Islam in France

This article was written in 2002.  It offers insightful context for the recent terrorist incident in Paris.



By Jocelyne Cesari, CNRS-France and Harvard University

“Islam in France: The Shaping of a Religious Minority,” in Yvonne Haddad-Yazbek (ed.) Muslims in the West, from Sojourners to Citizens, 2002, Oxford University Press, p 36-51

Islam is now commonly considered to be the second largest religion in France behind Christianity. Accepting this demographic reality has never been easy for many French citizens. Too often discussions about Islam in France begin and end with a treatment of Muslims as a social problem. Too often the question is asked: Can Muslims fit into French society?. That question presupposes that Islamic values are inherently incompatible with western ones and that Muslims constitute a “dangerous class”.

The West has stereotyped Islam as a strange religion, completely different from Christianity or Judaism, even though it is now firmly established within most western countries. Western perceptions are still based upon “essentialized” images of a violent and changeless Islam, holdovers from the colonial past. Though inaccurate, they still provide the basis for Western understandings of those situations that involve Muslims. Samuel Huntington, for example, still posits a static vision of Islamic civilization and a unique Muslim psyche which compels conformity to Islamic Law in all places at all times – as though Muslims were a species unto themselves. His theoretical work, Clash of Civilizations, illustrates how easily such misperception leads to visions of Islam as the new threat in a post cold-war world. Thinking along the same lines that Huntington has articulated, Westerners generally attribute to Muslims in their midst the same potential for violence that has occurred in areas of major Muslim unrest. Events like the Salman Rushdie Affair and the Gulf War, along with claims that Islam opposes modernity and secularism, reinforce distrust of Islam even more.


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