Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State






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Publication: International Social Science Review
Author: Cox, John K
Date published: July 1, 2010

Bowen, John R. Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2010. xi + 230 pages. Cloth. $35.00.

It is hard to know whether it is the Muslims of Eastern Europe (especially Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria) or the Muslims of Western Europe (especially France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) that suffer the most from underrepresentation and misrepresentation in political and journalistic circles in North America. But fortunately there is a gradually increasing flow of serious scholarship about Islam and its practitioners in both halves of Europe - in the East, with its longestablished autochthonous, mostly Albanian- and Slavic-speaking Muslims, and in the West, with its much newer, immigration-driven, and predominantly Turkish- and Arabicspeaking communities. The book at hand by veteran Washington University antWopologist John Bowen, is a noteworthy contribution to the growing body of work on Muslim communities in Western Europe.

This book is based on field work in Paris, Lyon, Lille, Marseilles, and other French cities, where the author visited schools and religious and cultural associations; interviewed students, intellectuals, educators, activists, and political leaders; and tracked reactions on all sides in well-publicized legal controversies involving Muslim approaches to marriage law and clothing. It quickly becomes apparent that the book will address not only a lacuna in most people's understanding of emigration, assimilation, and Muslim adaptation; it also compels the reader to embrace a mature and nuanced understanding of greater French society in general. It is impossible to understand the political controversies involving French Muslims without a concrete appreciation for French political culture. For instance, many French reactions to the wearing of head scarves arise in various political quarters from different ideological stances. There is a strong and long-abiding tension, even paradox in France between the strongly secular and centralist (but often multi-cultural) left and the strongly Catholic and nationalist right, and the increasing visibility of Muslim life in France can encounter opposition from both sides.

Bowen's trail takes him from "suburbs" (housing estates in largely ethnic communities), via small prayer rooms and large mosques, to press rooms and printing plants. His perspectives on the conventions and meetings he observes and the people he interviews in offices of organizations such as the Centre d'études et de Recherches sur l'Islam (Center for Studies and Research on Islam) and the Institut Supérieur des Sciences Islamiques et des langues (Higher Institute of Islamic Sciences and Languages) offer unique insights into the diversity of approaches to issues of observance, ritual, identity, and ethics.

The heart of Bowen's study lies in this exposition of the types of issues being discussed in Muslim intellectual circles and, more directly, in educational and cultural institutions serving today's Muslim communities. Bowen does an excellent job presenting the way in which intellectual, educational, and cultural discussions are carried out. He largely avoids the word "fundamentalist," wisely preferring more clinical and process-oriented descriptions of such conservative patterns. But Bowen spends even more time finding and portraying various modes of progressive or adaptive or evolving or rationalistic patterns. In the communities he has visited and observed in France (and whom he, to a considerable degree, lets speak for themselves, nudging along descriptions of ideas and institutions with a bare minimum of commentary), we sometimes see issues of accountability as Muslims, or the lives of individuals within the religious "realm of justification" take precedence over assimilation. Moral and intellectual life can then consist primarily of a rigid set of practices and responses to social stimuli. In other settings, Bowen has seen teachers and commentators distinguish carefully between tradition and religion, for instance, and invoke the rationality approved in contract negotiations and the aspects of the four various Sunni legal traditions that contribute to a "jurisprudence for minorities" (p. 65) useful to Muslims living in largely non-Muslim societies. Put simply, responses to secular and CWistian issues that confront Muslims in France fall onto a spectrum moving from ethics and principles, or "universalistic Islam," on one end, to dogma and "particularism" (p. 121) on the other.

It is true that France is not necessarily a microcosm for all or even part of Europe. Its political culture is unique, and its predominantly North African (postcolonial, Francophone) Muslim populations are very different from Britain's South Asian or Germany's Turkish communities. But by documenting that, indeed, practices are being developed that allow Muslims "to create a workable Islamic reality in France" (p. 8), Bowen argues that even more pragmatic convergence among France's demographic groupings is possible.

Author affiliation:

John K. Cox, PhD

Professor of History

North Dakota State University

Fargo, North Dakota

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