The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism: An Interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Part 1


Editor’s note: The follow is an interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, on her book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014). Part two of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: Could you say something about how your idea for this book came about, including your training, your interests in theories of religion and secularism, and your fieldwork in France?

Mayanthi Fernando: I was trained in socio-cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago and I was lucky to work with two really extraordinary mentors, Michel-Rolph Trouillot and Saba Mahmood. I initially came to my topic with a fairly conventional interest in the Islamic revival in France. I wanted to know how French Muslims “negotiated their identities” – that is the phrase I recall using in my grant applications – as both Muslim and French. I also wanted to know how a French context might change the ritual and hermeneutical practices central to Islam. Islam and Muslims were therefore very much my object of study, and I took for granted the narrative that being Muslim and being French was somehow problematic, a conundrum of sorts fit for anthropological analysis. What I realized when I started doing fieldwork was that being Muslim and being French was indeed a problem, though not for Muslim French but rather for secular French and the French state. In other words, the difficultly of being Muslim and French was not an ontological one emerging from these subjects themselves but rather a political one resulting from their interpellation by secular-republican society (and of course that led to day-to-day difficulties for Muslim French). So I began to think more critically about secularism and its ontological, epistemological, and political demands and conditions of possibility, and in particular about the “proper” forms religion and religious people must take to be intelligible and acceptable to secular norms. In so doing, my object of study shifted to republican secularism, even as my object of observation remained Muslim French life.

Indeed, I would say that paying close ethnographic attention to the experiences of my Muslim French interlocutors actually led me to widen my analytical lens, turning it toward the source of their often tenuous subject position, namely, the secular Republic’s discourses, institutions, and political and legal practices. For example, if my Muslim interlocutors insisted on their Frenchness, why were their claims so quickly and easily dismissed by the majority? If they insisted that the headscarf was both a choice and an obligation, why was this so hard for secular law and French public discourse to grasp? You can see this analytical-methodological volte-face throughout the book, which tacks back and forth between an analysis of Muslim French religiosity and political praxis and the contradictions of French secularism they precipitate. And I use precipitate here purposefully: my argument is that these contradictions within secularism and republicanism are long-standing and are not so much generated as precipitated by the presence of Muslim French.

I should add that my approach is indebted to a number of scholars. First, I was quite taken by Trouillot’s distinction between one’s object of observation and one’s object of study. He argued that anthropologists often make their objects of observation and study one and the same, and in so doing, end up without a robust sense of power or history, and therefore without a critical edge to theorizing.[1] Second, I was influenced by Mahmood’s insistence that we take seriously the network of concepts with which our interlocutors world their worlds, even if they are radically unfamiliar, and in so doing, that we critically interrogate and provincialize the concepts and norms we are used to working with.[2] And finally, my approach is very much in line with something Talal Asad once said about power, translation, and the unfamiliar. He argued that the traditional Geertzian approach of translating across cultures by making strange concepts familiar is too comforting, and that we should do the kind of translation that forces us to rethink our own traditional concepts and categories.[3] In other words, rather than make the unfamiliar familiar, we should de-familiarize or unsettle the familiar. That, for me, remains the epistemological, methodological, and political purchase of anthropology, including the anthropology of religion and secularism. Hence the title of my book: The Republic Unsettled.

MS: In your introduction, you argue that unlike many theorists who have sought to draw a clear distinction between historical forms of French secularism (laïcité), which focus on political and legal matters, from newer forms (laïcité nouvelle) that are concerned more with cultural matters, French laïcité is better understood as a project of governmentality that is less about separating religion and politics in order to create a neutral ground for shared citizenship as it is about regulating certain “religious subjects” who do not fit within the boundaries of its universal claims. Would you say this is a fair assessment of your general thesis? What are the main reasons that lead you to develop this particular theoretical framework?

MF: Yes, that is a fair assessment of my general thesis. I would note that there are various related parts to this claim about laïcité, and about secularism more generally. The first is that I understand secularism not as the separation but rather the imbrication of the religious and the political: secularism is a historically evolving project of government that entails the administrative intervention into, transformation, and regulation of what are called, retroactively, “religious” traditions, institutions, practices, and sensibilities. Proper religion is therefore not opposed to the secular but rather an effect of the secular. As you note, this is also a critical interrogation of the idea of secularism as neutrality. My argument is that secularization transforms life-worlds into forms toward which the secular state can be neutral. And this, in turn, is an interruption of the distinction, mobilized by progressives in France, between an older, non-interventionist laïcité (exemplified by the 1905 law separating church and state) that guaranteed rather than restricted religious freedom, and a new nationalist-culturalist and often Islamophobic laïcité exemplified by recent laws against veiling. I understand that it is politically advantageous to invoke a history of non-interventionist secularism to combat dominant discourses about French national identity. But doing so ignores the continuities between old and new, takes for granted the concept of neutrality, and, most importantly, underestimates the regulatory force of secularism, whatever its various modes. After all, the post-1905 neutral state depended on a centuries-long transformation of religious and political life in France. My point is that, rather than two different models of secularism, intervention and neutrality work together, since intervention produces the kinds of religion and religious subjects toward whom the state can be neutral.

The example of Jewish Emancipation is really instructive here. Emancipation in the late 18th and 19th centuries fundamentally transformed Jewish life, since Jews’ incorporation as citizens into the French nation depended on their becoming incorporable, which in turn depended on the radical transformation of Jews’ relationship to community, self, and the divine. For instance, Emancipation attempted to “de-communalize” French Jews and remake Jewish life by dismantling Jewish law (halacha), which had heretofore constituted the legal, political, and ethical basis of Jewishness. The secular state denied authority to those elements of the halacha that overlapped with civil law and turned the rest into a matter of optional, individual, private practice – in a word, religion (“Judaism”). There are a number of historians who have written in detail about this process of incorporation or integration into the French nation – Esther Benbassa and Paula Hyman come to mind.[4] What I want to emphasize is that Jewish life had to be fundamentally remade before the secular state could, finally, be neutral towards Jews and Judaism, to emphasize the transformative nature of secularism as a political project. Of course, the imbrication of race and religion in the figure of the Jew made full privatization of her Jewishness (i.e. her Judaism) impossible, but that’s another story (one told very well by Gil Anidjar, for example[5]). And that story parallels the vexed secularization of Muslims.

MS: Drawing on Frantz Fanon, you talk about the “representational burden” that Muslim French carry, where subjects who are identified as Muslim must not only account for themselves when engaging in public discourse, but also bear the weight of many other symbolic associations, such as racial (e.g., Beur, Arab, Maghrebi), historical-political (e.g., the Iranian Revolution and the “War on Terror”), and religio-cultural (e.g., veiling practices). These “semiotic collapses,” as you call them, overdetermine Muslim French identities in particular ways and make their own subject positions largely unintelligible to mainstream society. Could you elaborate on these ideas?

MF: You’ve very nicely summed up the basic argument I’m making about the representational burden Muslim French carry, so let me elaborate on the Fanon citation and give a few examples of what I mean.

When thinking about the predicament of Muslim French, I was reminded of that famous passage in Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks when a white child looks at Fanon and declares, “Look, a Negro! … I’m scared!” In that moment of interpellation, Fanon writes, “I was responsible not only for my body but also for my race and for my ancestors. I cast an objective gaze over myself, discovered my blackness, my ethnic features; deafened by cannibalism, backwardness, fetishism, racial stigmas, slave traders, and above all … the grinning Y a bon Banania.”[6] Though Fanon was writing of his blackness, I was struck by how much his description resonates with the way Muslim French are, through various acts of naming and recognition, fixed in place, affixed to a community and a history, and eternally communally responsible. One could easily substitute “Look, a Muslim! I’m scared.”

Take, for instance, the different reactions to the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015. Many Muslims – not just in France but across the world – responded to the murders with placards, newspaper columns, and tweets that the attacks were “not in my name.” I think the difference between this slogan and the equally widespread “Je suis Charlie,” tells us a lot about responsibility, community, and individuality. To claim “Je suis Charlie” is a gesture of solidarity, an act of collective identification in which individuals in France (and all over the world) voluntarily express their attachment to a common identity, one might even say to a community. In contrast, to declare “Not in my name” is a gesture of dis-identification, a disavowal of communal belonging, an assertion of oneself as an individual subject for whom no one else speaks or acts. Muslims in France (and elsewhere) must declare “Not in my name” after attacks like that on Charlie Hebdo precisely because they are assumed to be communally responsible. They are not presumed to be individuals but rather members, always already, of “the Muslim community.” Communal belonging is the presumption; individuation must be made explicit. Muslims are terrorists, fundamentalists, Islamists, anti-Semites, homophobes, and sexists until they prove otherwise.

At the same time, “Muslim” is a self-ascription as well, and beyond the representational burden Muslim French carry when they are interpellated as Muslim, I was also trying to get at the gap between the various meanings of Muslim. Muslim French may be an oxymoron within the wider society, but it makes perfect sense to those who inhabit that identity. Louis Althusser describes interpellation as that moment when the individual is constituted as a subject in ideology by recognizing himself as the subject being hailed. The problem for Muslim French is that they do not know whether to turn around when they are hailed as Muslim, for the Muslim being hailed (terrorist, communalist, fundamentalist, not-French) and the Muslim they know themselves to be are not necessarily one and the same.

MS: In chapter two, entitled, “Indifference, or the Right to Citizenship,” you look at how ideas of difference are constructed and constituted through popular republican narratives about Muslims in France. Drawing on the work of such noted political philosophers as Will Kymlicka, Charles Taylor, and Axel Honneth, you seek to problematize their theories of multiculturalism and the politics of recognition by arguing that many Muslim French would prefer the right to “indifference” and equal citizenship, where their identities are seen as variations of the norm and not deviations that need to be tolerated and accommodated (or not) under the law. Could you discuss how your fieldwork helped you to problematize these theories?

MF: Again, you so nicely summarize my argument! I initially went to the field assuming that the Islamic revival in France was part of a broader paradigm that Charles Taylor has called the politics of recognition, whereby minority groups seek the recognition and accommodation of their racial, cultural, and/or religious difference. Once in the field, I realized that this wasn’t quite right. One of my interlocutors once told me, fairly early on, “I don’t want the right to difference. I want the right to indifference. That is to say, I want to be forgotten.” Another told me that Muslim French “want the right to be ordinary [on veut le droit d’être banal].” What these two friends were saying, essentially, was that Muslim French like them want the right to be unremarkable, to be un-remarked upon and to represent an unexceptional occurrence in French public space. They want their Muslimness to be an ordinary way of being French, not a sign of their difference, but they also want to be ordinary in a way that does not require their assimilation into dominant religious and cultural norms. What they want, in other words, is the indifference to their Muslim “difference,” such that their Muslimness is neither abstracted nor overdetermined, rendered neither invisible nor hypervisible. The “right to difference” framework doesn’t quite capture this desire to be ordinary French because it reinscribes Muslimness as a form of difference and, in so doing, leaves intact a fairly conventional idea of what constitutes Frenchness, from which Muslimness is always a form of difference. In fact, what I realized was that the assimilationist position of republican integration and the differentialist position of the politics of recognition, while seemingly opposed, are actually similar in that they both mark Islam as a sign or practice of difference; they only diverge in thinking about how to manage that Muslim difference. Even an ostensibly inclusivist politics recognizing Muslim difference reproduces certain ways of being and thinking as different, and leaves dominant norms and assumptions about France and Frenchness intact. It also leaves intact the organization of majority and minority, center and periphery, identity and difference.

In thinking through all this, I was struck by how many of my interlocutors insisted that their work as Muslim French activists was a form of citizenship. One of my friends, who I call Younes in the book, once said to me, “if one is a French citizen of Muslim faith, that means that all spaces of dialogue, of debate, of social transformation, all these spaces concern us.” Younes was a member of the Collective of French Muslims (CMF), which did a lot of civic work, including voter registration drives. Younes’ statement, and the CMF’s work more generally, really exceed the “right to difference” framework that underpins a lot of thinking about multiculturalism because Younes and the CMF imagine the national polity as cross-cut by a multiplicity of differences without any essential form of non-difference, no ontological majority. Younes’ spatial metaphor – “all these spaces concern us” as Muslim French – collapses the distinction between general and particular, and between center and periphery, on which assimilationist republicanism and differentialist multiculturalism rely. His statement has two meanings: first, as he explicitly says, Muslim French can and should intervene in French society as a whole and not only in their particular communities. But the second meaning is more interesting, because he seems to be arguing that even when acting for and within their own “particular” communities (ostensibly the ultimate sign of communalism), Muslim French are always already intervening within France more broadly, since Muslim French are, by definition, French. Why this is so hard for so many to grasp – both in France and in the US academy – signals, I think, the continuing failure to fully understand Muslim French as French.

[1] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World (Palgrave, 2004).

[2] Saba Mahmood, Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject (Princeton University Press, 2005).

[3] In David Scott, “Appendix: The Trouble of Thinking: An Interview with Talal Asad,” in Powers of the Secular Modern, ed. David Scott and Charles Hirschkind (Stanford University Press, 2006, pp. 243-303), p. 274-275.

[4] Esther Benbassa, The Jews of France: A History from Antiquity to the Present, translated by M.B. DeBevoise (Princeton University Press, 2001); Paula Hyman, The Jews of Modern France (University of California Press, 1998).

[5] Gil Anidjar, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford University Press, 2003); Gil Anidjar, Semites: Race, Religion, Literature (Stanford University Press, 2007).

[6] Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, translated by Richard Philcox (Grove/Atlantic, 2008), p. 92.

Mayanthi L. Fernando is Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her first book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014), addresses the intersection of religion and politics in contemporary France. She has recently begun to work on law, embodiment, and the sex/gender norms of secularity.

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