Muslims in France

Fighting Symptoms Instead of Finding Real Solutions

It's with a mixture of indifference and helplessness that the non-Muslim majority approaches the problems of the marginalised young Muslims in the suburbs or the public presence of orthodox Islam in society, writes Jürgen Ritte.

photo: AP
In the view of the "European" French they are seen either as potentially delinquent or uncompromisingly religious: Muslims in France.

​​There's a small campus in Asnières, a community on the edge of Paris, which houses an institute of the Sorbonne Nouvelle University and a department of the national Institute for Oriental Languages and Culture (INALCO).

But anyone entering the campus unprepared may well feel they've entered another world: crowds of women wearing scarves and full-body veils are milling around in the foyer, together with a few bearded young men whose attire makes it quite clear what their religious affiliations are.

European-looking faces under the headscarf

They are students of Arabic studies, and religious commitment looks as though it's a condition for participation in the course. Those who have been familiar with the place over a number of years know that the number of women wearing the veil is increasing. And one may also observe that quite a few of the faces framed by their scarves, and quite a few of the eyes peering through the slits in their veils, look more European than north African.

The professors in the other departments observe such goings-on with reserved disapproval and mistrust. A lecturer in Romance studies who's just returned from teaching at the Islamic University in Cairo noted on her return that there were fewer women wearing veils in Cairo than here.

She finds it astonishing – and she's annoyed that a situation which isn't even customary in an Islamic University in an Arab country is tolerated here in republican, laicist France.

But in Asnières, veiled women pursue their studies without restriction. They have laicist professors, sit in the student canteen or in the library next to other students with whom they have little in common.

The ban on headscarves is merely cosmetic

This description of the situation in Asnières is merely an observation, a random snapshot of life in France in 2005 – the year in which the nation is celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the passing of the law separating church (or religion) and state.

In the course of the twentieth century this separation has become a major element in the republican identity of the nation. A sarcastic observer might claim that the "festivities" to mark the anniversary began at the end of 2003 and reached their high point on March 15, 2004, with the passing of the highly controversial law banning the wearing of tokens of religious affiliation in public schools.

The law was formulated in general terms which could well be seen as merely strengthening the historic law of September 1905, but it left no-one in any doubt about who (and more particularly, what) was the target of the new law: the "Islamic headscarf" of Muslim schoolgirls.

It was this item of clothing, worn by two girls in the northern French town of Creil who were excluded from school in 1989 for wearing "public tokens", which set off a polemical debate about the unsuccessful integration of France's Muslim population.

An archaic value system of French immigrants?

Although only ten percent of the country's four million Muslims are practicing believers, the community makes up the second-largest religious group after the Catholics. Its members came as immigrants from former colonies, but they are seen now – in the second and third generation – as a socio-economic problem.

They live in the depressed inhuman housing blocks of the suburbs, the young are unemployed and, in the view of the "European" French, whether on the political left or right, they are seen either as potentially delinquent or uncompromisingly religious, in other words, archaic in their value system.

Seen from a republican, laicist, egalitarian point of view, the school is the place where it should be possible to bring about genuine equality of opportunity and integration. But in reality, the state merely mouths its republican rhetoric, sends in the police when there's trouble, rather than providing adequately trained teachers, and fiddles with symptoms like the headscarf.

Statistically this policy has shown some success: according to official figures, 639 female school students turned up wearing headscarves at the start of the 2004/5 school year. A year earlier it was 1,645. After talking to school directors, the number this year went down to just 47 children and young people who had to do their schooling via correspondence course. A negligible quantity, one might think.

But at the same time, faithful Muslims are forbidding their sick wives from being examined by male doctors.

Faithful Muslims and citizens of the republic?

Let's return to the Asnières campus. The female students who are hidden behind their black, brown or green veils are not affected by the law on headscarves. As adults, they can enter the university's public space dressed any way they like. But they are scarcely contributing to the creation of an island of peaceful multiculturalism at the university.

It's a kind of implicit ceasefire which has made this situation possible. A couple of years ago you might have opened the door to a seminar room and frightened five or six veiled figures as they jumped up from their prayers behind the desks.

At that time too, male Muslim students attacked a teacher in the middle of a class because she, a woman, had dared to quote Koran verses as part of her interpretation of a poem. As far as is known, the veiled women who were present showed no reaction.

That incident went through the national press, and it led the director of INALCO to draw up a guide to behaviour, a kind of codex, which reminded those concerned of a few basic rules of academic behaviour and principles of democratic and republican co-existence. The document now has to be signed by all students at the institute.

The current minister of education, François Fillon, who would like to extend the law of March 2004 to apply to universities, would also like such a codex. But such directives, decrees and laws cannot force people to be truly committed to the religiously neutral values of the republic.

Loyal French citizens with a Muslim identity

The Muslim students of Asnières who tried in vain to have their own prayer room, have, if at all, a standardised answer for anyone who questions them: of course they are loyal French "citoyens", but their religious and cultural identity has to be respected. How they intend to master this intellectual tightrope walk remains their secret. But, even according to their teacher, these are no radical Islamists.

That's certainly to be believed. Radical Islamism in French universities emerges in a different form. It's secularised enough to have learnt from earlier protest movements in Europe and it's trying to carry out its own undercover march through the institutions.

The "Etudiants musulmans de France" (Muslim Students in France, EMF) has existed since the first public debate about the headscarf in 1989. In its public statements and on the internet it presents itself as a friendly organiser of cultural and sporting leisure activities.

At the same time, it enters into alliances with conservative and semi-military student organisations in order to break the monopoly of the left-wing, laicist UNEF in student representation.

Ignored by the left

The aim of the EMF is the relaxation of the laws of 1905. Its most vocal advocate is Tariq Ramadan, who says things like "Yes, we are laicists, but what does laicisim mean if our colonial masters and even Saddam Hussein were laicists?"

The EMF is no longer able to and no longer wants to identify with the French left, which has always seen itself as the champion of the socially excluded. This is a cause for concern, but it also casts a revealing light on the French Socialist and Communist Parties.

The Socialists have successfully moved towards the middle class, while the Communists have continued for far too long to focus on the classical working class with its willingness to engage in class struggle, and failed to pay the slightest attention to the socio-cultural significance of north African immigration.

The immigrant as "banlieusard"

After a hundred years of state laicism and fifty years of extensive immigration from north Africa, France has not really succeeded in integrating its Muslim population. French citizens of Islamic origin find themselves only able to climb the social ladder as comics, playing the "banlieusard," the thick-headed suburb-dweller, or as footballers.

Unlike in Britain or the United States, one never sees a black or brown newsreader on French television. Young Muslims do not feel at home in France; they do not feel that they are taken seriously, except perhaps as "problem cases" for the understaffed and underpaid social work departments.

If they make it to university, most of them don't study Arabic studies but engineering and science. Such subjects give them better chances in the job market and promise them a better chance of getting their own back on society, which they are already doing in the cultural sector through the strengthening of their Muslim identity.

In that respect, what we've described in Asnières is a symptom, but it's by no means the major tendency.

Jürgen Ritte

© 2005

Translation from German: Michael Lawton

This article was previously published by the Swiss daily 'Neue Zürcher Zeitung'.
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