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Muslims and Citizenship in Western Europe – An Introduction

0 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

Memorial created by participants in a march against the Charlie Hebdo magazine terror attack, January 7th, 2015, in front of the French Embassy in Berlin, Germany. Photo credit: Conejota


by John R. Bowen

In the now six months since the murders at the Charlie Hebdo offices and the Hyper Cacher grocery store in Paris, French political leaders have lamentably sacrificed analytical clarity for boosts in the polls. Prime Minister Manuel Valls, in a rhetorical about-face, now takes a page from the National Front to describe a “war of civilizations,” failing to explain which “civilizations” murder innocent people or how it could then be that Muslims have been the majority to die from jihadi terrorists. The “new” Nicolas Sarkozy calls for “assimilation” of Muslims, which apparently should include abolishing the widespread practice of offering a substitute for pork at public school cafeterias, and forbidding headscarves at universities.

Across Europe, of course, the political spectrum is fast shifting rightward, as some seek quick electoral advantage from attacks on Islam, Muslims, and immigration. The apparent success of Marine Le Pen in creating a far-right bloc in the European Parliament will probably amplify such attacks, as will the heightened crisis of refugee settlement. It is, of course, quite useful to these politicians to mix together what are quite distinct issues – combating jihadi terrorism, continuing to integrate Islam into national religious structures, and addressing the burning issues of refugee settlement.

It is precisely because of the move toward short-term thinking and analytical confusion that those of us who study these issues must offer long-term perspectives and analytical clarity. The contributors to this issue do so from varied vantage points. Let me underscore several of their contributions.

Fortunately, some contributors trace the formation of colonial subjects. Todd Shepard examines the complex set of French claims made regarding French Algeria in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Algerian Muslims, unlike Jews and all people of European origins, were French nationals, but rarely French citizens. This was, so went the claim, not because of their race or religion, but because individual Muslims had not chosen to abandon Islamic civil law and embrace its French equivalent. This was so – and here is a close parallel with today’s ways of thinking in France and Germany – because they were suppressed by their own group thinking and needed to be liberated from it. Nora El Qadim’s essay is an important complement to Shepard’s, in that it focuses on how the idea of stripping people of their French citizenship has been used as a way of stigmatizing social categories – usually people of North African origins – even in cases where such steps could not be legally done because doing so would leave them with no nationality, a clear violation of their human rights.

These essays remind us that ‘citizenship’ has formed a complex and shifting set of ideas. In each country it has stood in particular legal relationships to ‘nationality’ or, as in Britain, to ‘subjecthood.’ Citizenship can include various scaled components: voting rights may be accorded at a local, but not a national level; residence and travel rights may stop short of full nationality. Citizenship also has great rhetorical potential to oppose an ‘us’ to a particular ‘them.’ Consider how in France many use ‘immigrant’ to refer to people born in France whose parents came from, say, Algeria – but never to refer to Manuel Valls, born in Spain, or Nicolas Sarkozy, whose father came from Hungary. We may see further inflections of citizenship, especially if the current refugee crisis – which is every bit as much a political challenge to solidarity and European cooperation as it is a grave humanitarian challenge – leads to new notions of long-term residence without citizenship.

It is difficult to overstate the massive psychosocial impact of the Algerian War on French political and cultural thinking, but Jim House reminds us that other effects of colonial rule also shape contemporary social life, yet are less frequently acknowledged. These include the ways in which many of North African origins in France continue to frame everyday interactions in terms of identities as ‘Arabs’ or ‘Berbers,’ or the often sharp accusations of racism by West Africans toward ‘Arabs.’

What we can perhaps most capaciously call cultural racism can of course take many forms, from anti-Semitism to what many now call Islamophobia. Tahir Abbas places British cultural racism in the context of urban settlement, reminding us that Muslim workers settled in those urban areas soon to experience industrial decline, and that white racism focused on immigrants when they were seen as competitors for jobs rather than as a needed addition to the labor force. Cultural racism, which in Britain has changed the identity of its target from black, to ‘Pakistani,’ to Muslim, now has, across Europe, augmented its register of anti-Islamic claims from plots to take over Europe to an intrinsic incompatibility between Islam and European values – a claim upheld by most French people, for example. But current cultural racism usually mixes together schemas about religion, culture, violence, and gender – all as an embodied package. The Salafi woman Asma interviewed by Fareen Parvez is quite clear-headed in her fear and avoidance of the violent skinheads who hang out in certain bars in central Lyon, but because of their tendency to attack people who look different, not because of their reasoned critiques of Islam.

Racism toward Muslims can of course coexist with a range of views on the part of those labeled as Muslims themselves. As Erik Bleich writes, most Muslims in France and in other Western European countries feel a part of the country. Indeed, in some cases they express greater trust in government, or in civil courts, than do other citizens of those countries. At the same, time, many also consider that they are not seen as full citizens by all their fellow countrymen – even if they were born in that country and have full citizenship rights. We see how ‘identity’ offers little analytical help here; more useful is to examine the attitudes, perceptions, and interactions of ‘Muslim’ and other citizens.

One such perception surfaces in a number of essays: that Muslim women need the state to rescue them, not only from male domination but from their incapacity to recognize such domination. Tilman Lanz, drawing on work by Katherine Ewing, concisely depicts the dominant German schemas about vulnerable Muslim women needing to be saved from malicious Muslim men, and thus rejoins Shepard’s historical analysis. The same ideas were basic to the Stasi Commission’s 2003 claims that a ban on headscarves in French public schools was required to save non-scarf-wearing women from being pressured by young Muslim men to wear scarves. Some public commentators at the time claimed that because no woman would wear a scarf willingly, those who claimed to do so were victims of Islamist brainwashing.

Muslim women and men are also of course creating new forms of community as bases for exchange and mutual support – cultural and educational associations, study groups, political forums. Parvez explores how visibly Muslim women deal with everyday insults and provocation, and notes the importance of education in giving them activities that both bring them together and give them religious encouragement. She joins a growing number of scholars focusing on such communities, showing them to provide alternative societal routes to cultural citizenship – parallels to Jewish and Catholic associations in the twentieth century. But alongside piety practices, other visibly Muslim women are teaching secular subjects in private schools, working in community centers, or – unless they are fired for their dress – caring for children. Far more numerous are those men and women who may not regularly practice a religion, but who suffer job discrimination because potential employers see in their names or their postal codes an indication that they are ‘Muslim.’ We, too, must be careful not to conflate “perceived as Muslim” with “actively practicing Islam.”

Each European country has developed and altered its own framework for regulating religious organization and behavior. No country’s approach is more frequently misrepresented by its own leaders (and often by its scholars) than that of France. Erik Bleich points out that many observant Muslims see little difficulty with French laïcité. Indeed, no necessary tension exists between being an observant Muslim, Jew, or Catholic and being a strong supporter of laïcité, if by the latter one means not an abstract principle or a (barely) concealed hostility to religion, but the current, complex legal framework. That framework keeps the state neutral regarding the content of religious teachings, makes possible state subsidies to private religious schools, and encourages municipalities to work with religious associations to guarantee decent places to worship and access to appropriate food. This set of legal and political arrangements is surely more favorable to free religious practice than are existing or recent regimes in most Muslim-majority countries – a point frequently made by the often, and bizarrely, maligned Tariq Ramadan.

Tensions and dissatisfactions arise in France on this issue when these principles are applied in an unequal manner. Let me mention only two. One, Catholic churches benefit disproportionately from state aid because of senseless political resistance to changing the operant law (of 1905) so as to decree that all places of worship may benefit equally from state subsidies and not only those already built in 1905. Two, individuals in the Education Ministry routinely blackball applications to open Islamic private schools in collaboration with the state. As explained by Malika, interviewed by Sariya Cheruvallil-Contractor, the 1905 law was to guarantee freedom, but then “they kind of manipulated it.”

Six months after the Paris attacks, debates about ‘free speech’ have somewhat subsided in France. But these issues have been highlighted elsewhere in Europe for some time. Marcel Maussen reminds us that how we think about free speech depends both on what is it for (for example, political deliberation) and on who is trying to limit it (for example, the state or private citizens). Maussen’s essay also usefully adds the Dutch perspective, where the topic has been at the forefront of public debate for a number of years.

But of course a great deal of recent writing has concerned jihadi violence and how to detect and stop it. Fernando Bravo Lopez recalls that Muslims have suffered the most at the hands of jihadi terrorism – an important reminder that should put an end to irresponsible labeling of these attacks as part of a “war of civilizations.” Jocelyne Cesari quite correctly adds that many killers are “lone wolves” – although some domestic jihadis have been well “integrated,” as was the case for some of those in Britain responsible for the 7/7 attacks. Thwarting domestic jihadi violence is exceedingly difficult given the myriad pathways to radical acts – from the disillusioned teenage girl exploring jihadi sites in her bedroom to the persuasive invitations extended in prisons, on the fringes of mainstream mosques, or in public parks. Among the major challenges faced by security services today are: (1) precisely how to find the likely jihadis among a large number of persons who may flirt with radical ideas and explore web sites; and (2) how to distinguish between conservative Salafi preachings and calls to violent action.

These are not just security service problems. They are problems in how everyone in society thinks about what is or is not acceptable speech and behavior. It turns out that the problems of free speech raised by Charlie Hebdo come back into light as problems raised by conservative, or even radical, Islamic preaching. These are not primarily legal issues, but require renewed reflection among Europeans – including Muslim Europeans – on what it is to be European.


John R. Bowen is Dunbar-Van Cleve Professor in Arts and Sciences at Washington University in St Louis, and recurrent Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science. He has been studying Islam and society in Indonesia since the late 1970s, and since 2001 has worked in France, England and North America on problems of pluralism, law and religion, in particular on contemporary efforts to rethink Islamic norms and civil law. His most recent books are A New Anthropology of Islam (2012) and Blaming Islam (2012).


This article is part of our feature Je Suis Musulman: European Muslims after Charlie Hebdo.

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