Marianne et le Prophète: L'Islam dans la France laïque. (Marianne and the Prophet: Islam in Secular France.) By Soheib Bencheikh. Paris, Bernard Grasset, 1998. Pp. 282. 115 FF. ISBN 2-246-53871-8.
Whatever the discomforts of the title, which reduces the travails of the Muslim community in a secular, yet implacably Islamophobic, France to a symbolic confrontation between the Prophet and the mythical French woman, Marianne, there is little doubt that this is a very sober, analytical and timely book which deserves more attention than is due any customary reflection on things French and Muslim. Indeed, far from being conventional and predictable, it examines the phenomenon of Islamic Europe with a remarkably keen vision that is both analytical and constructive. Not shying away from an earnest, philosophically mature dialogue with the cavalier secular tradition, it also propounds harmonious scenarios of the Euro-Muslim future. Little wonder that despite all the misery of the prevailing Islamophobia, the abiding mood, and message, of the book is one of hope and conciliation.
The author of this suggestive treatise belongs to that rare breed of European Muslims which has acquired an intellectual home in the Western tradition without forfeiting its Islamic moorings. Coming from a prominent religious family of Algeria, Soheib Bencheikh has had the good fortune of studying both at Al-Azhar and in France. That he is the 'Mufti of Marseille' who holds a French doctorate in religious sciences makes him amply suited to the role of a mediator, just as his book provides an impressive testimony to his gift for synthesis. He himself envisages his objective as the harmonious integration of Islam in France, and the search for a compatibility of its original, revealed message with the French form of laicity. Of course, the task entails a proper understanding of the unique form of secularism that is peculiar to France and whose alleged incompatibility with Islam has been propounded as the main obstacle to Muslim integration. It is here, in dealing with this infected theme, that Bencheikh shows both his intellectual acumen and ideological moderation.
Starting from a host of given definitions, and citing a number of established authorities, the author succeeds in demonstrating that laicity is an imprecise and poorly defined concept; that it is virtually untranslatable (his discussion of its counterparts in the Muslim languages is quite suggestive) and that its meaning and content are constantly in flux. In an effort to seize upon its semantic and philosophic content, the author is thus led to reflect whether laicity denotes a non-religious space, or whether it is an ideology or a church, a philosophical system, a hostage to positivism, a sacred doctrine, a synonym for ignorance, or quite simply a collection of legal texts, each constituting an exception? He discusses all these polemical themes with exemplary clarity and brevity, refusing to be bogged down in the metaphysical and ideological quagmire. The distressing insight nonetheless is that like secularism in general, the French tradition of laicity incorporates an unexamined doctrine whose champions would rather impose it by fiat rather than expound its meaning and content to the Muslim newcomers.
Having shown the philosophical uncertainty, if not poverty, of the doctrinaire form of laicism, the author then turns his attention to its legal and constitutional interpretations. Paradoxically, he now discards the robe of the prosecutor, which he had donned during the earlier philosophical disputation, and transforms himself into a accommodating negotiator. He contends that laicity merely stipulates 'the positive neutrality of the public authority towards (various) beliefs on the one hand, and the juridical guarantee of free expression and exercise of religion on the other'. It is a position that he not only willingly accepts but which he defends as well, because it has salubrious effects on all religious communities, Islam including. Not surprisingly, Bencheikh dispassionately reasons with both the fundamentalist partisans of laicity and of 'integrist' Islam about the desirability of expanding 'the laic covenant' to include even the Muslims. His arguments are thus directed not only against those Muslims for whom Islam is faith, culture and political destiny all at once, but also against those radical secularists who hold that laicity signifies more than a mere pact of non-interference between believers and non-believers, that it incarnates 'a conception of truth and a philosophy of knowledge'.
The second part of the book deal with the experience of the Muslim community as the new partners of the French laicity. Besides being a competent survey of the historical exigencies of French Islam, it is an harrowing exposé of its misery. Disclosing more than the disharmony and incompetence of an immigrant community, its reasoned account of the negligence and confusion, nay duplicity and arrogance, of the laic French authorities - supposed to exercise a 'positive neutrality towards the free expression and exercise of all faiths' - makes a very distressing reading. Even the manifestly generous and well-meaning efforts of the authorities came to grief, Bencheikh makes a convincing plea, because of not adhering to the orthodox canon of state neutrality. Further, in a section which deals with the practical issues of mosques and cemeteries, the author offers an 'apology' for certain, supposedly offensive Muslim cultural and religious practices that all pertain to the gender issues, because his aim is to inform and reason and not to dispute and triumph. Needless to say that once again Bencheikh's distinguishes himself by displaying those exemplary traits of clarity, moderation and brevity that make his work so attractive.
The final section is self-critical and examines some of the hurdles that delay the emergence of a laic, liberal, confident and 'republican' Islam. Among these, he identifies both 'the anarchy of the imamate' and 'the anachronism of Muslim theology'. Few would disagree with him that most of the 'imams' (prayer leaders) that are imported from the immigrants' original homes are veritable beacons of ignorance and bigotry. Nor may there be any wrangling about the need for training within Europe a cadre of 'imams' whose knowledge of the Islamic tradition would not be, to say the least, a source of embarrassment for the host Muslim community. That they'll be required to interact with, and mediate on behalf of, state authorities, and may perhaps acquire some quasi-official 'clerical' status need not cause discomfort for the anti-clerical Muslim conscience. Anything, believes the author, is better than the present chaos.
The author thus advances a vision of European Islam that is more religious, spiritual and universal, which accepts the laic tenet of state-neutrality as being in accord with the original message of the Qur'an, which seeks to break the strangling hold of the anachronistic tradition and custom, and which finds an authentic home within the Western civilization.
Even Muslim Britain, whose experience of British pragmatism (more conducive to religious and cultural pluralism?) is different from that of their French co-religionists who have been subjected to the universalising ethos of French laicity, should find Bencheikh's Islamic reflection thoughtful and exhilarating. As such, an English translation of this stimulating work ought to be a highly desirable task for the scholars of this country.
Printed in The Muslim News, London, 23 July, 1999.