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The Lack of Symbolic Integration of Islam in Europe, as Illustrated by the Charlie Hebdo Attacks

0 Comments 🕔10.Aug 2015

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

Sign at the Republican March – Paris, January 11th, 2015. Photo credit: Maya-Anaïs Yataghène


by Jocelyne Cesari

A deluge of interpretations have followed the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris. Most of the ones from American media and intellectuals have emphasized the target of the attacks, and have therefore focused on the so-called incompatibility between Islam and freedom of speech. Others, mainly from Europe, have insisted on the social and political disfranchisement of French Muslims, hence putting forward the increasing alienation of some young people as a cause for their attraction to radical Islam. Of course, both of these interpretations are relevant, but they do not address the core of the issue, which is what I call the lack of symbolic integration of Islam.[1] It means that Islam as a religion has been outcast from the main public secular cultures of Europe, as well as securitized.

A closer look at the trajectory of the Kouachi brothers who perpetrated these attacks reveals a familiar pattern followed by global radical groups to recruit young people who are not fully integrated into mainstream Western societies. It would be misleading, however, to think that this lack of integration is mainly socio-economic. In fact, more than material disfranchisement, a prerequisite for engagement in radical groups is ‘disembeddedness’ from society – that is, a circumstance in which an individual or group lacks strong social affiliations and networks. In this regard, Chérif and Saïd Kouachi have one thing in common with the Tsarnaev brothers responsible for the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2014: they are lone wolves, with weak links to strong communities, whether ethnic, religious, or professional. This lack of social integration makes them very vulnerable to national contexts in which Islam is at best not welcome and at worst perceived as the enemy. In this sense, the targeting of Charlie Hebdo is more than an attempt to crush freedom of the press; it is a response, orchestrated by global radical movements, to a broader French political and cultural environment that has been growing more and more hostile toward Islam and putting increasing emphasis on the incompatibility of Islam with liberal French values.


Islam as the Internal and External Enemy of the West … and vice versa

Beginning with the Rushdie affair in the United Kingdom and the hijab affair in France from 1989 to present, the concerns have moved from immigration and socio-political integration issues to the legitimacy of Islamic signs in public space, such as dress code, minarets, and halal foods. As a consequence, controversies surrounding the visibility of these signs have steadily grown. Controversy is not merely a disagreement about divergent points of view; it is about fundamental differences (or differences perceived as fundamental) in the principles and norms that regulate the common life of individuals in the same time and place. Such fundamental divergences lead to exclusive or binary positions that cannot coexist in the same public space.

Consequently, headscarves, mosques, and minarets are increasingly seen as a rejection of Western democratic values, or even worse, as a direct threat to the West. During the 2006 campaign to ban minarets in Switzerland, posters from the Egerkinger Committee[2] displayed a woman in a burqa standing next to minarets that were rising from a Swiss flag and pointing to the sky-like missiles. Such a perception of Islam in the public sphere has reached the United States as well through the ongoing Shari’a debates, discussion of Islamic radicalization in jails, and the Ground Zero mosque controversy in the summer of 2010.

Islamic signs are not only ostracized in public discourse, but are also controlled and restricted through multiple legal and administrative procedures in an attempt to ‘civilize’ or adjust the signs to fit Western political cultures. In April 2011, the French government enforced a ban on wearing the niqab or burqa, which was overwhelmingly approved in 2010 by the French legislature. Other countries, such as Belgium and the Netherlands, have followed the French path. And the most recent addition to the long list of outcast Islamic signs is circumcision. In June 2012, a judge in Cologne, Germany, outlawed circumcision on the grounds that it causes “illegal bodily harm.” Although Germany’s Chancellor Merkel has promised the Muslim and Jewish communities that they can continue practicing circumcision, the legal implications of this ban have yet to be determined.[3]

This cultural struggle is also fought on the Muslim side. Salafism, a specific interpretation of Islam in stark opposition to Western values and cultures, advocates many practices, such as gender segregation and rejection of political and civic engagement, which are viewed as efforts to fight the impurity of the West. This particular brand of Islam is one of the most visible, widespread, and accessible interpretations and thus gives the illusion to both Muslims and non-Muslims that Salafism is the true Islam.

In sum, an essentialized West and an essentialized Islam are fighting each other, and in so doing reinforce each other. The ‘burqa versus bikini’ opposition often used by both Islamophobes and Muslim fundamentalists encapsulates this sense of profound incompatibility that relates to politics, lifestyles, and, most interestingly, women’s bodies.[4] On the one hand, for most Westerners, the burqa symbolizes total denial of freedom and of gender equality. On the other hand, for fundamentalist religious voices, the burqa symbolizes woman’s dignity and her devotion to family values, and those opposed to the bikini see it as an objectification and degradation of the female body. Such stark oppositions are of course extreme, but at the same time reflect the ‘either or’ approach in which most of the discourse on Islam is currently trapped. The German President, Joachim Gauck, involuntarily illustrated the milder version of this binary opposition when he said that Muslims can live in Germany but that, unlike his predecessor (Christian Wulff), he does not think that Muslims can be part of Germany.[5]

One major consequence of such a polarized mindset is that it masks the sociological reality of Muslims. In fact, a striking gap exists between the image of Islam as it is constructed in binary public discourse and the multifaceted reality of Muslims across countries and localities. For example, the dominant assumption is that visible Islamic identities in the West are inversely correlated to their civic and political loyalties, while there is empirical evidence that contradicts such an assumption.

The accumulation of controversies reveals the lack of symbolic integration of Islam. The outcome is the creation of cultural and religious ‘boundaries’ that place a religion or ideology, in this case Islam, outside the discourses of national identity and what is socially acceptable. This externalization affects different social and political processes, from citizenship to schooling and the job market. It involves different protagonists, such as state actors, intellectuals, transnational religious actors, and Muslims of different groups, ages, and genders. For some of these individuals, including Islamists and women who wear the hijab or burqa, their legitimacy to be engaged and visible in the public space rests on the outcomes of these conflicts over symbolic integration. Therefore, the main question is, “How are the symbolic boundaries that place Islam ‘outside’ created or reinforced?”[6] For example, certain social groups may have full citizenship rights but will still be located outside of what Jeffrey Alexander (1993) calls the “national community.”[7] Members of national communities tend to firmly believe that the world, which notably includes their own nation, is filled with people who either do not deserve freedom and communal support, or are not capable of sustaining it (in part because they are immoral egoists). In other words, nationals do not wish to include, protect or offer rights to such persons, because they conceive of them as being unworthy, amoral, and, in some sense, even ‘uncivilized.’ In this regard, the Islamic character of minorities tends to put them out of the realm of the civilized ‘we.’


Secularism as European Public Philosophy

In these conditions, it is necessary to pay attention to the collective norms and values that shape social perceptions regarding a particular group or situation; what Theodore Lowi calls “public philosophy.”[8] How do we unmask the ideas, values, imagery, and emotional attachment that political actors tap into in order to build ideological arguments, such as the ones surrounding rejection of minarets, the burqa, or Shari’a law? These idioms have a longer-term, more anonymous, and less partisan existence than ideologies. When political actors construct ideological arguments for particular action-related purposes, they invariably use or take account of available cultural idioms, and those idioms may structure their arguments in partially unintended ways.[9]

For this reason, the presence of Islam unveils (pun intended) the specifics of European secular cultures, and demonstrates the limits of the universal claim of secularism. I define secularism as the specific political culture coating secular principles of legal neutrality and equality of all religions. Such an approach is not new. Several historical studies have pointed out that, far from being explained by teleological arguments of natural progress and reason, European secularism is actually the result of particular historical and sociological conditions.[10] More specifically, separation of church and state, often presented as the universal principle of secularity, is in fact the result of the seventeenth-century political compromise designed to deal with emergent religious pluralism and its devastating consequences for political stability. This compromise led to the privatization of religion or bracketing off of religious differences from the sphere of public regulation.

This historical compromise has been erected as a universal standard in which secularization means separation of state and religion, privatization of religious activities, and decline of religious practices. Therefore, when citizens with a religious background contradict 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 Europeans are not compatible with an idealized secular civism. That is why secularism can turn into an ideology or counter-religion targeted against any manifestation of religion in public space.[11] The French version of secularism, or laïcité, is an illustration of this extreme ideological interpretation of secular principles.

It is important to note that the polarization of Islam and the West comes also from Muslim actors such as salafis, who convey globally similar idioms but invert the positive and negative value.

Also, it is important to note that these same norms do not operate in or play out in similar ways across Europe and the United States. On the contrary, the different political cultures or cultural idioms of each country are quite decisive in shaping public norms and repertoires of legitimacy, even though from a distance the different discourses may appear the same. Specifically, secularism is central to the European debates about Islam, while in the United States, the main issue is security in the post-9/11 context. Of course, there are variations in the secular discourse across European countries. Some have argued that the issue in the United Kingdom or the Netherlands is related to multiculturalism rather than secularism (see, for example, Tariq Modood[12]). But despite these different contexts, our research shows that what is at stake everywhere are the challenges brought by Islam to two major secular principles: private vs. public and collective vs. individual rights. Additionally, even if the fierce anti-Shari’a campaign in the United States can also be interpreted as a challenge to secularism, it is primarily motivated by security issues and is not the result of a crisis of secular principles.



In sum, three main structural conditions shape and solidify the symbolic boundaries between the West and Islam: the international context of the war on terror, the crisis of secularism, and the global visibility of Salafism.

The first factor is the ongoing securitization of Islam since 9/11 that is common to both Europe and the United States. Securitization refers to processes by which Islam is seen as an existential threat to European political and security interests, and thereby justifies extraordinary measures against it. The second factor is related to political interpretations of secularism that tend to illegitimate all religious signs, especially Islamic ones, from public spaces. It also includes the political issue to reach a balance between groups’ rights and individual rights, as illustrated by the cartoons crisis and the Shari’a debate. The third factor concerns the globalization of the Salafi trend, which over the past 30 years has become one of the most visible and widespread religious interpretations of Islam across the West and beyond.

Other significant structural causes contributing to the externalization of Islam and Muslims include the increase of social inequalities, weakening of the welfare state, and pauperization of the lower middle classes. Specifically in Europe, where Islam is associated with post-WWII migrations, the externalization of Islam and Muslims is part of the overarching neo-liberal transformation that has reshaped immigration and integration policies.

Arguably, these three factors – securitization, secularism, and Salafism – could also be interpreted as effects rather than causes of the deficit of symbolic integration. However, our research shows that each of them works cumulatively and interactively to harden the symbolic boundaries that externalize Islam and Muslims. Each of them exists independently of the presence of Muslims in the West, therefore influencing the perception of Islam rather than being a consequence of this presence. For example, securitization is present not because Islam is already seen as the enemy, but because specific and extraordinary international conditions have built or rebuilt Islam as the external enemy. The specific nature of European secularism has also created a number of crises related to Islamic signs in public space. Moreover, the significant presence of a transnational, anti-Western interpretation of Islam deepens the perception of Islam as a religion that is impossible to integrate.

The accumulation of these three factors creates and reinforces the symbolic boundaries between Islam and the West. Even in the case of successful socio-economic integration, as is the case for American Muslim immigrants, some of these factors heavily influence the integration process of Muslims and cast them as outsiders. Even more interestingly, the externalization of Islam and Muslims is not influenced by the reality of social and political behaviors of Muslims across countries, which actually shows integration in progress.


Jocelyne Cesari is Professor of Religion and Politics at the University of Birmingham, UK, and senior research fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center on Religion, Peace and World Affairs. She teaches on contemporary Islam at the Harvard Divinity School and directs the Harvard interfaculty program “Islam in the West.” Her most recent books are The Islamic Awakening: Religion, Democracy and Modernity (2014) and Why the West Fears Islam: An Exploration of Islam in Western Liberal Democracies (2013). Her book When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States (2006) is a reference in the study of European Islam and integration of Muslim minorities in secular democracies. She coordinates a major web resource on Islam in Europe:


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

[1] Jocelyne Cesari, Why the West Fears Islam: An Exploration of Muslims in Liberal Democracies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013).

[2] The Egerkingen Committee was the coordinating group responsible for mobilizing signatures in support of the referendum to modify article 72 of the Swiss Federal Constitution on Church-State relations that would prohibit minarets. (See Benjaman Bruse, “Switzerland’s Minaret Ban,”, <> (accessed July 25, 2012).

[3] Kharunya Paramaguru, “German Court Bans Male Circumcision,” Time, June 29, 2012, <> (accessed July 27, 2012).

[4] Henry Makow, “The Debauchery of American Womanhood: Bikini vs. Burqa,” September 18, 2002, <> (accessed July 25, 2012).

[5] “A Certain Distance to Islam,” Qantara.ed, April 4, 2012, <> (accessed July 25, 2012).

[6] A. J. Bergesen, “Political Witch Hunts: The Sacred and the Subversive in Cross-National Perspective,” American Sociological Review 42 (1977): 22–33; and T. H. Eriksen, “Formal and Informal Nationalism,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 16 (1993): 1–25.

[7] Jeffery Alexander, The Meanings of Social Life: A Cultural Sociology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

[8] Theodore J. Lowi, The End of Liberalism: Ideology, Policy, and the Crisis of Public Authority (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1969).

[9] T. Skocpol, Social Revolutions in the Modern World (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994) 204.

[10] Danielle Celermajer, “If Islam Is Our Other, Who Are ‘We’?” Australian Journal of Social Issues 42(1) (2007):111 (103–123).

[11] Ibid, 113.

[12] Tariq Modood, Multiculturalism (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2007).




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