Since 9/11, many states have been surveilling and oppressing Muslims by explicitly targeting Islamism and fundamentalism as public enemies. As states distinguish between good and bad Muslims, they reproduce systemic Islamophobia at the same time they deny it. The French state is almost an ideal-typical example of a widespread anxiety that nurtures the affects and trauma that lie behind anti-Muslim racism. In a performative contradiction, the French state polices Islam in order to make sure that the separation of religion and politics is respected, enacting secularism’s impossibility. Policing Islam tends to become, through the oppression of Muslims who organize and defend themselves against Islamophobia, the alpha and omega of state secularism itself.
Beyond the French case, this dynamic is one of the ideological apparatuses of the ongoing authoritarian mutations of the state in the context of a pandemic. The simultaneity between the emergence of the struggle against “Islamic separatism” and the “loi de sécurité globale” (global security law) manifests the interdependence between the secular policing of Muslims and the policing of the entire population, between the policing of a racialized religion and the kind of bio-politics that control and surveil the entire population. During the pandemic, the former legitimizes the power and intensifies the arbitrariness of the latter. There is little doubt that this interdependence between policing Muslims—as well as brown and black bodies—and policing per se is at stake in the emergence of what might be seen as a new form of authoritarian police state in Europe and elsewhere. Through the French concept of separatism, race and political theology are thus entwined in such a way that their very distinction seems to vanish as an arbitrary convention that stems from the limitations of analytical thought.
The more France reveals the systemic depth of its colonially engendered Islamophobia, the more it seems to indulge its own provincialization, as the tragicomedy of Macron’s recent rejections of Anglophone media criticism of the French position testifies. Despite the obvious isolation of France on questions of secularism and free speech, the violence of French Islamophobia exhibits, nonetheless, a particular face—and perhaps even a paradigmatic figure, as we shall see—of colonial modernity.
Secularism as Police and the Exception of Separation
The ongoing struggle against so-called “Islamic separatism” shows that the beating heart of the secular state is not the 1905 law of separation, as the false Republican narrative internalized by most French intellectuals has it. Wrongly reducing laïcité (French secularism) to this law is a common denominator of virtually all political parties in France. French colonialism in Algeria and beyond is not a betrayal of secularism. The colonial and authoritarian practices of surveilling and regulating religion—Islam in particular—are not the exception. It is rather the separation of Church and state that is an exception because it intervenes only in a specific metropolitan context and by virtue of decades of negotiations with churches. Indeed, the present situation shows how crucial the Napoleonic imperial apparatus is in the actual practices of secularism, far more important than the liberal tradition that permeates the spirit of 1905 and the very idea of separating Church and state. We must never forget that the 1905 law includes a set of articles (25-36) on the policing of religious practice (la police des cultes) that authorizes the monitoring of religious communities.
Far from implementing a radical separation, the French law of 1905 can be seen as a way of acknowledging religious freedom only to the extent that it can be regulated and restricted in the name of public order. For this very reason, French state secularism is not a form of privatization but is still indebted to a fragmented imperial system formerly known as the public recognition of organized rites (le système des cultes reconnus). The Islamophobic practices of the French state are indebted to a system implemented by the Napoleonic state after 1801, both in France and in its Empire in northwestern Africa. The ways in which the state attempts to reinforce its control over religious organizations and restrict religious practices are undoubtedly remnants of the First Empire.
Secularism’s Religion Is Not Private Belief
As a consequence of its indebtedness to this imperial legacy, the French State itself recognizes religion as both private and public. As public, religion is subject to state discipline and policing. The Republic thus guarantees that ‘‘these practices do not contradict the republican order.” In a puzzling and rather mysterious way, the French state asserts that, while it does not recognize religious organizations anymore, “it ignores none of them.” In other words, while laïcité has abolished official recognition for Christianity and Judaism, it has done so because these religions were already reformed by the imperial state. To the extent that Islam, being a colonized religion, has never been officially “recognized”—that is reorganized—by the French state, it has to be permanently suspected (or, in the subtle language of the state, “not ignored”).
The French state’s normative definition of religion thus counters any argument that religion is primarily a question of personal belief. Since Asad’s foundational essay “The Construction of Religion as an Anthropological Category,” critics have argued that secularism is reducible to a Christian injunction that reduces religious practices to a Protestant idea of privacy and belief. What religion is and should be according to the requirements of secular reason, so I argue, is not reducible to privatization. It refers, rather, to what de Certeau would describe as the formality of practices. Hence, the separation between practice and belief is far more important in the mechanisms of secularism than the primacy of either belief or practice. Indeed, despite anti-clerical demands to privatize religion, the French state’s secularism deploys an understanding of religion as public practices. One of the key concepts that structures French secularism’s religious requirements is not private religion but culte, a word that could be added to a long list of untranslatables. Culte means both ritual practice and religious organization. By using this concept, French state secularism attempts to define how religious practices and religious communities should be organized in the public sphere. The secularity of the French state requires a constant interaction between the government and the different religious organized communities.
The secular state is still explicitly willing to recognize and organize Islam as a culte, namely as a centralized, vertical, and thus governable institution. In this sense, it is comparable to what the French colonial administration in Algeria used to call a consistoire musulman, an institution that was supposed to control the practices of colonized Muslims by controlling Islamic authoritative discourse. French secularism cannot be reduced to the banning of religious signs from schools. As it is being deployed vis-à-vis the question of a so-called ‘Islamic separatism’—the new ‘Muslim Question’—French secularism is not an attempt to privatize religion. Nor does it simply abide by a Protestant notion that reduces religion to belief, as it is often claimed by the critical literature on secularism influenced by Asad. To the contrary: it enables practices that reorganize religions, specifically Islam, in the public sphere.
Is the French state a Repressed Islamic Republic?
The kind of “political theology” that structures Islamophobia and systemic racism is neither reducible to Christianity nor can it solely be described as “secular.” Instead of asking whether the secular state’s violence against Muslims is secular or Christian or arguing that Christianity and secularism are interdependent, I want to suggest, instead, that the French state is increasingly becoming a kind of failed Muslim theologian, a catastrophic ‘alim who tirelessly attempts to create an artificial pseudo-Islamic theology without acknowledging its own pretentions to act as an Islamic power. Hence, this obsessive will to construct a liberalized and reformed Islam through a new kind of theology that should be embodied in the stones of Republican mosques.
The injunction to reform Islam corresponds to the way in which “bad Muslims” (namely ‘Islamists and separatists’) are to be redeemed in order to become acceptable and thus whitened. Whiteness, in France, is a formation that reflects how secularism and Islam are intertwined by centuries of colonialism in North Africa. The reform of Islam, it is said, is a condition for full citizenship or political representation and participation. This injunction is neither minor nor new, and it has become an official part of contemporary practices of laïcité. These practices are increasingly aiming to domesticate Islam in order to make it a legitimate part of the secular public sphere. The secular state’s definition of religion is therefore not the assertion of a Protestant primacy of belief over practices. In France, secularism introduces a separation between belief and practices, as well as between Islam and Muslims. The latter is what allows some secularists to defend free speech and public insult at all costs by positing with a puzzling certainty that one can insult Islam or the Prophet without insulting Muslims themselves.
The “new” repressive laïcité in France is increasingly becoming what it has always been in its North and West African colonies: an attempt to reform, reorganize, and control Islam by unveiling Muslim women and policing Muslim men. It is almost banal to say that the Islamophobic violence deployed as state secularism is indebted to French colonialism in Egypt and Algeria as well as in northwestern Africa. Such violence characterizes the colonization of Muslims throughout the “Afro-Arab world” since the 19th century, as Wael Hallaq demonstrates. French secularism is therefore not an exception. It is the ideal-type of the way in which race and Islamophobia work hand in hand. Since the state cannot recognize Islam without attempting to reorganize it vertically and policing suspicious Muslims, the French state forces Islam to become as undemocratic as it is itself by organizing a religious hierarchy under the control of a Muslim Republican “priesthood.”
Hence, the French state is trying to force Islam and Muslims to become as narrowly provincial and stubbornly monolinguist as French nationalism is. Since the state cannot allow Islam and Muslims to exist without attempting to reorganize Islam vertically and policing suspicious Muslims, the French state tries to introduce a form of hierarchy in Islam by virtue of its imperial form of secularity.