Integrating Islam in France (and Europe)

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Jonathan Laurence
Boston College

Date: October 4, 2006

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While European states have successfully integrated waves of immigrants in the past, the recent settlement of a large Muslim population poses a variety of daunting challenges, particularly when viewed against the backdrop of growing Islamic fundamentalism worldwide. Because of the size of its Muslim population and its universalist definition of citizenship, France provides a good test case for the encounter between Islam and the West. In a new book, BC asst. prof. Jonathan Laurence (political science) and co-author Justin Vaisse offer extensive and original insights into how such integration can be fostered in a diverse, secular democracy. Many in France and elsewhere view the growing role of Muslims in their society with a jaundiced eye, suspecting that new Muslim political and religious networks are a threat to European rule of law and the French way of life. Not surprisingly, however, the reality of the situation is far too complicated to be captured by slogans and slurs. Integrating Islam examines the complex reality of Muslim integration in France-its successes, failures, and future challenges.

Speaker Bio

Jonathan Laurence

Jonathan Laurence is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Boston College. He holds a B.A from Cornell University and a Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. His principal areas of teaching and research are Comparative Politics, European Politics, and the integration of Muslims into European politics and society. Prof. Laurence is an Affiliated Scholar with the Center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution, where he has also been a Visiting Fellow. His most recent publications include Integrating Islam: Political and Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings, 2006), co-authored with Justin Vaïsse; and "Managing Transnational Islam: Muslims and the State in Western Europe," in Craig Parsons and Timothy Smeeding, eds., Immigration and the Transformation of Europe (Cambridge, 2006).

Event Photos

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Jonathan Laurence at the Boisi Center

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Photos by Kerry Burke, BC Media Technology Services

Event Recap

On October 4 the Boisi Center welcomed Professor Jonathan Laurence of Boston College’s Political Science Department, who presented his latest research on the integration of Islam and Muslims into French society.  Laurence began by debunking several myths about Islam in Europe, including the idea that Islam is growing at an alarming rate and the perception that French Muslims generally hold extreme cultural and political attitudes.  Laurence then raised the question:  Are the present conflicts arising simply out of poor communication between immigrant Muslims and their “host societies,” or do they manifest a massive failure of the system to integrate this new population?

Laurence put the current issues in historical perspective by recalling the first round of discussion about headscarves in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the controversy over Salman Rushdie’s work, and the initial Gulf War.  Now, as Muslims become a larger and more established group in European societies, new questions are being asked about the impact of their presence.  Is a new continent emerging which might be called “Eurabia”?  Do the meetings between government and religious leaders in castles around Europe evoke the ghosts of Napoleon and Mussolini?  In this era of communications technology and easy travel between countries, has the assimilationist urge of immigrants subsided such that a new kind of multi-ethnic state is emerging?  In other words, to what extent do Muslims want to become “French,” “German”, and so on?  What about the pluralism within Islam itself and how these various groups are represented in the host societies?  Finally, are these concerns encouraging a more right-leaning or conservative host state, and what might be the wider implications of such a tendency?

The group engaged in a lively discussion about these and other issues, considering the history and implications for Muslims and other groups in the U. S.  In the end, the group observed that although there is some policing going on in societies where Muslims have arrived more recently, this has usually happened with the process of emancipation of new groups:  increased oversight is often the tradeoff as greater freedom is achieved.  What all this means for the future of interstate and intrastate relations remains an urgent question.

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Further Reading

  • Jocelyne Cesari, When Islam and Democracy Meet: Muslims in Europe and in the United States (Palgrave Macmillan, 2006).

  • Jytte Klausen, The Islamic Challenge: Politics and Religion in Western Europe (Oxford University Press, 2005).

  • John Bowen, Why the French Don't Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space (Princeton University Press, 2006).

  • Jonathan Laurence and Justin Vaisse, Integrating Islam: Political And Religious Challenges in Contemporary France (Brookings Institution Press, 2006).

  • Shireen Hunter, ed., Islam, Europe's Second Religion: The New Social, Cultural, and Political Landscape (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002).