"We are familiar with the other but only in negative terms"
Q&A with sociologist Nilüfer Göle, author of "The Daily Lives of Muslims".
For many in the west, Islam has become a byword for terrorism. As Europe struggles with the refugee crisis, the question of Muslim integration has become an obsession across different European countries. Muslims who don’t assimilate are frequently seen as “the enemy within”. This negative feeling has fuelled populist political movements across the European continent. Nilüfer Göle is a Turkish sociologist based in Paris. Her new book, "The Daily Lives Of Muslims", attempts to provide a corrective to the distorted view of Muslim life frequently seen in the media. She spent time with Muslim communities in 21 cities across Europe where controversies over integration have arisen. Here, she discusses her findings.
What was your motivation for writing this book?
I was observing these controversies – for instance, over Islamic veiling, which started in the 1980s – and had the feeling it was getting worse. Public debates weren’t helping overcome stereotypes. On the contrary the polarisation was getting bigger, so I wanted to understand if there was something different to what we were observing in the media. I wanted to see what was happening in the places where these controversies were emerging, because it always involves real people and physical places, cities.
Secondly, more philosophical, maybe existential, was the question: is there a possibility to create a relationship between two different cultures? To use the popular language of today – is it really possible to “live together”, with a Muslim presence in Europe? Do these controversies mean a deep cultural fracture or clash? Or is there a possibility within the conflict of a process which makes us familiar and elaborates new norms and ways of living?
And do you think we can “live together”?
I had the feeling yes, there is the possibility to go beyond these clashes. The first thing is not to avoid the conflict, not to rely only on good feelings about multiculturalism or to say, look at past multi-ethnic Empires. These can be sources but it’s not sufficient.
I realised that when I spoke about public controversies around Islam, people instantly thought about the media coverage. And they didn’t think about the way they were dealing in their own daily lives with the neighbours or with others in the cities. They were thinking of themselves through the media. Face-to-face relations were deteriorating and this had an impact on not only public life but public debate. If we go beyond media coverage, people start finding new ways of relating to each other.
The artistic form can also be a way of going beyond one cultural resource and surpassing the conflict. One example is the choices of aesthetic of architecture for mosques. You have social issues around mosque constructions – who is financing them, what is going on there, are these places of radicalisation and so on. Going to the materiality means starting from the architecture. Do we need a form of a mosque with a dome and minaret? What kind of mosque would be a consensus for both inhabitants of the city and for Muslims? Muslims don’t want a totally modern mosque where they will not find themselves in familiarity with the mosque. But they want also to have the mosque where others can be related to, and they can be proud of it. We have to go into these real material issues and find ways of surpassing the ideological issues by aesthetic forms.
You talk about increased visibility of Islam in public life causing resentment in Europe. Could you explain?
For the last 30 years what is going on is that in the public sphere, Muslims are making themselves visible by their difference. There are basically four issues. The first is the Islamic covering of women, veiling. The second is halal, which is more than dietary habits because it’s not just not eating pork, it is also ritual slaughtering. The third is related to praying and mosques – that’s also a visibility issue. The fourth one is that Muslims hold onto values of sacredness.
The visual dimensions of this conflict become very important. We think of public life as a discursive sphere, but the public sphere is also related to everyday life, dietary habits, the way you are dressed, the way you are praying, what is sacred for you. In all these ways of living – covering yourself, praying five times a day – difference is visible. That creates resentment because it became framed as a cultural difference, part of a societal debate.
The rituals of Judaism are very close, and kosher meat is recognised as the religious right of a minority. When it was about Islamic practice, it became a societal, public issue; a concern for all citizens, not only Muslims. Suddenly halal is an animal rights issue, women covering is a women’s rights issue, and sacred values contravene freedom of expression. Each controversy was thought of as being in profound contradiction with secular cultural values of Europe.
I don’t think this was the best way to debate these issues. There is something regressive about it because there is something in these debates that did not include Muslims’ point of view, Muslim’s self-perception. It was all about perception of European countries and their reinforcement of identities and values. It serves the majoritarian identity politics, I think.
Why is the question of Muslim integration in particular such a major political issue across so many European countries?
All over Europe, we have the post-1968 cultural heritage. This is not only secularism from above – about the church and state – but at the individual level. This means secularism within the private lives of people – abortion, contraception, gender equality for women and sexual minorities, gay marriage. The Islamic presence in public life in European cities is felt by all these people of 1968 as something harking back to the previous period. This explains why people who resent Muslims come not only from the far right but also from the secular left. Some feminists and gay activists play an important role in legitimising and justifying the ban against the headscarf in France for instance. Progressives, leftist people said there is something unnegotiable here about the veil. They made an identification with the Christian religion, saying the church took our rights, and now Muslims are taking them.
But Muslim self–perception is not the same. Their religion is not only imposed from above, these are ordinary people, citizens, trying to live their religion in a secular, pluralist, Christian environment. Which already means a process of interpreting religion in a different way. European Islam is from below as Muslims are really negotiating within themselves the way to be a Muslim in this context. They are more and more cut off from their countries of origin. The second and third generation are born here so there is no continuity – they reinterpret, relearn Islam, some from Arabic countries have to relearn Arabic. Islam in a way serves to be something beyond the origins of national migration, it’s something more universal for them. More than being Pakistani or Moroccan or Turkish, they become Muslim. But all these existing, important ways of accommodation are dismissed.
Making yourself visible requires courage. The first generation didn’t know how to speak the language, they remained at the margins of society. The second and third generation are already citizens of Europe, they speak the language, and they are upwardly socially mobile. The moment you are integrated, you can make yourself visible or ask for a mosque. This is affirmative, becoming part of the landscape. The unfortunate historical coincidence is that in the same period as Muslims were entering public life, Islamic terrorist attacks happened in these countries. The violence of course made things much more difficult for what I call “ordinary Muslims”. In my book, this is an oxymoron – they live an ordinary life, but they are not perceived as ordinary. Everything they live as a Muslim experience is perceived as something associated with terrorism, or with cultural backwardness. So we have these two politics: insecurity and cultural closure. So the cohabitation is not successful for the moment.
How could these issues be negotiated more successfully?
We have to rehabilitate our public life, and create artificial – it doesn’t come naturally – physical spaces so encounters take place. We have what really late British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called “mixophobia”, a fear of mixing, not just among Muslim migrants and other inhabitants but social classes. We are living in more and more segregated societies. We are debating Islam without Muslims. When you look at the last 30 years, very little of the personal perceptions of Muslims have been taken into account.
For me the perspective shouldn’t be in terms of how we integrate Muslims more. They are integrated. But how do we take their point of view into society so we build together, exchange norms and ways of thinking? Constructing a mosque, for example. If you give it to a German architect in Germany, it is an important step. It encourages borrowing. The architect has to learn how to translate a different cultural code into his own perspective. What we see for the moment is transcultural translations are made through Islamophobia. We are familiar with the other but only in negative terms – like we speak about jihad, not living together.
You are based in France. How have these issues played out there?
Not so successful. Islam is framed as a problem of the banlieue: they say they are segregated, they have failed at integration, failed at education success, they are in prisons, and carrying out terrorist attacks. There is the failure of Muslim integration on one hand, and terrorist attacks on the other. During this ongoing debate around veiling, halal, mosques, freedom of expression, visual representations, there is a blind spot. That is those who have been integrating, the new middle classes, those who succeeded. Not everybody can succeed, but if you think there are only problems, there is no way to move forward.
Secularism became the key word to avoid this debate. But secularism in this case does not mean neutrality of the state in relation to all religions. It’s not something that reassures religious pluralisms. It becomes an exclusionary value, saying that we are defending the values of republic, which becomes a cultural distinction. It’s not an inclusionary value: we are representing gender equality, sexual minorities, free expression, and they are not.
We have to go beyond this binary opposition. When I first published my book on veiling, 30 years ago, the debate was more open. There has been a regression.
What did you make of the “burkini” ban?
I like this example. It is hilarious. When you don’t know how to name something foreign, like Islamic covering, we try to find names from the origin, like hijab or burka. We try to find these names from Persian, Arabic, whatever, thinking we go to the real thing. “Burkini” is perfect. We cannot call it a chador because it is a total invention of contemporary societies. Women want to conquer different experiences and still try to accommodate these experiences, like swimming at the beach, with their understanding of Islam. Neither feminists nor Orthodox Islam are happy with the burkini as it is not in conformity. Orthodox Islam would prefer that women are not on the beach! It is these practices we have to understand much more, and not in ideological terms.
How important has the question of Islamic integration been for Marine Le Pen?
Marine Le Pen came to the fore introducing Islam in her agenda. She’s not only a xenophobe like her father. In all European countries we have seen this shift of new populist parties, which became more mainstream by changing their agenda from xenophobia to Islamophobia. Marine Le Pen came to public attention in relation to Muslims praying in the streets, saying this was like occupation. Islamic issues were the main issue for all these populist movements of Europe and it’s not only about immigration, but Islam, religious presence, praying, veiling and mosques and so on.
But what is interesting is that for the moment, in the French political debate, it is totally suspended. The other candidates are scared to position themselves in relation to these issues, so there is no confrontation. The mainstream right and left have followed this principle of secularism as the basic pillar of identity of France. Some have tried to give a more flexible definition of secularism – even Hamon or Macron – but for the moment, this is not the decisive issue. The decisive issue for many is how to avoid Le Pen, but they forget she is not only anti-European but Islamophobic.
Basically the left everywhere is religious blind. They know how to tackle racism but not the religious issue. Maybe [British sociologist] Tariq Modood calling this “cultural racism” is something that can be accepted more easily: the word racism, not religion.