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No 'homogeneous mainstream culture' in France

Interview: Kersten Knipp / groAugust 28, 2016

The sociologist Schirin Amir-Moazami finds the French burkini debate superficial. She says France has not confronted its colonialist past and that is why its significance has been overlooked today.

Frankreich Frau mit Burkini am Strand von Marseille
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo

DW: France's highest administrative court has found that the burkini ban in the town of Villeneuve-Louet contradicts current laws. How do you view this decision?

Shirin Amir-Moazami: Perhaps I should say something about the ban first: The issue is a kind of moral panic. Ultimately, all prohibitive policies – they do not only apply to the burkini but also phenomena like the niqab – show that public spaces in France have increasingly become subject to restrictive policies that mostly involve Islamic symbols. After the attacks, people linked their insecurities to a piece of clothing. The state is making a symbolic political statement that says, "We are preparing for the danger."

France is a secular state. To what extent does that legacy play a role in the burkini debate?

The secular tradition in France is indeed strong. Apart from Turkey, France is the only country in Europe where the separation of state and religion is established in the constitution. As part of this tradition, the state also regulates public spaces and thus, the way of living, public conduct and religious practice. That makes things very complex because it is always unclear where the boundary between politics and religion can be drawn.

You speak of symbols in politics. How important do you think the meaning of symbols is for solidarity, i.e., for the cultural identity of a society?

In France, the notion of a homogeneous mainstream society has not existed for centuries. This has a lot to do with the colonial past and more recently, with the country's immigration policy. That is why it is difficult to speak of specifically "French" values, especially if we have to determine this in the matter of how much of a body is allowed to be visible in public. These values have always been linked to contexts outside of France. So it is regrettable that France has never analyzed this past in a critical manner – for example, by asking about its consequences and impact on life today. What is certain is that one can no longer speak of original "French" values.

Nonetheless, the debate has been raging in France. The philosopher and bestselling author Alan Finkielkraut points out the fact that many French people complain they no longer feel at home in their own country.

This statement seems problematic to me. What does "at home" mean with regard to a past in which France took its "home" to other parts of the world? Finkielkraut himself comes from a Jewish background that he has analyzed journalistically. Unfortunately, he does not apply his question to the present. He does not ask how it is for minorities today that are also stigmatized and reproduced as minorities. It is quite obvious that Maghreb Muslims did not come to Islamize France. Instead, it is a case of postcolonial immigration.

Do you see opportunities that could turn the tense situation into a successful integration story?

So much has gone wrong in France in particular, so it is really hard to offer reasonable guidance. Society has become so polarized – and Germany is showing a similar tendency – that the findings are relatively serious. The recent decision of the [French court] to suspend the burkini ban is a step in the right direction. It is right not to allow the problem to heat up even more and to polarize society even more. But it would also be sensible to not to let the burkini represent an Islamist or terrorist threat. It would also be wrong to conduct this debate at the expense of women. Instead, people should look at matters of social justice, for in France, as in Germany, Muslims represent a certain social class in which a certain culture has emerged and then been marginalized.

Would you say that the current religious and cultural conflict is actually an indirect political and economic one that is mostly about underlying social distribution conflicts?

In part. It is certainly an important element. But I would not use a Marxist cliché to say that this is actually about a covert class struggle. I wouldn't go that far. But if we look at the banlieues where mostly immigrants and the next generations live in suburbs of major cities, then it becomes obvious that a certain class has emerged there. The kinds of faith are certainly linked to social, political and economic conditions.

Nonetheless, the current conflicts are also related to the fact that there are different kinds of faith in public spaces and this leads to the question of how religion can be practiced in public. The burkini discussion makes it clear that there are many different opinions of how much skin should be visible in public. There are actually women who do not want to submit themselves to the conventions of visibility.

Schirin Amir-Moazami is a political scientist and sociologist. She heads the section for "Islam in Europe" at the Institute of Islamic Studies at Berlin's Freie Universität.

Prof. Dr. Schirin Amir-Moazami
Schirin Amir-MoazamiImage: Freie Universität Berlin