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Diversity Among Muslims in France

The self-understanding of Maghrebi migrants and second-generation Beur men is varied and complex, even if all see themselves primarily as Muslim actors in a “Christian” (Nasrani), or white (Gauri) country. It is critical to recognize this complexity before generalizing about the transition to gendered (and twin) ethnic identities that has taken place in recent years in France.

My arguments are based on local fieldwork in 1986–87, with a return visit in 1991, coupled with an analysis of the so-called “affair of the head scarves” over the right of Muslim schoolgirls to cover their heads. I worked in Mulhouse, a middle-sized industrial town in the northeast of France. Mulhouse has a high proportion of predominantly Maghrebi migrants, who are concentrated in the poorest surrounding suburbs, typical of the semi-ghettoized enclaves of postcolonial immigration in Europe (Belbahri 1987; Berger and Mohr 1982; Castles 1984, 1986; Jourjon 1980; Miles 1982). The distinguishing characteristics of Qsarheim, the neighborhood in which I primarily worked, was its grassroots association of household heads, formed on the initiative of one local Tunisian man in 1984, under the tutelage of various French officials and “personalities,” including the local mayor and the head of a housing company. Interestingly, a similar initiative was taken in the nearest Maghrebi neighborhood, Qsarstadt,[4] but there the association soon lost its impetus and became inoperative in less than a year. The French officials involved explained this in terms of Qsarheim’s “dynamism” and “will to effect changes,” in contrast to Qsarstadt’s “instability,” “population turnover,” “local rivalries,” and “lack of leadership.”

Maghrebis themselves had a different interpretation. They argued that Qsarstadt had a number (about a dozen at the time) of young, educated Maghrebi migrants, who came to Mulhouse to study in the local university and research center, and often participated in the Association des musulmans d’Alsace et de Lorraine, a Muslim organization known by its acronym, AMAL. AMAL is identified in the minds of many with the Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist movement based in Egypt. By contrast, the Qsarheim leaders were older, more settled, much less educated, and often belonged to mainstream Maghrebi associations organized along national lines: the Association des Algériens en Europe (AAE), the Association des travailleurs et commerçants marocains (ATCM), and the Association franco-tunisienne (AFT). Rumor attributed the collapse of Qsarstadt’s local association to infiltration by AMAL.

Each association wanted to build a leisure center under French government patronage, with the necessary funds being raised from a variety of contributors, including the town council; the housing estate; the Fonds d’action sociale (FAS) and Comité pour le logement des travailleurs immigrés (COTRAMI), specialized national agencies of migrant welfare; and local donations. In 1987, the Qsarstadt center had been built, but it soon passed under the control of COTRAMI. AMAL, referred to by both Maghrebis and French as the “Muslim Brothers,” took the lead in expressing resentment at the takeover. This did nothing to improve Qsarstadt’s reputation as an inhospitable politicized ghetto. By contrast, in spite of considerable internal difficulties (Bloul 1992), Qsarheim’s association survived. Qsarheim men were quite proud of the visible improvements in the neighborhood, although disaffection among the local youth drastically limited their ability to effect change, especially after a leadership crisis reduced their association to near paralysis.

Nonetheless, by 1991, not only had Qsarheim been prettified, but there was also a general feeling of more prosperity. There were fewer children playing in the streets, since, I was told, parents now sent their children to the various activities organized by the town council, “even if they had to pay.” More children of both sexes were encouraged in their studies and sent to university. To help with the costs, almost all mothers now worked, mostly part-time. This last bit of news was most surprising. Four years earlier, only four married women had worked (out of eighty-four Maghrebi families): they had tended to be younger and better educated than most, and they were subjected to not a little criticism. All the other women stayed at home and generally abided by the customary restrictions. In 1987, a married woman going out alone to shop at the local market too regularly used to raise censorious eyebrows. What had happened?

When I commented on these various changes and remarked that Qsarheim was getting to be quite undistinguishable from its French surroundings, people beamed at me and said that six or seven families had even quit the neighborhood to build their own homes in better suburbs. Their example had stimulated the remaining families. The generally more affluent feel was attributed to the fact that in most families, the father’s salary was now complemented by the earnings of the mother and one or two elder siblings.

The various changes suggested quite a shift in family strategies. There was little mention of the “dream to return,” of the house to build in the Maghreb. Instead, each family’s communal effort centered on improving their chances in France. What seemed most remarkable was the effect of this changed perspective on women’s positions. Over and over, people drew my attention to married women’s employment. Finally, they explicitly contrasted this with the fate of Qsarstadt, which, they told me, had become “quite fundamentalist”: most Qsarstadt women now “wore a veil” and their Leisure Center had “become a mosque.” Muslim proselytizers, some of my informants confirmed, had tried to “impose the veil here,” but without much success. When I inquired about the reasons for such “failure,” my female informants were categorical: husbands, they said, did not insist on the “veil” being worn, hence the “failure.” My observations confirmed this.

Qsarstadt women wore a bewildering array of costumes: some were in traditional Maghrebi dress, some in modest Western clothes with an “Islamic scarf,” and a few in the remarkable Egyptian fashion of the full, black neguab, in which only the eyes are uncovered. If the Leisure Center had not quite “become a mosque,” it nonetheless now housed a prayer room, and use of its facilities was sex segregated.

Meanwhile, Qsarheim’s center was mostly used by children and youth. Qsarheim’s association, almost moribund when I left in 1987, had divided into a renters’ association, composed of older Maghrebi men (all former members), and the association “Animation et cultures,” whose directing committee now included a few French social workers and educationists and two Beur youths. Although women were still excluded, the inclusion of two sons was an extraordinary concession on the part of older men jealous of their patriarchal privileges (Bloul 1992). It had been a battle, one son told me, but the older men were now reconciled to the change. The very different evolutions of two such similar neighborhoods should discourage easy generalizations about “the Muslim and/or Maghrebi presence” in France. The “affair of the veil,” in spite of the facile characterizations in some of the media, offered another such lesson.

The affair started as an incident involving three Maghrebi girls who refused to take off their head scarves in class in spite of the headmaster’s demands, and were henceforth refused entrance to the classrooms. This soon became a national controversy, which at its peak figured daily and prominently in all national media for two months until mid December 1989. Nor was “the affair” resolved then. Rather, it was abruptly silenced when the effects of its political exploitation became dramatically obvious: local elections in November 1989 registered a marked increase in support for the right-wing National Front (FN), which led the FN leader to make outrageous demands in its bid for power. This furious debate over females’ proper attire was dominated, almost monopolized, by men, both French and/or Muslims.

Women’s opinions were hardly ever heard. Mme Mitterand took a position in favor of the “veil” in the name of individual rights, a stance widely criticized as a political embarrassment to her husband. Some French feminists and female politicians belatedly opposed the veil, and their opinion was duly registered and forgotten (Le Monde, October 25, p. 14). Although the positions of a few well-known Muslim women (Mme Sebbar, Mme Tazdait) and of Beurettes’ associations were reported (ibid.; L’Express, November 3, p. 10), their arguments were not on the whole publicized and even less debated. Pride of place was given to prominent men’s views: French and Muslim male intellectuals, politicians, and religious representatives heatedly argued the vexed question of republican secularity as an ethnically neutral space. In addition, some Frenchmen delighted in defending Muslim women’s rights. In particular, the Freemasons, not particularly noted for their practice of gender equality, were the first to raise this issue.

Blurring the usual distinctions between Left and Right,[5] however, the question of women’s rights was quickly downplayed. The debate centered resolutely on secularity, the problems of immigration, the possible birth of a “French” (i.e., “democratic, secular, and privatized”) version of Islam, and the consequences of all this for French identity. What is most important, and has been little commented on, is that both French and Muslim professional opinion-makers took various positions for and against the veil in the name of the same values—that is, secularity and individual rights. For those in favor of the veil, secularity was a matter of “ensuring that everybody has a right to their own opinion, and to express it freely and safely. This right is only limited by the respect of the right of the other” (Cheikh Haddam, head, Paris Great Mosque, quoted in Le Monde, October 24, 1989, p. 16). For those opposing the veil, secularity meant the deliberate avoidance of any particularistic, symbolic inscription of institutional (republican) space, understood to be the only guarantee for tolerance and individual freedom. Thus, in a typical argument: “Displaying one’s minority group symbols against each [symbol] of the other groups [denotes] a logic...of intolerance and of ethnic exclusion, precisely the logic that the spirit of true secularity fights” (Cocq 1989: 2).

Opinion polls showed that French and Muslim public opinions in general coincided with the parameters set by the media debate. French people, for example, were not so much opposed to the veil per se (32 percent only opposed the wearing of the veil in the street) as to the veil as an ethnic marker in republican institutional space such as schools (75 percent against the veil in school). Second-generation Beurs showed the whole gamut of public positions for and against the veil in the name of secular values and individual rights, a result congruent with a marked gallicization of norms among Beurs (Bloul 1992). Among Muslims in general, women (49 percent) and older people (66.7 percent) were more opposed to the veil in school than men (42 percent) and youth (43.6 percent) (Le Monde, November 30, 1989, p. 14). Most Beurs defending the veil did so in the name of a specific understanding of secularity and individual rights as respect of differences, while older Maghrebis opposed it in the name of discretion.

Thus, the divisions among Muslims in France, although downplayed in general by the French media, were as great as among the native French population. In addition, most Muslims, whatever their positions, appealed to the same values (freedom and individual rights) that French opponents of the veil in school invoked, and that form the core of the dominant French public discourse on morality. Finally, one must add that in spite of the scale of the debate, no resolution emerged. Whether the “veil” was or was not to be allowed in school was deemed a question to be answered in each specific circumstance. In this case, the girls involved removed their scarves the following January (1990) after the king of Morocco demanded it of their father, to the embarrassment of a French government whose relations with King Hassan II were already strained.[6]

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