The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism: An Interview with Mayanthi Fernando, Part 2


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 1 of this interview can be found here.

Matt Sheedy: In chapter four, entitled, “Reconfiguring Freedom,” you draw on the example of veiling and how it has been framed as a tension between freedom of choice vs. religious duty or obligation, noting that Muslim French have been forced to rely on the public rhetoric of “choice” and downplay the idea of duty as an ethical practice, thus obscuring their own subjectivities. Could you say something about how Muslim French have sought to negotiate their subjectivities in light of such constraints?

Mayanthi Fernando: As I note in that chapter, most Muslim French women I knew felt that veiling was both an obligation for Muslim women and a deeply personal decision that needed to be driven by the internal desires of the practitioner. Veiling was also usually done in conjunction with, and usually after undertaking, a series of other ethical practices like reading and developing one’s knowledge of Islam, fasting at Ramadan, and praying five times a day. In other words, a number of women came to the personal decision to veil by purposefully working on themselves to become more pious Muslims, such that the obligation to veil became a desire to veil through the engagement with and acceptance of certain authoritative norms. Indeed, my point throughout that chapter is that for these women, there exists no opposition between choice and obligation or between norm and desire, and that social and religious authority do not oppose the “true” self (as they ostensibly do in secular-liberal configurations of the self) but rather lead to that self’s cultivation and realization. But the kind of self imagined by these women was largely unintelligible within public-political discourse in France, nor was it intelligible within secular law (or, consequently, protected under the various conventions on religious freedom).

I was struck by how consistently veiled women downplayed the obligatory nature of the headscarf in public debates, and how much they played up the trope of individual choice. In a 2003 demonstration against the then-proposed law banning “conspicuous religious signs” in public schools, for example, most placards and signs proclaimed the veil as “my choice.” There was only one woman, and she was much older than most of the other demonstrators in their twenties and thirties, who made any reference to the suras of the Quran that are thought to constitute the basis for the injunction to cover, and she was actively shunned by the younger women. This language of choice wasn’t some kind of disingenuous double-talk – as I noted above, many Muslim French women understand the hijab as an internally driven choice as much as it is an obligation – but rather an implicit recognition that to talk about obligation was to render oneself a “fundamentalist” since, within secular-liberal terms, obligation is understood as the negation of choice and individual will.

But the constant recourse to choice was problematic in that it turned an ethical obligation into a mere choice: the headscarf-as-choice became akin to any other sartorial choice. When the headscarf is disembedded from its anchoring in a wider set of ethical norms, it’s difficult to argue for its special status as a religious practice, and one ends up losing the capacity to express the ethical stakes of what it means to wear the headscarf as a religious obligation (and, conversely, the profound disarticulation of one’s very self when one is forced to take it off).

Moreover, to argue for the headscarf as a choice also limited women’s ability to engage the question of religious liberty and be protected by the various international and European conventions on religious liberty. My argument is more detailed in the book, but the gist of it is that most of these conventions make a distinction between the right to conscience, which is inalienable, and the right to “manifestations” or “expressions” of conscience, which can be restricted. The distinction between conscience and its manifestation is basically a distinction between belief and practice; one has an absolute right to belief, but religious practices can be abrogated in the name of public order, state security, etc. Interestingly, there exists an exception in European law in which the manifestation of conscience is taken much more seriously: when certain practices are obligatory for a religion. But the European Court and European Commission have consistently defined obligation in a way that privileges the opinions and rulings of established religious authorities that are already recognized by or recognizable to the Court and Commission. So the debate internal to the Islamic tradition about whether the headscarf is a religious prescription is precisely what disqualifies it from this kind of protection under the European Convention on Human Rights. Ironically, Muslim French women’s commitment to the validity of internally generated desire – their insistence that the headscarf must be an individual choice – ends up disqualifying the practice of veiling from the law’s protection.

MS: In chapter five, entitled, “Of Mimicry and Women,” you discuss how the current logic of French republicanism and French secularism has worked to reinforce its own claims to universality by exalting the stories of certain secular Muslim women whose personal experiences are frequently drawn upon as evidence that Muslim culture is “inherently undemocratic and misogynist,” (193) where men are framed as hyper-aggressive and women as passive victims in need of saving. One thing I found fascinating about this argument is that you link the appeal of this rhetoric (and its attendant social effects) to the waning sovereignty of the French state under neoliberalism. Could you elaborate on these ideas?

MF: That fifth chapter concerns the emergence of “the secular Muslim woman” (la musulmane laïque) in French politics and public discourse. As I make clear, although I focus on the organization Ni Putes Ni Soumises (Neither Whores Nor Doormats, NPNS), I’m talking about the trope of the secular Muslim woman and her role in French debates not only about Islam and secularism, but also about national sovereignty. One part of my argument therefore takes up the way that secular Muslim women – NPNS in France, but this applies to women like Ayaan Hirsi Ali in Holland and Irshad Manji in North America as well – have become powerful totems in the universalist narrative of secularism. After all, it’s really striking how the defense of the sexual freedom and sexual equality that ostensibly define Euro-America culture and that secularism ostensibly guarantees is so consistently mediated through these non-white secular Muslim women. In that part of the argument, I argue that even as sex and gender norms have come to signal the particularity of European secularism in contradistinction to its civilizational Other Islam, secular Muslim women’s embrace of those norms simultaneously reaffirms secularity (and its normative sexuality) as the site of the universal. In other words, these secular Muslim women manage secularism’s claims to both particularity (as culturally specific to Euro-America) and universality (as the best arrangement for everyone everywhere).

The other part of the argument takes up neoliberal sovereignty. I was struck when writing this book how so many scholars seemed to take for granted the notion that national sovereignty has waned under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism. Obviously this is true in certain domains – for example, national economies, including the French economy, have been rendered vulnerable to extra-national forces, and especially multi-national capital – but definitely not in others, witnessed in the massive policing and incarceration operations in French banlieues, and the kind of authority the French state wields over black and brown bodies. Carcerality has become a defining feature of neoliberal governance; in fact, the sociologist Loïc Wacquant has argued that economic deregulation and carcerality are interconnected elements of neoliberalism, since the penal state is necessary to manage the devastating effects of deregulation.[1] Interestingly, then, just as it withdraws from organizing the economy, the neoliberal state reasserts its authority over domestic law and order, and over black and brown bodies.

Secular Muslim women like the spokespeople for NPNS come into this picture as allies of and alibis for the French state in what I call a shell game of sovereignty. First, NPNS helps to turn the problems of the banlieues into a problem of secularism, and to propose the retrenchment of secularism – rather than effective economic and social policies – as the solution to this problem. Second, what we might call the carceral feminism of NPNS helps to rationalize an expanding penal state as the most effective means of managing the unruly banlieues and emancipating Muslim women from the clutches of Islamic patriarchy, violence, and misogyny. In other words, by locating responsibility for the problems of the banlieues in the bodies and culture of its residents, NPNS justifies the state’s expansion of a carceral regulatory system necessary to neoliberal governance without any concomitant acknowledgment that that very same system of governance produced the conditions of poverty and socio-economic marginalization found in the banlieues.

MS: Your final chapter, entitled, “Asymmetries of Tolerance,” seems to me to be concisely captured in the following excerpt: “Because white Christians are always already European, their homophobia is considered a political problem, not a civilizational one.” Could you explain how this quotation ties in with the rhetoric of tolerance, and the figurations of both Muslim and European identity that you discuss in this chapter?

MF: This chapter examines the way in which ostensible Muslim homophobia serves as the grounds for Muslims’ exclusion from France, and from Europe more broadly, as legitimate moral and political actors. There are a number of moving parts to the chapter’s broad scope and argument. First, I discuss how opposition to same-sex marriage among some Muslim French activists reproduces an impasse within secular tolerance itself between two competing imperatives: the commitment to respect others, and the obligation to deeply held moral norms. But the public and political focus on Muslim intolerance shifts the burden of this constitutive impasse onto Muslims, who are henceforth made almost solely responsible for the problem of intolerance in Europe. In making this argument, I also examine the various asymmetries within the European demand that Muslims be tolerant. First, I observe how tolerance, ostensibly the gesture of a powerful majority, has come to be both individualized and made incumbent upon minorities, thereby dissimulating the power, and homophobia, of the French state and dominant majority. Second, I examine the way in which the tolerance demanded of Muslim minorities actually exceeds the original form of the gesture of majoritarian tolerance by insisting not merely on tolerance but on active and explicit approval (of same-sex marriage, abortion, etc). Finally, I consider the asymmetrical distribution of tolerance, not only in the way that Muslim communities are disproportionately targeted as “intolerant” but also in the way in which Muslims are always interpellated as an essentialized group – rather than as individuals – in this regime of tolerance.

In getting at some of these issues, I found it instructive to think about majoritarian attitudes toward Catholic opposition to same-sex marriage versus majoritarian attitudes toward Muslim opposition to same-sex marriage. After all, when the Socialist Party introduced a bill in November 2012 legalizing same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption, opposition was fierce: the center-Right UMP party strongly contested the law, massive demonstrations were held in cities across France, and Catholic clergy (joined by their Jewish and Muslim counterparts) spoke out against the law. Interestingly, though, proponents of the law understood this opposition as a political disagreement rather than a civilizational cleavage. Even when violence was invoked by the opposition – one of the major opposition figures declared that if President Hollande “wants blood, there will be blood” and another predicted “impending civil war” – people felt that perhaps they had gone too far, but their belonging to France was never questioned, as one might imagine would be the case for similarly violent remarks made by Muslims.

Indeed, the very same critics who see the Catholic position as political rather than purely homophobic, and as evolving rather than intractable, configure a similar Muslim position against same-sex marriage and adoption in moral and civilizational terms, and as incapable of progressing. The distinction between homophobic Catholics and homophobic Muslims operates through spatial and temporal matrices that feed back into each other. Because European modernity is held, even by staunch secularists, to have emerged out of Christianity, the latter is figured as both always already within Europe and capable of transforming; concomitantly, because Christianity contains within itself the possibility to modernize, to become that which it is already (i.e. European), it naturally belongs in Europe. By contrast, because Islam is always already not-Europe, it has long been thought incapable of transformation. Conversely (and tautologically), because it is incapable of transformation and modernization, Islam cannot belong in Europe. With regard to homophobia more precisely, Muslims, it is held, have always been and therefore always will be homophobic. Any attempt to prove otherwise must be made immediately. Hence the circumscribed temporality within which Muslim French must operate: they do not have time or space to think or to debate, time and space offered to Catholics, in the National Assembly, no less. Muslim homophobia, and the inability of certain Muslim French to defend homosexuality, serves to confirm their a priori status as non-European rather than to establish it after the fact.

[1] Loïc Wacquant, Punishing the Poor: The Neoliberal Government of Social Insecurity (Duke University Press, 2009).

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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