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Islamism, the Reform of Islam, and Civil Religion in France

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Islamism, the Reform of Islam, and Civil Religion in France

, University of Frankfurt/Oder

Zentrum der Tablīghī Jamā'at in Dewsbury, GB

My project is concerned with the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF). The UOIF is considered one of the most important and influential Islamic federations in France and generally regarded as close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The UOIF has participated in the French Council for Muslim Worship (Conseil Français du Culte Musulman) since 2003 and is thus a Muslim co-representative recognised by the state.

This development has importantly intersected with debates in France about the position of the ‘Islamist’ UOIF in the public sphere and more generally, the legitimate position of Muslim oganisations in secular France. The decade-long process of negotiations between Muslim organisations and the state that led to the creation of the CFCM has also increased debates within the UOIF and among the broader Islamic public. These concentrate on the modalities of cooperation with public authorities and, more generally, the situatedness of French Muslims – and their practices and belief – in relation to the normative spaces delineated by the Repubic and the umma.

The study of the UOIF is conceived as a case study on the transformation of an ‘Islamist’ organisation in Europe. Can we usefully speak of Islamism in the European context in the same way this term is used in studies on the Middle East and South Asia? How can we explain the appeal of these ‘Islamist’ movements, particularly among European-born Muslims, within this framework? And, finally, how does our growing knowledge of transformations within ‘Islamist’ groups in Europe affect the way we define them? These are some of the more general questions raised in the project, which seeks to contribute to public debates on Islam.

While the case of the UOIF is undoubtedly specific to the French context in several respects, it is intended here to serve as a starting point for more general reflections on the relationship between the state and Islam in Europe, on Islam and transnationalism, and on the definition of ‘Islamism’ in Europe.

The UOIF example has attracted the attention of a number of researchers, particularly in France. However, most of these studies are confined to examining the UOIF in the context of French state policies with regard to the ‘representation’ of Islam. In-depth studies on the UOIF that examine discourses and developments below the level of national leadership are rare or merely of a polemical nature (e.g., Fourest 2004). In fact, one notes that the dominant analytical grid underlying studies on French Muslims, which is that of policy debates on Islam focusing on the problematic of ‘Islam/laïcité/integration’, has led to a disregard for intra-Muslim dynamics, be they national or transnational, and has not in itself been sufficiently problematized as yet.
‘Intra-muslim’ dynamics, Islamic discourses beyond national Islam policies, and reflexivity designate three key approaches in this project. My starting point is an analysis of discourses within the UOIF, taking Bourdieu’s field concept as the framework. This broadens our perspective, allowing for a study of these discourses that not only refers to French state policy and the narrowly-defined ‘secular’ context, but is also attentive to their embeddedness in various interrelated and often conflicting visions of Islam and its reform in modern times.

Some of the key questions guiding this inquiry are how to identify the location from which Muslim actors in France speak and what kind of conceptual vocabulary can adequately capture the complexity of the spatial structure of Muslim practices and beliefs in France. This last question will be addressed by paying close attention to the various actors working within the UOIF.

Bourdieu’s field concept will also serve to reflect on the basic categories used in studies on French Muslims (Muslim, Franco-Maghrebi, young Muslims, etc.) and to examine changes in scientific vocabulary in the last two decades as part of a broader process of ‘integration’ of immigrant generations in France.

The results of this project will be published in a series of articles and a monograph.


BMBF - Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung   ZMO -Zentrum Moderner Orient   Universität Hamburg   Europa-Universität Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder)   Martin-Luther-Universität Halle-Wittenberg

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