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France recently passed a bill banning religious clothing and symbols from public schools. The law prohibits all religious symbols, including yarmulkes, Islamic head scarves, and large Christian crosses, but it was prompted by debate over the head scarf—and is only the most recent clash in a continuing controversy over the role of Islam in a country that prides itself on its secularism. The following essay, by a Yale professor and former French citizen, explores the identity crisis experienced by native French citizens born to immigrants from the Maghreb (Francophone northwest Africa). It was originally published in the French newspaper Le Monde, and was translated for the Yale Alumni Magazine by Francoise Jaouen.
My neurosis protected me from the siren calls of the French Republic. That’s what I like about it. In France I saw my parents, and those of many others, unable to rise out of the immigrant’s squalor—the kind of squalor that resides in the mind. Lowly jobs, condescending familiarity, and ghetto housing were their lot, and later became ours.
Our parents, born in the old country, accepted it because they believed they did not deserve better—and, more importantly, because France was doing them a favor by letting them settle in her heartland. A month spent working at Renault or at the bottom of a mine shaft was worth more than a year in the village back home.
Confronted with French political and social realities, we almost got trapped too. School made us feral: so much hope, so much waste. Like others, I learned the difference between the “mother tongue” and the language of my mother.
Our parents had lost a great deal. They lived continually glancing backwards, hoping for the unlikely return to their homeland—swinging back and forth between a splash of cheap red wine and a glass of mint tea. As for us, we were in limbo: not yet adults, and already on the brink of extinction. Beware of employers, realtors, teachers, police officers, and unions. Beware of politicians. They humored us one day, and stigmatized us the next as the new barbarians.
We marched in the cities, since in the Socialist years of Mitterrand’s first term our cause had been made into a public issue. And in the cities we learned disobedience—because, they say, that’s how you become free.
Drug dealers, imams, soccer players, budding writers turning out stories about the ghetto, or buffoons on cable TV: for them, the show could go on. They were promoted from intruders to—almost—guests. But what happened to the others? To those who finished high school, got college degrees, and found jobs more or less suited to their abilities—to those who said, “My country is France"?
Our integration into the French Republic, we were told, was our own responsibility. “Integration” is the key word. Latin etymology tells us that to integrate is to make whole. We were half-citizens. We were the trash of the Republic.
We tried every argument. They said it was our culture that interfered. But, we said, the Chinese and Vietnamese didn’t have these problems “integrating.” Well, actually, they said, the real problem is language. But didn’t we learn ours in the public school system? Our parents had heavy accents, but aren’t the first-generation Iberians just as bad?
The truth is simpler, and more remote. The dark place, the great divide standing forever between us and la doulce France, exists in religion. A centuries-old dialogue between two sides that are deaf to each other—between the Crusaders and the Levant, between Venice and the Ottoman empire, between continental France and French Algeria—took a turn toward the extreme once Islam, by virtue of our existence, put down its roots for good within the borders of France.
Confronted with so many Ahmeds and Djamilas—people who cut sheep’s throats, people who force women to wear hoods—fantasies that had long remained hidden and latent blossomed into ignorance and xenophobia, poorly disguised as cultural bickering. The French Republic’s ill-conceived version of secularism returned in full force. Didn’t they know that the Islam of the Maghreb, which had been isolated for so long from the ideological currents of the Middle East, was among the most tolerant strains of Islam? It was impossible for France to take us seriously, to recognize that we were part of the solution, not part of the problem. Because we cherished rituals and cultural traditions different from those taught in Sunday school, we were frauds. Worse: we were ingrates. (You won’t eat our ham sandwiches? Fine. But don’t talk to us about prayers and head scarves!)
France chose exclusion instead of acknowledgement. In doing so, it allowed Islam to disappear into cellars and run-down houses, which have now served as Islam’s places of worship for decades. Even Marseilles, which boasts one of the oldest and most important Muslim communities in France, still lacks a mosque worthy of the name.
The Maghreb, blighted by chronic poverty in Morocco, civil war in Algeria, and the police state in Tunisia, inevitably appeared to its former colonial power in the symbolic guise of the “Arab”: incapable of democratic achievement or of social and economic success. In the context of this charade, the new French—the immigrants from the Maghreb—came to embody a cultural failing. The archaic paternalism of the Republic was reinvigorated. No appeasement, no dialogue; the response to us was, and still is, contempt and demonization. We are labeled a “dangerous class” by a portion of the right and by the media—predisposed to low-level crime, Islamic fundamentalism, even to Palestinian partisanship.
And there is a question that will not go away: how can young girls who wear Muslim head scarves be considered a threat to the democratic and Republican order? Isn’t their determination to go to school proof enough of their desire for integration? Aren’t their good grades a sign that they hope for executive positions in a multicultural France? I wonder whether, at the end of the day, French society sees any other alternative for us besides torching cars or becoming religious fanatics. After denying our past, after trying to undermine our present, they want to define us by, and confine us in, delinquency or the international anti-Western conspiracy.
Like our parents, we are vilified, but for different reasons. They were stigmatized by being born under colonial rule; we are stigmatized because we have refused to bear the yoke of monoculturalism, to accept the dogma of uniformity. CEOs, state executives, lawyers, or engineers, we learn to believe we are in the wrong without ever knowing where our guilt lies. Some feel so much self-hatred that they change their surnames, repudiating the names of their ancestors. For the Frenchmen and Frenchwomen of Maghreb origin, integration is the setting for betrayal.
I dropped the pretenses when I landed on a different continent. On the streets of New York City, I am neither an ambassador of France nor of the Maghreb. I simply erase it all. From this shore of the Atlantic, France looks like an old woman, comfortably ensconced in the European Union, who for lack of real enemies plays at being scared of its own citizens—us. Or rather, them.
I chose the United States. It was moving to find that I was given a second chance without having to recite my family tree. My name, my religion, and my ethnic background were not obstacles. The police leave me alone. There are no national identity cards here, no spot ID checks. My friends do not feel compelled to tell me their favorite Arab jokes.
Diaspora probably marks for me, as for others who have decided to leave France, the moment when one comes closest to being the person one has dreamed of being. You will argue that being uprooted was merely part of my identity. Wrong. I was already American when the first of my ancestors left his village on the Saharan border, leaving behind a world where he had no future.
Here, in my new country, I find many things to question. But they are far less lacerating than submitting to the judgment of five million of my ex-fellow citizens who voted for the candidate of the extreme right in the last presidential election, and in so doing, told me that they would never accept me. How could this be happening? Let’s just say: it has happened.
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