A recent article in National Geographic speculates that Marseilles may become the first city in Europe with a majority Muslim population. Official statistics are unavailable, but experts estimate that about 30 percent of the southeastern French city is Muslim.
Although the city is known for its tolerance, France as a whole is not, especially when it comes to its Muslim population. The country is home to about 6 million Muslims (the largest number in Western Europe), and is known for its bans on burqas, niqab, and for considering banning halal meat. Praying in the streets was also banned in 2011. At the end of 2011, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, an umbrella organization for various Muslim groups, released a study saying Islamophobia is on the rise in the country.
I spoke with John Bowen, Professor of Anthropology at Washington University in St. Louis about Islam in France. Bowen is the author of Can Islam be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State.
First, Bowen told me that Islamophobia in France has unique historical roots. The concept of laïcité, or separation between Church and State, is deeply engrained in political consciousness.
You have to understand the combative nature of France’s relationship with the Church. The modern French Republic was forged in opposition to the Church and religion. The best way to think of French culture is this: the French are against visible religion. They want to keep the public space free of visible religion.
From the French perspective, Islamic traditions, including the wearing of headscarves, veils, and other coverings, violates the separation of religion and public space.
But Bowen also said that the separation of religion and government is far from perfect.
The French States gives aid to the Catholic Church. All private Catholic schools that teach the national curriculum are subsidized by the State. Muslims who have been trying to create private, religious state schools have had a hard time getting similar funding. One only effort so far has succeeded.
Bowen added that although Muslim culture in France tends to be portrayed as antithetical to French values, local Muslims are actually adapting their religious traditions and cultures to the French context.
Instead of relying on media reports and political statements, Bowen spent a significant amount of time in French mosques, Islamic institutions, and institutions of higher education, listening to discourses within the Muslim community on “how to be both a good Muslim and a good citizen in a modern secular society.”
Within the Muslim community, there are frequent debates about the extent to which one can change traditional practices. A lot of Muslims have no trouble with French system of secularism, but they want it to be applied equally to everyone.
The problem underlying Islam’s unequal treatment in France is that politicians have seized on Islam as a way to garner votes. Former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, for example, made the issue of halal meat central to his reelection campaign in order to garner votes from the right.
What stands out in France is that everything has to be at a national level. This can be good if national leaders can find solutions to problems when they crop up, but it’s bad in moments of national elections.
So at this point, it seems that France has two models before it: the Marseilles model of relative tolerance and integration and its unevenly applied laïcité model that has systematically discriminated against Muslims.
If Marseilles does end up being the first Muslim-majority city in Western Europe, it will play an integral role in determining the relationship between Islam and the State.
What do you think of France’s laïcité model? Do you think it has been equally applied to all religions? Do you see French politicians using Islam as a political pawn to garner votes? How will being the first Muslim-majority city in Western Europe affect Marseilles and France as a whole? We welcome your questions and comments below.