Book blog:

Politicizing Islam: An introduction

posted by Z. Fareen Parvez

Politicizing IslamParts of this introduction are reprinted from Politicizing Islam: The Islamic Revival in France and India by Z. Fareen Parvez with permission from Oxford University Press. © Oxford University Press 2017.

The author completed the last of the research for this book as a fellow of the New Directions in the Study of Prayer initiative of the SSRC’s program on Religion and the Public Sphere. – Eds.

Café Patron 1: I don’t know what I think about the [anti-burqa] proposition. But the women who wear it—they do it only as a provocation! 

Café Owner: The thing is these women don’t have a choice.

Patron 1: But unfortunately, some women are choosing to wear it even though they’re born in this country. They should share some basic qualities with the rest of us. Well, I suppose it’s not the worst thing to happen in a relationship [dans un couple].

Patron 2 (Maghrébin): In my house you are not welcome if you wear the burqa! It’s not Islam, it’s not in the Quran. It’s the fault of the government, since these people don’t have any work. We have too much state assistance in France, and it’s made people not want to work.

Patron 3: I definitely feel bothered when I see it [burqa].

Parvez: I work with some of these women in Vénissieux, and they really believe in wearing it. I don’t think it’s right to say they’re forced into it.

Patron 3: Maybe some of them. But for others, it’s not their choice. It’s a question of equality and protecting these women.

Conversation among strangers, Lyon, France, 2009

This conversation started spontaneously at a café in my neighborhood in Lyon the summer that the national debate began about banning the niqab in France. That summer, I found myself in several conversations exactly like this one with strangers and acquaintances. Their sentiments about protecting women juxtaposed starkly and ironically with the realities I saw while spending time in a mosque community of Salafist Muslim women in the banlieues (urban periphery). But the following year, France banned the niqab in all public space. A few years later, the tragic events at Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan instigated a backlash against Muslims; and the state rushed to shut down or “clean up” a number of specifically Salafist mosques, including in the Lyon region.

This community of Muslims in Lyon’s urban periphery was in fact no stranger to surveillance and judgment. Indeed, this is why the women I knew had retreated into the private sphere, practicing what I call “antipolitics,” and lacking much hope for their futures in France—the country of their birth. A significant number of them withdrew from school. They instead focused intensely on their faith and participated in a moral community centered in the banlieues.

This situation outside of Lyon is one example of how Muslim minorities have politically reacted to the hostilities they face. It is one case out of four that I present and explain in my new book. Politicizing Islam is a comparative ethnography that analyzes the religious and political dynamics of the Islamic revival in France and India, home to the largest Muslim minorities in Western Europe and Asia. These two secular democracies make for a productive comparison on the topic of Islam and politics, despite their obvious differences. In both places, Muslims have long been racialized and suffer disproportionate rates of poverty and unemployment. Islamic revival and the reactions to it in the last two decades have struck at the core of both nations’ secular doctrines.

The arguments presented in the book draw on two years of participant observation research in Lyon and the Indian city of Hyderabad, two cities with significant numbers of Muslims and forms of Islamic revival that the state has targeted in various ways. Specifically, I show how the politics of Islamic movements differ across class, a crucial factor that existing literature has largely overlooked. While poor and sectarian Muslims in Lyon’s urban periphery retreated into antipolitics, middle-class Muslims in Lyon were busy in a politics of recognition, working with the state toward integrating Islam or actively opposing the state’s exclusionary policies. These middle-class associations, however, were estranged from Salafist Muslims and their antipolitics in the banlieues. In the Indian city of Hyderabad, middle-class and elite Muslims engaged in a redistributive politics, promoting private philanthropy and pushing the state for affirmative action policies for the most disadvantaged Muslims. Unlike in Lyon, they were deeply embedded in poor neighborhoods and communities, where they facilitated and encouraged political communities. Poor Muslim women, especially, took advantage of these ties to attain skills as well as use Islamic law to seek justice in matters of marriage and divorce.

The book presents each of these four movements in ethnographic detail, illustrating their unique components and internal complexities. It also explains how such different types of movements emerged, despite similar dynamics in pious practices and debates across the two countries. At the macro-level, the divergent effects of France’s assimilationist secularism and India’s pluralist secularism explain the conditions that determined to what extent and in what ways religious minorities could mobilize. At the meso-level, class relations among Muslims impacted how politics among the poor and subaltern would unfold. For example, in both Lyon and Hyderabad, middle-class Muslims disapproved of religious practices among the poor, especially certain forms of women’s veiling. This struggle around questions of gender is essentially a cultural class struggle. But it has different consequences for women and the larger community depending in part on the nature of class relations.

There is not an inherent politics to Islam; nor are Muslims everywhere seeking to “Islamize” the public sphere. Rather, politics takes different forms depending on how states manage diversity and what types of politics states foreclose and enable. At a time of growing anti-Muslim and Islamophobic violence in France, India, as well as the United States—fueled by fears of the so-called political effects of Islam—the book aims for analytical clarity on the misunderstood relationship between Islam and politics in secular states.

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