal action.
There were other daily reminders that she was a figure of alterity. When we were together in public, I witnessed the stares and comments from random passers-by. Conversing over lunch in central Paris, for example, we were interrupted by a server who paused in front of our table, looked at Héla, and said, “You’re Muslim!” “Yes,” Héla replied evenly. He laughed and went on his way, and Héla shrugged. Other encounters were more ominous, like the drunken white Frenchman who accosted her one night, shouting, “Go back to your country, you dirty whore.” Or the middle-aged white woman who, at the height of the North Atlantic Treat Organization’s war against the Taliban, stopped Héla on the street and said kindly, “Don’t worry, you’ll soon be liberated.” Héla has a theory that the frequency of street comments like these is linked to whether Islam is in the news or not, a theory supported by annual reports compiled by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (Collectif contre l’Islamophobie en France, or CCIF). Héla told me in the summer of 2009—after government-led campaigns against various forms of veiling and a corresponding rise in attacks on veiled women—that she now stands well away from the tracks in the metro, since “you never know if some crazy person is going to see your veil and push you off the platform. People have really lost their minds about it.” And she recounted a 2008 trip to visit her cousins in Holland, recalling how strange it was that no one commented on her appearance or insulted her in public during the week she was there. Laughing, she told me that her cousins jokingly offered to pay someone to insult her so that she would feel more at home.
Naming, Shaming, Reclaiming
When we spoke about the Beur generation, almost all of my interlocutors would pause, mid-sentence, to note their dislike of the term itself. This did not stem merely from an ideological disagreement with Beur politics. Something else was at work, although few of my interlocutors could say why the term made them uneasy. Farid came closest in one of our discussions about the paradigmatic Beur organization, SOS Racisme. “We were given names,” Farid recounted, “like, for example, the word Beur. I don’t like it—I’m not a Beur. I’m not a Beur because…you know, you look at the different stages in the formation of this word, what I call double-verlanization. First it was ‘the Arabs,’ then, in reverse, it’s Re-beu, then Re-beu become Beur-e, you take away the last letter, and you have the inverse of an Arab, and then, finally, you realize, you are not really the inverse of an Arab, you are between the two…but still someone separate.” Though Farid’s narrative is not entirely etymologically accurate, he nevertheless expresses a clear discomfort with the act of naming as an act of recognition.
We might productively read Farid’s claim that “we were given names” as a moment of Althusserian interpellation, whereby the individual is constituted as a subject in ideology by recognizing himself as the subject being hailed. To illustrate, Louis Althusser describes the act of hailing: “‘Hey, you there.’” He continues: “Assuming that the theoretical scene I have imagined takes place in the street, the hailed individual will turn round. By this mere one-hundred-and-eighty-degree physical conversion, he becomes a subject.…The one hailed always recognizes that it is really him who is being hailed” (1972: 174 [emphasis in original]). Subjectivation occurs in that double moment of hailing and recognition. In Althusser’s account of interpellation, it seems obvious to the subject-to-be that he should turn around, recognizing himself in the hail.
Farid’s comments interrupt the seamlessness of that moment of hailing and recognition, and of subjectivation itself. Although Farid was speaking about the term Beur, I want to extend his comments to reflect on the interpellation of French like him as “Muslims.” Recall, for instance, the various moments in Héla’s life when she has been hailed as a Muslim—for example, when we were at lunch. Recall, too, that ordinary actors, politicians, and scholars increasingly use the term Muslim to refer to the same racial and religious population that once went under the signifier Arab and later Beur. Farid’s comments evoke the difficulty of recognizing oneself and being recognized as Muslim in France—in short, of being Muslim in France. The problem for Muslim French is that they do not know whether to turn around when they are hailed as Muslim, for the Muslim being hailed and the Muslim they inhabit are not necessarily one and the same.
To put it another way, when Héla is hailed as a Muslim (“You’re a Muslim”), she certainly recognizes that it is she who is being hailed (“Yes”), but she also does not necessarily recognize herself in the Muslim being hailed (“Go back to your country”), in the way that Muslim has come to be defined as backward, retrograde, fundamentalist, and, ultimately, that which is not French. Unlike the Muslim being hailed, she does not need to be liberated, and she is already at home. Conversely, that disjuncture repeats itself in the uncanniness—and remember that the German unheimliche (Freud 1919, 219n1) literally means unhomely—of being Muslim French in France. After all, Héla feels most at home when she is being insulted, when she is unwelcome in her own home, and when Muslim French like her are asked by politicians like Morano to adhere to a welcome contract in their own home. Part of the struggle of being Muslim French entails the predicament of being doubly Muslim and uncannily French, both overdetermined as Muslim and unhomely as French.
I purposely use the term overdetermined to evoke another well-known moment of naming, recognition, and interpellation, when, in Black Skin, White Masks, Frantz Fanon describes walking by a white child and her mother in a train car:
“Look, a Negro!” It was a passing sting. I attempted a smile.…“Look, a Negro!”…“I’m scared!” Scared! Scared!…I wanted to kill myself laughing, but laughter had become out of the question. I couldn’t take it any longer, for I knew there were legends, stories, history, and especially the historicity that Jaspers had taught me.…I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and my ancestors. I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all, yes, above all, the grinning Y a bon Banania.” (Fanon 2008, 92 [emphasis in original])
Fanon depicts the representational burden that certain subjects must carry, a burden fixed in and through the moments of recognition that bring them into being as subjects. The moment of recognition that Fanon describes, similar to the naming that Farid decries, “fixes the meaning of one’s self before one even has had the opportunity to live and make a self more nearly of one’s own choosing” (Holt 1995: 2 [emphasis in original]). The hailed subject is both fixed and affixed to a community and a history, responsible for her body, her race, and her ancestors. Like Fanon, Héla does not have to speak to be recognized as Muslim, nor does she have to speak afterward; the dominant public already knows what she has to say, what she really is. The discursive amalgamations and semiotic collapses I outlined earlier testify to this ontological fixing, and to the radical disindividuation of Muslims in France.
It remains entirely unsurprising, therefore, that the Stasi Commission invited only two women in headscarves to its hearings, only on the very last day, and only as an afterthought. The very act of wearing a headscarf ostensibly says everything that needs to be said; according to Stasi himself, the headscarf can have only one “objective” meaning, namely, “the alienation of women” (quoted in Gresh 2013). This reductive moment does not merely deny the polysemy of the veil as object but of the veiled subject as well. A woman in a headscarf becomes the headscarf; she is simply Madame Le Voile and can never be more than a Muslim. How, then, to be Muslim and French, to be Muslim French, against the weight of the overdetermination that being Muslim in France entails?
 Héla has some cause for concern. In May 2010 near Nantes, one female shopper attacked another wearing the niqab, likening her to the demon Belphegor and ripping off her veil (P. Allen 2010). In a second incident in October 2010 in Paris, a female French pensioner first demanded that an Emirati woman remove her niqab and then attacked her, ripping off her veil, scratching her face, and biting her hand (Samuel 2010).
 Banania is a breakfast drink first marketed in 1917. It comes in a yellow box with an African infantryman on the front, drinking his Banania and saying “Y a bon Banania,” a white French copywriter’s idea of how an African says C’est bon, Banania (It’s good, Banania) (Macey 2001, 29).
[Excerpted from The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism, by Mayanthi Fernando, by permission of the author. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.]