Crises of Multiculturalism (pt 2)

by | 12 Jul 2011

This is the second part of an extract from Alana Lentin and Gavan Titley’s new book, The Crises of Multiculturalism in Europe: Racism in a Neoliberal Age, published in July 2011 by Zed Books.

The Les mots sont importants collective points out that opposing the 2004 law does not imply negating the foundational laws of 1880, 1882 and 1886 which institutionalized French secularism by ensuring the separation of Church and State (2003). In contrast to the original laws, which obliged institutional, rather than individual, neutrality, the 2004 law ‘is not aimed at secularizing institutions, but at excluding individuals by denying them a fundamental right, one of the most important achievements of the struggle for laicité: the right of everyone to an education.’ The 1989 Conseil d’État ruling on the headscarf concluded that there was no principled clash between wearing the headscarf and the conduct of a secular educational system, and that this pertained as long as the symbols were not ostentatious, or used to further ‘acts of pressure, of provocation, of proselytism or of propaganda challenging the dignity or liberty of the student or other members of the educational community’ (quoted in Silverstein, 2004: 140). However the report of the Stasi Commission in December 2003, enacted in law in March 2004, understood all ‘conspicuous’ signs of religious affiliation as inherently proselytising. It is this semiotic maneuver that provides dominant public discourse in France, which Joppke appears to assimilate, with the certainties that obscure the paradoxical rejection of the principles of secularism that the ban on the headscarf entails. In light of this, as Tévanien remarks, it was vital to collect the testimonies of the ‘defeated’ for whom ‘…the watchwords “ban on ostentatious symbols”, or “neutrality of public space” were neither synonyms for “a reaffirmation of laicité” nor for “emancipation” or “promoting living together”, but simply, prosaically, humiliations, exclusions, insults or even aggressions’ (Chouder et al. 2008: 15).

Those empowered to tolerate may or may not do so, the tolerated, and the intolerable, endure. The disjuncture between the rhetoric of ‘excluding to include’ and the additional accretion of the headscarf to the lexicon of racialization and humilation draws attention to the fragile containment of racism in Joppke’s argument. In effect, his rejection of racism is based on a recurring dismissal of Joan Wallach Scott’s (2007) view that ‘a colonial view of Muslims as “lesser people” undergirds French aversion to the headscarf’ (ibid.: 108). Nevertheless, he relies almost exclusively on the foil of Scott’s work, without engaging the work of French academics and activists, Muslims, people of colour and antiracists, who provide ample data and analysis to substantiate Scott’s argument. By compounding the silence of the veiled with the silence of those critically invested in French society, Joppke illustrates Sadri Khiari’s claim that: ‘…blacks, Arabs, Muslims. Present in France since a short while or for a long time. “First, second, third generation…” French. Non-French. We who do not exist…[are not] meant to exist’ (Khiari 2009: 9). Khiari links the refusal to acknowledge the political existence of the racialized to the refusal to acknowledge their existence tout court because, following Abdelmalak Sayad, ‘to exist is to exist politically’ (ibid.).

It is here that liberalism’s attenuated vision of the social and the postracial elision of the experience of racism are most in tune. Having established the irrational subject, liberalism is not required to engage in the messy ‘reverse-racism’ equivalences discussed in the previous chapter. Attention to the testimonies of veiled women cannot but reveal the racism laundered by the headscarf ban, where the legal restriction of the headscarf in public institutions sanctioned wider expressions of aversion from over-zealous teachers or members of the public (Chouder et al. 2008).


By ignoring embodied, political actors in favour of an asocial theory of theological automation, and elevating religious rationales over approaches adequate to multi-dimensional phenomena, this argument performs the conventional reification of a heterogenous population of Muslims in France. It denies the importance of intersectionality to theorizing feminist emancipation, an importance, as Bilge argues, that is traduced in accounts that bind, a priori, the meaning of the veil to a ‘teleology of emancipation, whether feminist or anti-imperialist’ (2010). […] The need to redress discrimination seems unnecessary when the liberal struggle involves two equivalent entities, something called liberalism and something called Islam. Conceiving of Muslims as social beings is unnecessary because Islam does not view the individual as autonomous, a perspective that ‘cannot but clash with the liberal view’ (ibid. 110). ‘It is unhelpful,’ Joppke cautions, ‘to deny this clash of principles under the label of “racism”’ (ibid.).

This admonition cuts to the core of liberal postracialism: unhelpful, precisely, for whom? Joppke’s methodological approach involves ignoring the ‘decisive breach’ in the univocal discourse of republicanism discussed by de Laforcade (2006: 230). This is not limited to the idealization of the headscarf, but is more fundamentally expressed in the idealization– or, sacralization, in Balibar’s (1991) terms – of the Republic. The liberal state stands outside the historical production of intertwining, particularist and universalist iterations of Frenchness, but also, crucially, beyond the task set by Silverstein in his anthropological history ofAlgeria in France (2004), where he maintains that it is necessary to re-examine ‘..genealogically the French national imaginary of republican universalism as a historical product of colonialism, to show how its definitions of “nation” “nationality” and “citizenship” are themselves historically linked to a series of ongoing exclusions of particular people and cultural features’ (2004: 32-33).

This genealogy extends into the present, for colonial relationships of domination endure. In Pour une politique de la racaille (2006), Sadri Khiari regards the label ‘scum’ (racaille) as produced in and through the colonial relationship and its reproduction in the contemporary management of the racialized population in France, still regarded as immigrés and thus dissociable from the past of France and of its former colonies, Algeria in particular. For Khiari, the notion of postcolonialism unveils the persistence of both a colonial mindset and a continuity of practices, however

Postcolonialism does not mean the identical perpetuation of these colonial relationships, no more than it is insufficient for referring to the importation to the Metropole of modes of management put in place in the territories formerly occupied by France…Postcolonialism also means the invention of new forms of ethnic discrimination applied to postcolonial “immigrant” populations and generalized, at least in part, to other sectors of the population…Postcolonial means the intermeshing of these forms of domination with other relationships of oppression and exploitation’ (Khiari 2006: 20-1).

Joppke’s inattention to the postcolonial exemplifies the postracialism of his approach. The French position is not ‘an attitude of exclusion or racism, as some have argued, but of setting clear and equal terms of integration’ (2009: 125). Thus if Islam is a threat to ‘liberal Europe’, racism only exists in the reverse threat of Muslims to their ‘host’ countries. Paradoxically perhaps, the racism experienced by the women interviewed by Chouder et al (2008) does not induce them to reject the universalism of the République. For example, Houda:

The message I would like to address to the French society is one of hope: whether you are black, frizzy, yellow, white, whether you are called Paul, Jacques, Zoubida, Amina, Claire or Mohamed, we are all human beings, we live in the same country, and we all have something to offer each other, culturally, as human beings, religiously. We are here to help each other, to hold each other’s hands in order to enrich our country and offer a better future to our children and to our society (2008: 155)

Liberals also address all human beings, while wearing universalism as a badge of transcendent identity because, to paraphrase Du Bois, they have never been forced to wear any other. The racial hand of liberalism is hidden while extended for a greeting between putative equals. Denied voice and experience, extracted from grids of socioeconomic disadvantage and living histories of racialized power, minorities are required to submit to forms of top-down ‘civic integrationism’ that may require open societies to ‘violate some of their own liberal precepts’ (Joppke 2009: xi). Final paradoxes emerge here. By advocating unequal treatment to cultivate liberal subjects, Joppke admits that the liberal individual is a status earned through recognition. In other words, it is the particularist creation of European political thought within given conditions, not least the structuring opposition to the ‘irrationality’ of the non-European world (Mills 1997). Given the evidence of what is not recognized in contemporary France, why should this structuring opposition be trusted to work out differently, this time? Particularly when we consider how Joppke argues that French Muslims have for the most part ‘understood and accepted’ the ‘setting of clear and equal terms of integration’. This should beg the question as to why, then, there was then such a profound need to establish Muslims as fundamentally opposed to liberalism throughout the book, but the answer is more likely to be found in the metaphor of reflection. It is liberalism, Narcissus-like, that is gazing in the fairground mirror, but whether the distortions are grotesque or flattering depends on who is doing the staring.


Appadurai, A Appadurai, Arjun. 2006. Fear of Small Numbers: A Geography of Anger. Durham: Duke

Balibar, E. & I. Wallerstein, 1991. Race, Nation, Class: Ambiguous Identities. London & New York: Verso.

Bilge, Sirma. 2010. ‘Beyond Subordination vs. Resistance: An Intersectional Approach to the Agency of Veiled Muslim Women.’ Journal of Intercultural Studies, 31(1): 9-28

Chouder, I., M. Latrèche and P. Tevanian. 2008. Les filles voilées parlent. Paris: La Fabrique.

De Laforcade, Geoffroy. 2006. ‘“Foreigners”, nationalism and the “colonial fracture”: Stigmatized subjects of historical memory in France.’ International Journal of Comparative Sociology Vol. 47(3-4) 217-233

Gray, John. 2000. The Two Faces of Liberalism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Joppke, Christian. 2009. Veil: Mirror of Identity. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Khiari, Sadri. 2006. Pour une politique de la racaille : immigrés-e-s, indigènes, et jeunes de banlieues, éd. Paris: Textuel

Mills, Charles W. 1997. The Racial Contract. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press

Scott, Joan Wallach. 2007. The Politics of the Veil. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press

Silverstein, Paul. 2004. Algeria in France: Transpolitics, Race, and Nation. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.


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