Bowen, John R. Can Islam Be French? Pluralism and Pragmatism in a Secularist State. Princeton, N J: Princeton University Press, 2010. xi + 230 pages. Cloth. $35.00.
It is hard to know whether it is the Muslims of Eastern Europe (especially Bosnia, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Bulgaria) or the Muslims of Western Europe (especially France, Germany, Spain, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom) that suffer the most from underrepresentation and misrepresentation in political and journalistic circles in North America. But fortunately there is a gradually increasing flow of serious scholarship about Islam and its practitioners in both halves of Europe--in the East, with its long-established, autochthonous, mostly Albanian- and Slavic-speaking Muslims, and in the West, with its much newer, immigration-driven, and predominantly Turkish- and Arabic-speaking communities. The book at hand, by veteran Washington University anthropologist John Bowen, is a noteworthy contribution to the growing body of work on Muslim communities in Western Europe.
This book is based on field work in Paris, Lyon, Lille, Marseilles, and other French cities, where the author visited schools and religious and cultural associations; interviewed students, intellectuals, educators, activists, and political leaders; and, tracked reactions on all sides in well-publicized legal controversies involving Muslim approaches to marriage law and clothing. It quickly becomes apparent that the book will address not only a lacuna in most people's understanding of emigration, assimilation, and Muslim adaptation; it also compels the reader to embrace a mature and nuanced understanding of greater French society in general. It is impossible to understand the political controversies involving French Muslims without a concrete appreciation for French political culture. For instance, many French reactions to the wearing of head scarves arise in various political quarters from different ideological stances. There is a strong and long-abiding tension, even paradox in France between the strongly secular and centralist (but often multi-cultural) left and the strongly Catholic and nationalist right, and the increasing visibility of Muslim life in France can encounter opposition from both sides.
Bowen's trail takes him from "suburbs" (housing estates in largely ethnic communities), via small prayer rooms and large mosques, to press rooms and printing plants. His perspectives on the conventions and...