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Islam and the Republic: Towards a Reasonable Accommodation
An Interview with John Bowen

by David Bornstein & Pauline Peretz , 2 March 2012
translated by Michael C. Behrent
with the support of Florence Gould Foundation

In France, Islamic institutions follow the Republic’s rules, respect the legal and political system, but suffer from the fact that the principle of religious equality is contradicted by popular resistance to their presence in French society. To overcome this inconsistency, the American ethnographer John Bowen calls for a reinvention of the 1905 law on religious buildings and the adoption of “reasonable accommodations.”

John Bowen is a professor of anthropology at the Washington University in Saint-Louis. His research looks at the integration of Islam in Europe (France and Great Britain) and at its place in Indonesia. He has done fieldwork in both regions for many years. He authored: Can Islam be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State (Princeton University Press, 2009). Forthcoming are A New Anthropology of Islam (Cambridge University Press) and Blaming Islam (MIT Press).

Watch the video in French or read the translation of the interview’s transcript:

Video shot by David Bornstein.

Montage : David Bornstein & Pauline Peretz.

Not All Are Equal in their Freedom to Worship

In the studies I have conducted in mosques, schools, and Islamic institutes, I have observed that Muslim leaders adapt rather well to French society. They are now fully aware of the opportunities afforded by the French legal and political system. They grasped quickly and correctly that it was in their interest to open schools operating under state contracts, to work with municipalities to build mosques. But, while observing mosque construction plans in a number of cities, it became apparent that, despite the efforts of mayors and city councilors, these projects were often blocked by members of the public who objected to the establishment or building of a mosque. A building permit for a mosque in Marseille that has been in the works for several years and which had the mayor’s support was recently cancelled. After eleven years, the planning committee for opening a school under state contract in Aubervilliers (Paris region) has yet to obtain a permit. In Lyon, the school superintendant’s opposition to the creation of a Muslim school triggered a huge uproar. Only in Lille could this status be obtained. Permits are being blocked all over.

In France, there is a contradiction between, on the one hand, the great principle—recognized by everyone—of equality before the law as it relates to places of worship and religious practices, with all that this entails in terms of state support, and, on the other, the resistance of part of the French public and even, on occasion, the government to Islam having a significant public presence in French society.

Back to the Original Meaning of the Law

The 1905 law has been poorly understood. It stipulated that the state would completely refrain from intervening in the realm of worship. The Catholics, through the Vatican, refused this provision; consequently, two years later, new measures were adopted, stipulating that municipalities or the state would take responsibility for the maintenance of religious buildings, almost all of which were Catholic. The law’s effects were very unequal: the Catholic churches that were already in existence in 1905 benefited from the law, while the majority of Protestant and Jewish buildings, and particularly all mosques, received nothing from either the state or the municipality according to the law’s terms. This patent inequality led mayors and officials in several towns to try to bypass the law, for instance by charging the equivalent of only one euro for ground leases. In today’s France, this law is obviously unequal and inefficient. I believe the law must be refashioned and reformulated to treat all religions and all buildings in the same way.

Should We All Eat the Same Food?

One can easily imagine reasonable accommodations offered by the French state and municipalities that would address the aspirations of the Muslim public or community. For example, regarding the issue of whether halal meat should be served in school cafeterias, one might ask: does one have the right to eat something different from one’s neighbor? I see no reason why it would be a violation of the Republic’s principles if we all ate different meals. Yet this issue always meets with such resistance and prickliness. It’s as if in France, everyone was required to eat exactly the same thing, despite the fact that there is no republican principle dictating such a norm. Consequently, it is better to soften these regulations and to accommodate the legitimate needs and demands of Muslims, as has been done previously for Jews, vegetarians, and others.

Translated from French by Michael C. Behrent with the support of the Florence Gould Foundation. Transcription by Stéphanie Mimouni.

by David Bornstein & Pauline Peretz, 2 March 2012

To quote this article :

David Bornstein & Pauline Peretz, « Islam and the Republic: Towards a Reasonable Accommodation. An Interview with John Bowen », Books and Ideas , 2 March 2012. ISSN : 2105-3030. URL :

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