Brussels – A recent IPSOS poll published and commented in Le Monde, a premier French daily, cites the marked distrust of French citizens vis-à-vis Islam. Notably, some 74% of those queried found Islam either "intolerant" or "not tolerant at all”. These results suggest that a dire intractable situation between Muslims and non-Muslims exists in France, however reality regularly escapes the confines of polls.
France stands out from its European neighbours both in the size of its Muslim population, which estimates put at between 4 and 10 million, and the volume of the national debate on Islam. France has seen a turbulent national discussion on Islam's place in the country over the past two decades, punctuated by controversy over the Muslim headscarf and niqab (face veil), disenfranchisement in the public housing complexes in French suburbs with large Muslim populations, and a complicated historical relationship with Muslim-majority countries in the Southern Mediterranean rim.
France’s cultural identity idealises both the citizen’s fidelity to state before other identifications and the state’s strong role in uniting and guiding its citizens, and fears exist that Muslim values may not mesh.
However, as people interact, fears that faith and French nationality are mutually exclusive can be reduced. The prominent debate on national identity remains: is Islam compatible with France’s state secularism?
But the search for any definitive answer among such monolithic proclamations is not the path to social concord in France or any other nation.
The term French Muslim captures such a diverse array of cultural, national, linguistic, and religious heritages that it quickly loses value. To assign one collective character to such a sundry and divided group can only mislead and distract from the very real and personal efforts of individuals to define their place in a complex social landscape.
Children of different religious faiths play on the same soccer team. My Muslim baker perfectly crafts generations-old French morning marvels. In bars and streets throughout the country, religion and race recede.
This issue in France is thus at heart neither a matter of religion nor ideology, but part of a larger story of difference playing out in a society with a strong, old and destabilised, yet transitioning sense of itself.
The French school system sheds light on this trend. Holding a powerfully important place in the nation’s history, it has long reflected greater national trends and served as a cauldron for national identity. The teacher holds an especially elevated position as transmitter of this identity and crafter of citizens.
One teacher from a small public school in a French suburb explained to me how unimportant ethnic and religious identity can become among colleagues. "I have Muslim colleagues I get along with great! They're cheerful, warm, kind, helpful... But I don't care about their religion; we never talk about our background or religion. They're like my other colleagues (more or less).”
But such comments are often hard to hear amid the noise of newspaper headlines and abstraction of poll results.
It seems that a peaceful future for Muslims in France can emerge from bonds knit between individuals within communities, learning to understand and accept each other despite the allure of the categorical thinking of surveys and polls.
There is an abiding anxiousness to find a solution to this challenge in France. It is perhaps a natural reflex, especially in such a strongly centralised state. But difference cannot be solved, nor integration be debated into resolution. It must be lived out—if slowly and awkwardly—in classrooms, the workplace, relationships and individual lives.
It is easy to forget France’s long history of absorbing numerous waves of immigrants from around the world. France has survived these waves and been enriched by them. And though it is difficult to envision, a new cycle is possible, one of greater knowledge and trust engendering further integration of Muslim populations, and it begins with real human relationships beyond categories.
* Derek Kane O'Leary is a graduate of Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he specialised in Security Studies and Pacific Asia. He currently works in the Cabinet of the Secretary-General of the European Parliament. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 5 February 2013, www.commongroundnews.org
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