This guest post is written by Jennifer Fredette, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio University. Her book, “Constructing Muslims in France,” was published by Temple University Press in 2014.
Last week, Erik Bleich and Rahsaan Maxwell wrote that Muslims in France have been largely successful in integrating into the nation. However, two days later, Kim Yi Dionne argued that “things are looking pretty grim” when it comes to Muslim integration into France. Both pieces are correct. How can this be?
This apparent paradox is caused by the word “integration,” which has taken on a very particular connotation in French political discourse. The social scientific definition of “integration” refers to a dual process whereby immigrants embrace and become invested in their new home and are, in turn, accepted as equals by those who were there before them. In French political discourse, however, the term “integration”generally loses the reciprocal connotation. Here, a “failure of integration”refers lopsidedly to the inability of immigrants to assimilate into local customs and attitudes, consequently retaining markers of social difference that set them apart.
The central point Bleich and Maxwell make is that French Muslims identify with and participate in their nation. They are, according to the first sense of the social science definition, an integration success. Dionne stresses, however, that French Muslims remain “unintegrated” in the second sense: they are still socially and politically marginalized, suffering from discrimination in terms of employment, housing, and even treatment in school — all three of which I highlight extensively in my book “Constructing Muslims in France,” which is free to read under creative commons licensing.
Nevertheless, Bleich and Maxwell’s point about the internalization of Frenchness among Muslims needs to be made, precisely because so many voices in France continue to question, and even deny, the “Frenchness” of France’s Muslims. Politicians on the far right are not alone in questioning the civic virtues of French Muslims: they are joined by politicians on the center-right and the left. The media are full of articles questioning the Frenchness of Muslims. Several respected intellectuals have gone so far as to critique Islam or practices some Muslims choose to follow as incompatible with the Republic.
When these shapers of public opinion consistently raise criticisms of Muslims and demand legal action against the headscarf in public primary and secondary schools,universities , and beach areas; against the niqab in public; and against prayer in the streets (which resulted from a lack of prayer space and open hostility at the municipal level to mosque construction), they rarely exhibit any self-awareness that they themselves are standing in the way of the second half of integration.
Of course, it should be acknowledged that the French have a very different model of citizenship than many other liberal democracies. The French republican ideal of citizenship envisages a collection of people who regard themselves in public life as individuals, and who are unified by their search for the common good over any particular affiliations or beliefs that may divide them. To engage in politics as a Muslim, rather than as a French citizen, is seen as a rejection of the fundamental premise of French civic life—in other words, a failure of integration.
But, contrary to what we frequently hear from French politicians and the media, this is not how French Muslims engage in politics. Many French activists who are Muslim adhere to the traditional ideal of “difference-blindness,” leaving their religion at home when they enter politics; others engage in French civic life as citizens and Muslims, but without prioritizing either affiliation over the other. They believe it is possible to have a hyphenated civic identity (such as when Americans identify as Asian-American) without weakening their commitment to the nation or fraternity with all its people.
Furthermore, while French politicians have long pointed fingers at Muslims for gang rape and riots, the culprits are often not Muslim and the contributing factors have much to do with the toxic stew of rampant inequality, marginalization, and educational failure that has been brewing in France’s neglected suburbs since the 1980s. Those suburbs are not populated solely by Muslims.
Dionne’s argument about the marginalization of Muslims in France is an important one, and the one that French legislators and opinion makers should be hearing, especially in light of increasing Islamophobia in France and recent hasty assumptions about French Muslim views on anti-Semitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But French elites and citizens also need to hear Bleich and Maxwell’s findings to dispel the notion that Muslim citizens are “unintegrated”— in their political sense of being un-French or even anti-France. As long as political elites continue to capitalize on and contribute to fears of Muslim citizens “not integrating,” differential treatment such as bans on religious clothing and even discrimination in housing and employment may just be seen as “defending France.”
Building on the debate spurred by the Bleich and Maxwell post, in September The Monkey Cage will feature a special series of posts highlighting recently published research on immigration in Europe. Stay tuned! — Kim Yi Dionne