By Jalila Sbai
April 22, 2017
The evolution of the 'Muslim problem' in France cannot be fully understood without reference to the changing relationships between France, Islam and Arabic, "the language of the Quran", since the Enlightenment. While appearing to be about secularism, the debate has been very much informed by Catholicism.
An exploration of the history of Islam and French Muslims that seeks to understand the current situation must examine discourses about Muslims since the Age of Enlightenment, in the 17th Century.
At that time, Islam was seen as threat because it did not allow for a clerical structure. There were calls for it to be reformed, more precisely "Gallicanised" - brought under the control of the French state - or even a for a new schism in the religion. The allegiance of Muslims to the Ummah (community of believers) was an obstacle to the propagation of secular and republican values.
The social and legal status of Muslim women stemmed from the teachings of the Quran. The integration of Muslims into French society was considered inconceivable because of both the intrinsic violence of Islam (represented by the jihad), and the condemnation of other monotheistic religions found in its core texts.
Arabic, a sacred language to Muslims, has been seen as a vehicle for the Islamisation and re-Islamisation of populations stemming from the ancient Muslim empires. Its teaching in France has always been problematic; it has sometimes been banned.
The positions of the two sides in these debates have not corresponded with the usual divides between religious and secular or monarchist and republican. Nor have they tallied with political allegiances to the Left or the Right. They have had more to do with attitudes to religion, specifically the Christian religion, secularisation and secularism, and the presentation of the latter as a universally-applicable model.
Voltaire - Defender Of Islam
This universal model of secularism was in fact first presented in France using Islam as a positive example. It was only later that it began to be used to illustrate the opposite argument, and calls for its reform, perhaps in reality its destruction, began to be made.
During the Age of Enlightenment, Voltaire, as part of his attack on contemporary Catholicism, presented Islam as a tolerant religion, founded on the principle of free will, and its prophet Mohammed as a level-headed legislator, challenging and conquering superstition. He emphasised that the Quran accorded equal status to women, and declared Muslim women the freest in the western world.
This Islamist form of orientalism, prevalent before the French Revolution of 1789, was concerned principally with the reform of the relationship between religion and politics in France. It paved the way for future debates about Islam, religion and language, in so far as its approach was developed through readings of the Quran, which was beginning to be translated from this period onwards.
It presented Islam as a more "natural" religion than Catholicism. A direct link was thus established between the study of Islam and of the Bible, Biblical languages and philology. All arguments citing the tolerance, universal call and capacity for re-interpretation of Islam find their origins here. These readings fell out of favour after France's expedition to Egypt, and finally that to Algeria, in 1830, when its armies were met by a resistance fighting in the name of Islamic jihad.
A second form of orientalism, Arabist in nature, began to develop with the Second Republic, during the time of the colonisation of Algeria. It departed from the generous view of Islam and its civilisations of the Enlightenment orientalists and redefined relationships towards Islam and Muslims in the colonies as well as towards the Muslims settling in France in the early 19th Century.
The object of study was no longer the Quran itself, but the Arabic language. Until the end of the 18th century, Arabic studies was a subset of Biblical studies, part of training in biblical history and theology. Knowledge of the Arabic language was no longer just for religious people and missionaries, but also for lay people, whose voices became dominant during the second half of the 20th century, after decolonisation, both in universities and in public policy.
Studying Arabic for Control
The political intention behind the study of Arabic was to understand the Quran in order to dominate Arab Muslim societies. The misleading translation of the term "jihad" as "holy war" was first introduced by Charles Solvet, a magistrate, faced with an Algerian resistance mobilising in the name of Islam in 1846.
The desire of the French to master Arabic soon led to the replacement of Arab teachers with French teachers in public education institutions, the abandonment of Arabic in schools and its replacement with French. The second generation of French people to settle in Algeria rejected the Arabic language in favour of French. The use of Arabic became restricted to Muslim religious education.
These policies resulted in Arabic being relegated to the status of a dead language in Algeria from 1870 onwards. They also resulted in a curtailment of the "creolisation" of Franco-Algerian (more accurately Euro-Algerian) society that had begun to develop, not just in terms of language, but also of conversions to Islam, mixed marriages with or without conversion, and changing attitudes.
At the same time, as a result both of links made by the first generation of Islamist orientalists with Christian communities, and the growth of the social sciences, a whole network of scientific institutions was created in France and the Middle East to train scientific and military personnel to support the colonial conquest. From 1841 onwards, plans were developed for Arabic colleges in Paris and Algiers and mosques in Paris and Marseille. The fates of Islam and Arabic were sealed from this point.
The teaching of the Arabic language and Arabic studies in France remains a hotly-debated issue. The most recent evidence of the continuation of the dual-stranded orientalist tradition can be seen in a report about the training of Muslim religious cadres prepared for the government on 16 March last year by Rachid Benzine, Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen and Mathilde Philip-Gay.
It outlines the effect of the amalgamation of Arabic language and Arabic studies with Muslim theology, which has led to a situation in which the training of imams can only be undertaken by theological institutions outside France, the names of which provoke such fear they are barely uttered.
Debates about the building of mosques and the teaching of Arabic to the indigenous resurfaced following France's establishment of a protectorate in Tunisia in 1881, alongside discussions about secularism in France. They continued until the vote on the law to separate church and state in 1905, when they disappeared from the public arena.
They reappeared in the middle of the First World War, which saw the return of Catholics to the French political scene and the constitution of the embryonic group which, in in 1944, was to become the Mouvement républicain populaire (MRP), a union of various Christian democratic movements.
The 'Gallicanism' Of the Orientalists
Muslims living in France had a status equivalent to that of the Dhimmi, imposed in the past on Jewish and Christian minorities in Islamic countries. France had its own arrangement in Algeria via its Code of Indigenous Status, but the legal impossibility of implementing such a code in France translated in practice, until 1938, into the privation of the social rights of Muslim workers – they already had no political rights, despite being subject to the same fiscal obligations as their French counterparts.
Their integration was not considered, and only a handful took evening classes in French. These were provided by North African community workers, whose approach often came into conflict with that of the Algerian-style colonial direct administration.
The aim of these policies was not to Christianise French Muslims (though that idea was never entirely absent), but to 'gallicanise' Islam, following the failure to establish a Muslim caliphate under French control.
This was the wish of the first generation of orientalists, from Louis Massignon to Jacques Berque, who were born with the Great War and continued to be influential after the Second World War and until the end of the 1970s.
Decolonisation put an end to the use of the term "French Muslims". They returned to being called "North Africans" or "Arabs". "French Muslims" was used only for harkis (Algerian soldiers fighting for the French).
Nonetheless, Muslims living in France continued to constitute a force that could be mobilised by Catholics or Protestants when they wanted to protest against social developments that undermined "family values" or attacked private schooling, for example.
Religious demands tended to come not from immigrant populations, but from Muslim intellectuals of Algerian origin trained by the Christian orientalists, such as Mohammed Arkoun, Jamal Eddine Bencheikh, Ali Merad, and the reformer of Pakistani origin, Mohammed Hamidullah, who in 1963 created the Association of Islamic Students in France, which included people who had converted to Islam.
The issue of Islam returned to French politics at a time when political Islam was gaining international prominence, following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the legislation on family reunification in 1975.
Many political refugees arrived from the Maghreb at this time, and the pattern for Maghrebi immigration began to be formed. These immigrants were mainly ordinary people. They became involved in politics through trade unionism, attracted by its demands for social equality.
The tradition of holding meetings to discuss religious questions linked to cultural practices in France was revived. All Muslim citizens, from the first generation of immigrants to new arrivals, were grouped together as practising Muslims. The first meeting on the subject of Islam - which excluded Muslim citizens –took place in 1982, under a left-wing government, with the Secretary of State for Family Affairs, Georgina Dufoix.
This also marked the beginning of new controversies around the teaching of Arabic in public education establishments.
The voices of French Muslims were practically unheard in these discussions. The representatives they chose were almost unanimously rejected by both the political classes and the intellectual establishment. Preference was given to authority figures from the countries of origin (government officials or leaders of societies or associations), to whom debates on cultural questions were gladly handed over, or to politicians integrated into the political machinery, who spoke the language of their parties on Islam and Muslims.
There were also some intellectuals who unquestioningly regurgitated the ideas of Christian orientalism, like the writer Abdelwahab Meddeb, or the nationalism of the Algerian intelligentsia of the 1950s, like Sadek Selam. The demands of second and third generation French immigrants were different. They centred around combatting racism, and were forcefully illustrated by the March for Equality in 1983.
These people found themselves forced into identifying themselves as Muslims, when in fact they wanted to be recognised as elements of a diverse society, with multiple identities.
The French system, incapable of recognising and confronting its own racism, preferred to represent a homogenous Muslim community in order to justify its attitude towards it, while at the same time reviving the argument that Islam had to be reformed in order to be integrated.
Intellectual and academic thinking on the role of Islam and Muslims in France since the end of the 1980s, whether for or against the institutionalisation of Islam in France, has reflected this changing paradigm. The analysis of racism and immigration that dominated from the 1960s to the beginning of the 1980s has been replaced with discussions of Islam vs secularism. We are returning to the same debates that took place from the time of the Enlightenment until the end of colonisation.