Amid imbalanced pressures of integration in France, controversial Muslim figures enter the discourse for a French Islam
It is widely accepted that, in France, imagining space for Islam in the public arena evokes a no-man’s land. Much ink has flown internationally on the burqa ban and debates on national identity. Francois Hollande was not spared controversy when he walked into the main Mosque of Paris on 18th February to inaugurate a memorial dedicated to the “Muslim soldier.” While on the far right Marine Le Pen qualified the initiative as ‘nauseating’ in her idiosyncratically crude idiom. The UMP accused the socialist party of electoral manipulation. Feelings were equally mitigated amongst the Muslim community, where some talked about a sound effort for national reconciliation while others reprehended the President for hiding the memorial in a citadel where only Muslims would see it.
There is nothing particularly new about this atmosphere of discomfort. Discussing the role Muslims have or ought to have in France has become an emotionally charged political exercise. Reminiscent of the larger enterprise of western societies’ attempts to deal with the Muslim ‘other’, it has taken on a French twist in a country which still nostalgically cultivates cultural exceptionalism. Tariq Ramadan, France’s black beast, evokes the invention of a new type of citizenship, a kind of psychological status where the citizen still has to prove his integration. Different from legal obligations or language requirements, it imposes supplementary demands, falling under what recent sociologists term ‘moral citizenship’. Although the contours of this new citizenship resist precise definition, they are driven by dynamics of mistrust: loyalty, patriotism, integration and secularism are the terms which form the new textbook for the French moral citizen – probably best captured in Sarkozy’s “France: love it or leave it”. The current socialist government’s proposal of a headscarf ban from university campuses and its treatment of the Romani issue has proven that the popularized slogan has by far crossed the boundaries of the conservative right.
These demands of true “French-ness” are very much integrated amongst Muslims who are – not without divisions – increasingly attempting to respond to them. The French media has become flooded by features on these new movements of ‘Republican Islam’ or ‘French Islam’, in which the foundations for this new moral citizenship are being set. Through a confused rhetoric, these groups strangely oscillate between a communitarian ‘guilt trip’ and the nostalgia of a ‘lost France’, and their Muslim counterparts are not spared.
This trend came under the spotlight in 2011, when Hassen Chalghoumi, an Imam in a sensitive town of the Parisian outskirts, founded a conference with other Muslim representatives to promote what he termed a ‘double mission’. Firmly supporting the ban on the burqa, he exposed French Muslims’ duty to bear not only their religious identity but also their republican heritage. Portrayed as the perfect Muslim who shakes women’s hands, hyperbolically called the emissary of an “Islam of the Enlightenment” and praised by both Left and Right as a model of integration, Chalghoumi quickly became a favourite icon for both the media and the political class.
Certainly encouraged by the sudden fame, his positions went beyond defending secularism. His speeches often echo some of the most virulent caricatures about young French-born Muslims as he goes into racially offensive alleys where only a Le Pen would be expected to walk. This is the same man who presented himself as the initiator of national reconciliation: he did not hesitate to opt for racist comments in his book where he relates his shock upon seeing his daughter’s primary class picture, asking rhetorically: “Arab, Black, Arab, Black, where are we – in Timbuktu?”
More surprisingly, the past months have seen a resurgence of this phenomenon within the unrelated context of demonstrations against homosexual marriage, as anti-gay marriage right-wing groups did not hesitate to recruit outside mosques to join the protest. This is how Islamic associations ended up marching alongside the same groups who for years have tried to deny their communal rights and space. Themes of integration and vehement reactions about a banner in Arabic quickly came to hijack what was initially a family law-related protest.
Camel Bechikh, president of ‘Fils de France’ (an organisation promoting a republican Islam) and member of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, was the main spokesman during these demonstrations – a perfect platform to advocate for an acultural Islam free from ‘foreign’ attributes.
In an interview with Rue89 after his participation in a rally organised by the Front National (France’s far-right political party) he refused to be associated with the party. However, his discourse reiterates the FN rhetoric as he highlighted the dangers of mass immigration and the need for moulding young people from immigrant descent into ‘good patriots’. For Bechikh, this would consist not in rejecting one’s origins but appeasing them – he goes as far as suggesting that Islamic skullcaps could become berets and headscarves replaced by bandanas.
Although these groups have been under vivid criticism, they continue to federate – even if one may argue that they remain mere instruments of political calculus for diverse parties. Above all, they contribute to showing that the conflict on the national level, highlighted by events such as the inauguration of the memorial of the Muslim soldier, has now very much expanded to the communities themselves. Beyond unilateral discourses of national reconciliation between the French state and its Muslims citizens, it is among the divided Muslims themselves that a dialogue needs to be established. Under the burden of integration, temptations to ‘fit in’ have led some of them to paradoxically become leaders of France’s disturbing normalised Islamophobia.
Image from: http://mideastposts.com/middle-east-society/religion-in-the-middle-east/common-ground-in-the-doha-debate-on-the-burqa-ban/
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