by Elif Lootens

France, home to Jewish and Muslim communities, has become a hostile place to be Muslim or Jewish. France is a former colonial power that has significant ongoing racial and religious tensions. For European Jews and Muslims, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia have the bitter taste of repetition. This was evidenced in 2004 when the government forbade students to wear Jewish kippas and banned Muslim headscarves in schools. More recently, in September, the minister of Education in France announced that pupils will be banned from wearing abayas -loose-fitting robes worn by some Muslim women- in French state-run schools. Education minister Gabriel Attal said, “When you walk into a classroom, you should not be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them”. The French government, with its secular principles, believes that the role of education is to dissolve religious identity in a shared commitment to the rights and responsibilities of French citizenship.

As a Muslim, I find myself struggling with this new ban. I see the secular regime as an affective discourse deployed as a technique to govern Muslim minorities. I strongly support affirmative action for historically disadvantaged groups. I am Belgium-Turkish, I’m fair-skinned and have a Flemish last name. In other words, I can easily “pass” as white and am unlikely to personally suffer any Islamophobia. Nevertheless, my mother, who migrated to Belgium at a young age did suffer from Islamophobia as a young teenager. I also have relatives who chose to stop wearing a headscarf due to restrictions prohibiting certain public sector employees from displaying religious symbols in Belgium.

However, the increasing visibility of Islam in the public space has touched the nerves of the liberal-secular regime in France. Islam has been represented as instantly different from the secular: affective, irrational and unjust. In other words, as a religion that is perceived as threatening to the nation’s secular unity. Islam has often been considered as a ‘totalising religion’, which clashes with the modern secular France. However, it is important to question this framing of Islam.

For that reason, I find it crucial to pause on the “secular”. There are several misconceptions about the contemporary meaning of secularism. Secularism is often understood as a simple separation between the church (religion) and state. This implies an underlying notion of an autonomous free, universal and equal subject, which is premised on the idea that religious difference has to be kept (or can be kept) in the private sphere. This particular political model of the sovereign state has largely been present as a moral basis for an equal and tolerant society. Taken together, secularism equates to a political arrangement, where the nation-state is neutral without ideological preference. However, this understanding of secularism is problematic: because it shies away from the understanding of the secular as a historical process with varied outcomes across different nation-states in Europe. In line with this, Salih a key scholar in the critical study of secularism and gender, rightly remarks that the secular becomes more an ideological projection of history than an actual process of separation between the religious and the mundane.

Furthermore, the distinction between the secular and the social sphere is, in fact, arbitrary and premised on a particular political culture. To formulate it more concretely, secularism is not in itself neutral. Secularism is inflected by the liberal Christian culture and the imagination of a nation that is profoundly Christian. From this perspective, the secular sphere is affected by an eclipsing Christian logic. In this piece, I argue that the secular is an aspect of contemporary political practices that seeks to overrule religion by defining a differentiation between religion and the social. Talal Asad remarks how this distinction is arbitrary: “The point I would stress is not merely that religion and the secular interpenetrate, but that (a) both are historically constituted, (b) this happens through accidental processes bringing together a variety of concepts, practices, and sensibilities, and (c) in modern society the law is crucially involved in defining and defending the distinctiveness of social spaces—especially the legitimate space for religion” (p.209). The point here, however, is that the secular is a tool for the hegemonic project of modernity. Asad refutes the commonly presented idea that secular is universal, instead arguing that the binary distinction between ‘the faith’ and ‘the social’ is a product of a distinct epistemological realm (a particular understanding of the faith and the social) and a form of governmentality which is premised on a particular moral economy. It cultivates a particular kind of moral subject. Put differently, the secular does not promote a universal subject but is, in fact, dealing with a particular kind of moral subject premised on an arbitrary separation between the secular and the social. Asad critiques the notion of a “universal subject,” arguing that its arbitrary separation relies on an emotional construct, specifically an “affective imaginary of pain and suffering.” He contends that this emotional narrative underpins the concept, emphasizing shared hardship as a unifying force, revealing a constructed rather than objective basis for universality.

We need to ask ourselves, what kinds of sufferings are problematized (such as religious pain) and what other kinds of pains are normalized (such as pain for civilizational purposes) in this Western secular affective discourse. This imaginary of secular logic portrays Islam as a domain of irrationality, a mismatch with European values, and a challenge to secularism, which needs to be liberated and civilized; even though this process of humanizing will cause the Muslim woman’s pain. The image of the helpless Muslim woman or student in need of liberation is one of the driving forces of these policies that try to control what Muslim women wear. The control of Muslim women is not new and was crucial to the French colonial project in Algeria, where Muslim women were forced to unveil. The French political authorities have transferred their colonial obsession with controlling colonial subjects onto the Muslim women within their own nation-state. For Muslim girls, this dominant experience starts in the classroom.

brown wooden door on brown brick building An entryway on Harvard campus.

Photograph by Aubrey Odom on Unsplash. Taken on Harvard University Campus.

Muslim women: a gendered subject

In what follows, I take a closer look at the framing of Islam as a misogynistic religion that oppresses women in the French context. I will shed light on the nature of secularism as an affective discourse that constructs narratives aimed at assimilating Muslim women into European secular and liberal values. Islam is essentialised as an oppressive religion that clashes with a modern liberal society and therefore ‘should’ be suppressed. The secular is represented in opposition to Islam, as a promoter of women’s liberation and equal rights. Muslim women’s bodies today are public spaces over which different agendas of modernity, secularism, liberalism and religiosity are inscribed. In line with this, laicite (which is the French idea of secularism) is a remarkable illustration of where the secular has a clear instrumental function to justify the political agenda. The French secular model is clearly not the driving force for pursuing separation between religion and state but aims to control religion and religious practices. In other words, through law, the secular facilitates an assimilationist agenda for Muslim subjectivities, namely: producing Muslims who follow the secular order and may practice their belief. Perhaps this can only be a French Islam and not just an Islam in France. This means that in the name of individual freedom the French secular model can decide which forms of religious practices are acceptable and which are not.

The recent controversy over the ban on abayas in French schools shows how Muslims are undergoing a process of secularization and dislocation of their religion. It is important to note that the abaya is the ideal target, having been viewed as a religious symbol and a symptom of gender oppression. This affective narrative is used to express the aversion to this religious practice. Wearing an abaya became a metaphor for ‘oppressed Muslim woman’, where the civilized secular seems to consider itself as the antidote that is needed to liberate the suppressed women from their backward religion. Such reasoning feeds the affective Islamophobic narratives and justifies the control of Islamic bodies in public space by assimilating them into the secular values of liberty and equality. In continuity with the colonial narratives, the language of gender oppression seems to operate as a conditional language that determines Islam and Muslims’ acceptability in public space. The liberal secular discourse produces two forms of Muslim citizens, which cultivate the Western emotional regimes, one that is secular, emancipated from the orthodox Islamic belief, assimilable, has individual autonomy and is loyal to the nation-state. The other is considered fundamentalist, posing a challenge to the nation that needs to ‘wake up’ to secular values and rationalism.

The right to be indifferent

This piece has indicated that the secular, as an affective discourse, is deployed as a technique to govern Muslim minorities and moderate differences perceived as a threat to the dominant liberal-secular norms and values. However, a number of Muslim subjects in Europe have embraced being citizens and claim their right to practice Islam in private as well as in public spheres. We could clearly see from the gendered secular regimes that when religiosity claims recognition in the public sphere, it becomes marginalized and needs to be constrained in defense of nation-states, which are constructed as universal secular entities. Engaging with Fernando’s politics of recognition, recognizing Muslim differences reproduces the majority/minority power structure which keeps the hegemonic secular-liberal regime intact. Nevertheless, non-normative subjects reject being marked by terms (religious, racial, ethnic) that indicate their bodily difference and refuse the framing that Muslims are asking for recognition of their difference, but instead are calling for indifference to their Muslimness. Rather than being cast as hypervisible they are instead claiming the right to exist a visible but unremarkable in the eyes of the state. As Fernando points out, being indifferent to the state, reimagining the state as a heterogeneous entity where non-dominant ways of life might exist without being classified as essential difference, is a way to achieve freedom of this secular dominant regime. Taken together, in this opinion piece I demonstrate how secularism is an affective discourse, where Muslim women’s bodies today in France are public spaces over which different agendas of secularism are inscribed.

Elif Lootens is a PhD researcher in sociology from Ghent University, was last year a visiting researcher at the LSE sociology department, and holds an MA in Migration and Diaspora studies from SOAS University of London. Her main research interests are diasporic literature, migration, borders, in particular the reproduction of colonial legacies and white ignorance in the academy.