Can Islam be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State, John R Bowen, Princeton University Press, HB, Pp 230, price not mentioned
FROM Calicut to California to Paris, Muslims think and live in an identical way. In India we realised that Islam cannot be Indian. Not because the majority Hindus are inimical to the idea but because Islam does not allow it. For Muslims world over the first commitment is to their religion. At best they can feel ‘at home’ in India. Beyond that is a tough call. Hence the opposition to Vande Mataram, Uniform Civil Code, government schools and birth control measures.
A recent spate of incidents in France – street riots, court cases and rulings and government orders on head scarves brought the world attention on Muslims living in France. The Christian West came to face to face, for the first time as it were on the socio-cultural aspect of Islam that prevents Muslims from adapting to their respective nationality and merge into the mainstream society.
Can Islam be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State by John R Bowen explores the minds and thoughts of Muslims living in France for decades and yet have remained aloof from the mainstream. The author has taken an empathetic view of the issues involved, in favour of Muslims and has proposed that the French should understand and accept Islam and its followers as they are.
Bowen’s extensive interaction with Muslims in France, especially the younger generation confirms our understanding that wherever and however they live, the Muslims’ actions, even in day to day issues are controlled and directed by their religious leaders. In any democracy and secular society this creates frictions and conflicts, as we have witnessed in India for decades. They refuse to abide by the common law of the society, oppose common civil laws, protest when courts intervene in cases that come under its purview and subvert judicial, political decisions in order to conform them to their faith. These are their traits when they are in a minority, when they live in what they call dar-ul-haram.
The table turns when they are in a majority. There the minorities have to adhere to the majority’s views and whims.
The author has narrated several sessions he attended where Muslims received education on their religion. One of the most telling incidents narrated by him is a session when a professor tells the audience that a girl student of his approached him and asked him if she can stop wearing the head scarves as she finds them uncomfortable. The Professor told her to go ahead and do what she wanted. When he finished saying this, a young woman in the audience and the religious teacher told him that he should not have said that to the student, but instead directed her to the religious leader in the area. ‘Your job is only to teach. You should not dabble in religious issues,’ said the cleric. People who lead Muslims in France are not the ulema or the imam but teachers who teach in private Islamic institutions.
France has a huge population of Muslims, mainly from North and West African nations. They were originally brought there as industrial workers. The rate of growth of Muslim population is so high that a demographic projection predicts that France would be the first European country to turn Muslim majority in about two decades. The rapid growth of the population can be gauged from the fact that the prayer rooms of Muslims have increased from 100 in 1970 to 500 in 1985.
That is not the reason why Bowen chose France for the canvas of his work. He chose it because he felt that the general dilemma and tensions between the Muslims and non-Muslims stand out as a relief owing to the nature of the French society. First, Muslims have had a longer and deeper experience in France than anywhere else in Western Europe. Second, the Muslims have had a harder time getting recognition than the Muslims from South Asia in Britain. A majority of Muslims in France live in HLMs (habitations á loyer modéré) or moderate income residences.
The book discusses if Muslims in France can become “complete citizens” rather than “citizens completely on the sidelines.” The four issues that brought Islam in France to focus are: the headscarf issue, the civil marriage issue, the case of a marriage annulled because the husband said the wife was not a virgin when he married her and it went against his faith and denial of nationality to a Moroccan woman because she was not able to prove that she could accept the secular democratic ideals of France. All these issues concern women.
Just as an academic exercise, compare the Muslims in France to the Hindus in Malaysia. They were taken from India as labourers and they contributed mightily to the growth of the country’s economy. And yet, now, under the Islamic rule, the Hindus there are persecuted, their places of worship being converted into godowns and public toilets, their right land and work seized from them and their basic human rights are denied to them. And yet the world does not wake up to it and condemn it.
The book has offered solutions to the France situation. He says in conclusion, “France’s challenge is to find ways to theorise – in law, politics, and social life – the actual social situation of value-pluralism. Might the makers of French public opinion discover that a shared objective, that of joining in a “common life” in Republican political space, can be reached along more than one pathway.” In a way, he is proposing giving in to the wishes and demands of the Islamists, who today say they have the right to their path and will tomorrow claim, when in a majority, that theirs is the only way.
The book is richly documented, explicitly supportive of the Muslim point of view and deeply sympathetic to them. The one issue that is rocking the world because of them – terrorism – does not enter any conversation. Probably because France is not yet a serious victim of Islam-spurred terrorism.
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