Integrating Islam

Integrating Islam: Political And Religious Challenges in Contemporary France

by Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse

France is home to nearly 5 million Muslims, roughly half of whom are French citizens. While the nation has successfully integrated waves of immigrants in the past, this new influx poses a variety of daunting challenges, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of growing Islamic fundamentalism worldwide. Because of the size of its Muslim population and its universalist definition of citizenship, France provides a good test case for the encounter between Islam and the West. Peaceful and successful integration of Muslims into Western societies is more critical than ever before. In this book, Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse offer extensive and original insights into how such integration can be fostered in a diverse, secular democracy.
Many in France view the growing role of Muslims in their society with a jaundiced eye, as do others elsewhere, suspecting that new Muslim political and religious networks are a threat to European rule of law and the French way of life. Not surprisingly, however, the reality of the situation is far too complicated to be captured by slogans and slurs. Integrating Islam examines the complex reality of Muslim integration in France-its successes, failures, and future challenges.
Laurence and Vaisse paint a comprehensive and nuanced portrait of the French Muslim experience, from intermarriage rates to socioeconomic benchmarks. They pay special attention to public policies enacted by recent French governments to encourage integration and discourage extremism--for example the controversial 2004 banning of headscarves in public schools and the establishment of the new French Council of the Muslim Religion. Despite the serious problems that exist, the authors foresee the emergence of a religion and a population that feel at home in, and at peace with, French society--a "French Islam" to replace "Islam in France."

A Balanced And Well-Informed Survey
Review by  Etienne ROLLAND-PIEGUE -   
Any book that bears the title "Integrating Islam" in the context of French politics is bound to elicit strong reactions. It is therefore important to dispel any misperceptions that these two words might elicit. First, this book is neither an apology nor a criticism of Islam. In fact, it is not a book about Islam as such, and the authors distance themselves from an approach that would treat Islam as a global issue within the context of a clash of civilizations. Although Laurence and Vaisse make reference to what they call "globalized Islam", they focus on the situation of Muslims in France and emphasize their diversity in terms of national origin, cultural values, social norms, secular orientation or voting patterns. For them, Islam is not an abstract notion, hanging in the air like a crescent shining over the Parisian sky (as the unfortunate book cover would suggest.) Islam is what people make of it --Muslims and non-Muslims, proponents and critics alike.

Second, the word "integrating" in the book's title is as much a description of what Muslims are doing as it is of the political imperative guiding French policymakers in recent years. Integration is sometimes understood as an injunction addressed to Muslims to leave their cultural identity at the door and conform to French mores. This notion of integration is now rejected by a significant number of French Muslims, who expect to be recognized as full citizens. As the brother of Zacarias Moussaoui (himself a moderate Muslim and by no means a terrorist) puts it in his book quoted by the authors: "Throughout our childhood, our ears were beaten with this word. At first, we just didn't understand what it was about. We were born here, on this land, in this country. We've grown up there. So what then is the meaning of our `integration'?"

Let me state at the outset that I appreciated this book. I recommend it to any reader interested by the political and social situation in Europe and that wants to have access to a comprehensive survey on the place of Islam in contemporary France. Considering the bias and misperceptions on the issue in the American media, this publication is a very welcome event and certainly deserves a large echo. In particular, the authors set the record straight on some issues that have received a large press coverage in the US: the French response to terrorism, the urban riots of November 2005, the ban on headscarves in schools, anti-Semitism among French Muslims, the courting of the Muslim vote by French politicians, etc. On each of these issues, they take a balanced perspective, correcting the most egregious misperceptions and prejudices about France and its Muslim population without shying away from pointing shortcomings and contradictions in French policies toward Islam.

The minor squibbles that I have with this book should therefore not be seen as a criticism of the authors' achievement, but rather as a measure of the subjective distance between the actual book and the imaginary one which I would have liked to read, or better to write. I guess most of the following remarks boil down to the fact that the book is about politics and have its backing in political science, whereas I am more interested by the sociological side and wish a similar survey could be written from an anthropological perspective.

First, I found the human dimension missing, as the book largely leaves aside the trajectories and life events experienced by Muslims in France. How does it feel growing up a Muslim in contemporary French society? What leads some French people to convert to Islam, and how do their friends and family react to such decision? Why do some second- or third-generation immigrants raised in a secular environment revert to the faith of their ancestors, and how does their Islam differ from the one practiced in their country of origin? How do their experience and beliefs compare to the ones of born-again Christians or orthodox Jews? How do women who take on the veil frame their decision, and how do they explain it to those who might object to such demeanor? How was the public gaze and opinion of the French citizenry affected by events such as the 9/11 terrorist attack on the United States or the French urban riots of November 2005? These questions find only limited answers in the book, and it is a pity that the only life stories of Muslims rendered in detail are those of French Jihadists, hardly representative cases as the authors themselves point out.

Second, the knowledge base exploited by the authors is rather thin. This is due in part to the underdevelopment of social science in France and to the taboo that has long prevented French researchers to gather data on specific communities or ethnic groups. As a result, the surveys that do exist on attitude and behaviors of French Muslims are quoted extensively by the authors, without any note of caution about their methodological limitations. On the other hand, broadening the scope of relevant sources could have compensated for the paucity of statistical studies addressing the issue, and there is a trove of first-hand materials such as novels and testimonies or anthropological studies that the authors could have used to their advantage. Indeed, the authors show a bit of complacency when they praise the quality of the expertise on the Muslim world in French academia. It could be argued that the underdevelopment of ethnic studies in France owes a large part to the limitations imposed by French academics who did not keep abreast of developments in French society.

Third, the reader sometimes wishes that the authors would take a stand on some contemporary debates. In many cases, the authors present the different sides of the argument, pinpoint discrepancies or contradictions, but fall short of drawing their reasoning to its logical conclusion. To be true, issues such as the ban on headscarves in public schools or the creation of a representative council dealing with practical issues associated with the Islamic faith are hotly debated issues, in France and abroad, and one of the merit of the book is to show that there are no easy answers. This is where a comparative perspective is especially helpful, as the challenges confronted by France find echoes in many other European countries. But addressing the broader European challenge may be the subject of another volume.