Can Islam Be French? is an anthropological examination of how Muslims are responding to the conditions of life in France. Following up on his book Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves, John Bowen turns his attention away from the perspectives of French non-Muslims to focus on those of the country’s Muslims themselves. Bowen asks not the usual question–how well are Muslims integrating in France?–but, rather, how do French Muslims think about Islam? In particular, Bowen examines how French Muslims are fashioning new Islamic institutions and developing new ways of reasoning and teaching. He looks at some of the quite distinct ways in which mosques have connected with broader social and political forces, how Islamic educational entrepreneurs have fashioned niches for new forms of schooling, and how major Islamic public actors have set out a specifically French approach to religious norms. All of these efforts have provoked sharp responses in France and from overseas centers of Islamic scholarship, so Bowen also looks closely at debates over how–and how far–Muslims should adapt their religious traditions to these new social conditions. He argues that the particular ways in which Muslims have settled in France, and in which France governs religions, have created incentives for Muslims to develop new, pragmatic ways of thinking about religious issues in French society.
Can Islam Be French?: Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State
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John Bowen started his career as a specialist of Indonesia, doing fieldwork and writing books about the balance between legal and Islamic norms in Southeast Asia. He has now transformed himself into an astute observer of Islam in modern France. His book on Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves remains to date the best study on the public debate that led to the banning of “ostentatious religious signs” –i.e., Islamic head coverings worn by Muslim girls, in the secular space of French public schools (other essays on the same issue, here and here, are more militant in style, but simply don’t match his scholarship).
In his writings, Bowen develops an “anthropology of public reasoning”, highlighting the ways in which people deliberate and debate in public settings in order to seek areas of broad agreement in a pluralistic society. In Can Islam Be French, he explores the development of mosques and of Islamic schools and institutes and, simultaneously, the Islamic reasoning that sustends and suffuses these institutions. His focus, he writes with tongue-in-cheek humor (considering the moral panic that these Islamic notions elicit in the Western public), is on a “broad middle group of Muslims who do not wish to renounce the possibility of just war (yes, jihad) and do wish to remain true to Islam’s norms (yes, sharî’a) and who do tune in to scholarly opinions (yes, fatwâs) and who, all the while, live ordinary, nonterrorizing lives.”
Sharî’a, jihad and fatwâs: these heavily loaded terms have entered the public debate in Western societies. Other Islamic notions are more limited to a group of Muslim scholars who are trying to configure a set of norms and institutions that would anchor Islam in France, while contributing to the global Ummah. The classic distinction between the dâr al-islâm and the dâr al-harb as two distinct geographical abodes opposing Islamic and non-Islamic settings, has been complemented by new notions such as the dâr al-da’wa and the dâr ash-shahâda, the realms of predication and of witnessing, more attuned to European societies in which Moslems form a minority.
Bowen particularly insists on what he labels the maqâsid approach–as in al maqâsid ash-sharî’a– as the overall “objectives of God’s revelation”, a type of theological and legal reasoning that draws on a long tradition of thinking about the interest and welfare (maslaha) of Muslims that emphasizes the adaptation of norms to broader religious goals. This approach stands as a middle ground between those who suggest that Muslims living in secular places should be exempted from Islamic rules that otherwise would apply, and others who insist on keeping to the letter of the revealed texts. The author sees it as a promising way to reconcile Islamic jurisprudence with modern French society.
Bowen also opposes the “rule-book approach” of Islam, referring to the forbidden and the permitted (the harâm and the halâl) as fixed anchors for good Muslims to follow, and a more scholarly approach that urges Muslims to follow one of several established legal traditions or madhhab. Most Muslims originating from North Africa follow the Mâlikî tradition, named after the great scholar Mâlik ibn Anas (d. 795), but some other also refer to the Hanafî, the Hanbalî and the Shâfi’î schools of thought that are popular in other regions of the Muslim world. A third general approach to teaching Islam in France emphasizes a set of Islamic principles related to one another in a systematic way, borrowing from various traditions and from contemporary scholars such as Yûsuf al-Qaradâwî and the European Council for Fatwa and Research. Most groups, including the Tabligh or so-called Salafi, stay clear of politics. As a matter of fact, Muslim political demands operate within a Republican space, and they pursue the even-handed application of French laws (on schooling, religious freedom, houses of worship) and not for the development of shari`a-based laws.
Because the traditional Islamic institutions that define specific authorities are virtually absent from Europe, religious entrepreneurs have taken the place taken elsewhere by muftis, ‘ulamâ and faqîhs. These Islamic public actors have developed various social institutions, particularly religious training centers, mosques, and Islamic associations. They differ along their degree of professionalization, their reliance on the use of Arabic or French as a medium of communication, and their emphasis on religious teaching as opposed to providing an Islam-friendly cultural atmosphere. Of particular relevance is the chapter devoted to an “Islamic Republican school”, Ecole La Réussite in Aubervilliers, which provides an interesting case study on how a secular curriculum is being taught and reinterpreted in a Muslim school setting.
Questions that Muslims bring to public debates inevitably raise the issue of whether there should be distinctive Islamic norms for France (and by extension for Western secular societies). How should French Muslims live, work, marry, and sacrifice? And who has authority and legitimacy to comment on these decisions? Bowen explores these issues through particular debates, such as whether Muslims may take home loans at interest, how to negotiate across French laws and Islamic norms in the case of marriage and divorces, or how to provide for halâl food and ritual sacrifice during the festival of Îd al-adhâ.
In his conclusion, Bowen claims that Islamic spheres can coexist and thrive in the Republican space, and that the French secular tradition may be more amenable to religious pluralism than British or U.S. arrangements based on multiculturalism. Despite the social and moral objections wielded in France to the sort of Islamic ideas and institutions developed by Islamic public actors, he sees a potential convergence between the socially pragmatic styles of reasoning advocated by some French legal scholars and the maqâsid approach of religious objectives. These examples of pragmatic legal reasoning make use of accepted French social forms–legally registered associations, divorce by mutual consent, private agreements–to legitimate institutions that may be innovative in specific form (mosques, outdoor abattoirs, talaq divorce) but that legally and morally extend to Muslims those rights already secured by others in France.
In the end, the answer to the question raised in the book’s title boils down to whether social pragmatism and value pluralism can prevail in the country of Rousseau and Voltaire. The author is moderately optimistic: “Recent French political rhetoric, he notes, is not promoting a convergence with Islamic norms and ideas”, and we are, in a sense, witnessing a “tightening of the value-screw”. But one should not grant too much importance to headlines and declarations. The type of Islamic public reasoning that Bowen documents does not attract much media attention, but may be of greater significance than the more visible controversies on veils and minarets. And the “reasonable accommodations” that form the basis of our common life among people living in differing conditions and with different beliefs may guarantee that such a common life endures.
Rating: 5 / 5