Why France Fears Islam

May 9, 2017
Why France Fears Islam
Jocelyne Cesari. / Photo: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Jocelyne Cesari is a Visiting Professor of Religion and Politics at HDS. She is a senior fellow at the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs at Georgetown University, Professor of Religion and Politics at University of Birmingham (England), and Deputy Director for Internationalisation and Collaboration at the Edward Cadbury Centre for the Public Understanding of Religion.

On May 8, 2017, she delivered at talk at Harvard's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, "Why France Fears Islam: Religion, Democracy And Human Rights In The Time Of Elections." He remarks, edited for clarity and length, can be read below.

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In the last days leading to the first round of the French presidential elections, the talk of the town was… an Islamic bar. This is not the lead-in to a joke: It was a very serious and heated discussion about a bar in Sevran (a densely Muslim populated suburb on the outskirts of Paris) that did not accept female customers.

"There's no mixing in this bar," one client was heard saying.

"You're not in Paris here... it's a different mentality, it's like the village back home (in north Africa)," said another.

In many ways, the “Islamic bar” sums up the French worries about Muslims being fundamentalists who subjugate and repress women, even in the heart of liberal and secular France. This perception that contrasts Islam to liberal France is not new and is not even specific to France. It has, however, heavily influenced the political debate and contributed to the rise of the National Front. Although Marine Le Pen has been defeated, it would be misleading to think that anti-Islamic rhetoric and actions are going to disappear from the French political scene. What can explain the political persistence of such a fear?

As a caveat, let’s note that the empirical evidence concerning the political and religious behaviors of Muslims does not match the putative monolithic and oppressive religion conveyed in the French perception. Numerous inquiries of Muslims in France actually draw a complex and rich web of meanings and behaviors both on what it is to be a Muslim and a citizen in France or in most of European countries. In fact, it is not possible from the existing data to conclude that Islamic religiosity impinges on political participation or civic engagement or is a decisive factor in the lack of women’s rights. Even more interestingly, the data reveals that Islam is not per se the main factor in the building of Muslims’ social identities or in their political participation. Instead, other elements—ethnicity, class, and residential distribution among them—have an effect that requires further investigation.

If not Muslims’ behaviors, then what explains the fear? Three political and cultural factors fuel the fear of Islam: War on Terror, Salafization of Islamic thinking, and French laicite. The first two factors are common to all European countries and the United States. The international war against radical Islam has led to Islam being viewed as an existential threat to French political and security interests. The consequences of this “emergency” mentality on the day-to-day management of Islamic practices are concrete: ban of niqab, expulsion of imams, limitations on the building of mosques. The second factor is the globalization of the Saudi/salafi religious doctrine, which over the last 30 years has become one of the most visible and widespread interpretations of Islam and disseminates an intolerant and anti-Western practice of Islam. Both factors have contributed to establish Muslims as the enemies of the West.

More domestic factors, however, have channeled this fear of the external enemy in France. The rise of the “Islamic problem” is without a doubt due to the fact that Muslims stand at the core of three major social “problems”—immigration, class and economic integration, and ethnicity and multiculturalism. In fact, political debates culturalize issues of social mobility or economic advancement by focusing primarily on Muslims and making them somewhat the cause—not the victims—of such issues. Thus, immigration and integration policies are increasingly justified in cultural terms with the underlying assumption of a Clash of Civilizations.

Despite the fact that the majority of Muslims are culturally integrated, Islam is not seen as compatible with French liberal and secular principles. Islam is seen as external and alien to the history and shared memory of the French national community. In this respect, liberalism and secularism are the two major idioms used by all political actors to contrast French values to Islam.

Although she has been cautious to distinguish between Islam and Islamism, the head of the National Front has called the latter “a monstrous totalitarian ideology that has declared war on our nation, on reason, on civilization,” after a deadly Kalashnikov attack on police officers in Paris. She has presented herself as the only credible politician able to win this war and has associated it with war against all globalizing forces in general, including the EU.

“We cannot afford to lose this war…for the past ten years, Left-wing and Right-wing governments have done everything they can for us to lose it. We need a presidency which acts and protects us,” she declared, calling on President François Hollande to terminate France’s membership of the EU’s borderless Schengen area. “What is at stake in this election,” she announced at her opening campaign event in Lyon in February 2017, “is whether France can still be a free nation. The divide is no longer between the left and right, but between patriots and globalists!" 

It would be misleading to think that this existential war is waged only on the margins of European societies. In fact, numerous opinions surveys show that the perception of Islam as a danger to Western core political values is shared across political allegiances. 

This political discourse reflects the rise of a new type of liberalism which pitches itself against the recognition of religious and cultural diversity. It is important to emphasize that, historically, political liberalism at the foundation of Western democracies is not necessarily incompatible with the recognition of pluralism. Based on the principle of toleration, the liberal state is traditionally expected to grant equality to citizens of all religious and cultural backgrounds. In contrast, the new liberal discourse that is spreading across Europe sees recognition of minority religious rights as a threat to freedom of expression and women’s rights, which are apprehended as the core values of national communities. Hence, it advocates a strong cultural assimilation of newcomers. In these conditions, all groups and individuals are required to demonstrate conformity to these liberal values in order to become legitimate members of national communities.

The presence of Islam unveils (pun intended) the specifics of French secular culture. In France, laicite means separation of state and religion, privatization of religious activities, and decline of religious practices. Therefore when citizens with a religious background are contradicting this universalism by adopting dress code, dietary rules, or other religious obligations with social implications, the secular political cultures of the West are in crisis. Muslims are troublesome because they express their individuality through religious postures that for most of Europeans are not compatible with the idealized secular civism. Laicite has become more than a legal and constitutional principle: It has morphed into the identity marker of the French nation and state—a creed that one has to abide by in order to be a good citizen. 

Security issues combined with the fundamentalist French laicite have turned Muslims into political and ontological enemies inside and outside. They are internal enemies because they seem to endanger the core liberal values of France, as well as adding a burden to social problems like unemployment or ghettoization of some urban areas. They are also the external enemies because of the war on terror and the rise of violent Islamic activism. Under these conditions, any expression of Islamic identity or practice, from head covering to dietary rules, is seen as a political act and therefore deemed illegitimate.

This double process of estrangement and externalization from the national community has deeply influenced the integration policies in France by questioning citizenship acquisition and undermining the recognition of cultural diversity. Even more disconcerting, the externalization of Islam puts the “burden of proof” on Muslims alone, making symbolic integration a unilateral process of assimilation to French values with a strong emphasis on laicite presented as a universal norm.

To avoid a unilateral symbolic integration of Muslims within the French national community would require a dramatic change in the current liberal and secularist narratives. But can such a daunting task be achieved?