Quotes from the keynote: Islam in Global Perspective
Mayanthi L. Fernando studies the conflict between secularism and the practice of Islam in France. Supplied photo

"I'm trying to disrupt the conventional narrative that Muslims are a new, post-colonial occurrence in Europe. It's historical amnesia to say that Europe has never dealt with this before. That's fiction."

University of California Assistant Professor of Anthropology Mayanthi L. Fernando, the keynote speaker at NYU Abu Dhabi's Islam in Global Perspective conference, has spent years studying the relationship between secularism (separation of church and state) and the practice of Islam. Her research is based on ethnographic, grassroots fieldwork with Muslim civic activists and government bodies in France.

In her latest book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014) Fernado explains how the French government, widely believed to be the "ultimate secular democracy" is trying to regulate Islam so that the state can be truly secular and neutral toward the religion. The result is growing racialization and a society that views all Muslims as immigrants rather than citizens, even those who were born in France. Fernando also questions why Muslims have such a hard time identifying equally as Muslim and national citizens and refutes the idea that Muslim integration into European society is a new thing.

I am trying to understand why Muslims...

Who understand themselves to be fully French are not accepted as such by the non-Muslim French majority and what that means for their religious practice.

We're talking about people...

Mostly of North African descent who practice Islam as French citizens and practice French citizenship as pious Muslims. I'm trying to think about Muslim-French not as opposed identities, which is how they are usually understood in the mainstream media and politics, but Muslim-French as a viable identity, and then understand why it's so hard to be Muslim-French.

When people think of secularism in France...

They think of church and state as fully separated. That's simply not the case. I think the French case is an entry point for thinking about secularism differently and what it actually means in a broader sense.

What we're seeing is active transformation of Islam...

By the French government in order to make it compatible with French secularism. In order for the state to be neutral toward various forms of religious life, those forms of religious life have to be shaped so that the state can be neutral. The secularization of Islam entails active state involvement in the affairs of Muslim people and the regulation of Islam. The various spheres that make up Islamic tradition — politics, economy, religion, culture, art — that are not necessarily separate within the Islamic tradition, have to be separated for Islam to fit in the mode of governance of French secularization.

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I'm trying to shift the conversation about Islam away from the immigration/integration trope and take seriously the long colonial history that a lot of European powers have had with Muslim populations.

Mayanthi L. Fernando, Associate Professor of Anthropology, University of California

Religion means private...

Like praying on Fridays. Culture means public or celebrated and funded by the state. Paris started the Institute for the Cultures of Islam in an attempt to recognize and give a voice to Muslims in Paris and it tries to separate Islam into religion and culture architecturally. Paris will pay for cultural things like art exhibits, music, and poetry but it won't pay for anything religious, like prayer space.

The state has a hard time thinking of Muslims...

As fully French. The vast majority of Muslim representatives for the government weren't born and raised in France. They're part of an older generation that came from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia and still maintain strong links with their home country. Second generation and third generation Muslims often get left out of these representative bodies (partly because they are suspicious of co-optation by the state). In some ways, this “representative religious body” model that is part of French secularism ends up working only for the Muslims who weren't born and raised in France.

There's a sense that Muslims are disrupting...

French national identity. But up until the mid 19th century, the majority of people in France did not identify with a nation. They identified with a village, province, region or a family. But they did not understand themselves as "French". This idea of France as a long, continuous identity that Muslims are suddenly disrupting is fiction. It's a political construction. Muslims have been part of France for a really long time. When you disrupt the idea of France as a long-existing, historical entity it becomes more difficult to understand Muslim and French as opposed identities.

It's historical amnesia...

To say that Europe has never dealt with this before. That's fiction. France was a colonial power in the Muslim world in the 1800s and has been regulating Muslim populations for a very long time.

I'm trying to shift the conversation about Islam...

Away from the immigration/integration trope, which has been dominant for a really long time and take seriously the long colonial history that a lot of European powers have had with Muslim populations. I'm trying to disrupt the conventional narrative that Muslims are a new, post-colonial occurrence in Europe. The people I work with are not migrants and they're not immigrants although their parents and grandparents may have been. Children of non-Muslim immigrants in France, for example, are not referred to as second-generation, they're just French. They don't think of themselves as immigrants, they're citizens.

By Andy Gregory, NYUAD Public Affairs