The secretary general of the UMP (the political party led by President Nicolas Sarkozy) and the president of the French Republic have announced that we will be subjected to yet another new debate on Islam in France. If we go by the earlier disastrous debates on national identity and the burqa, we can brace ourselves to become the target of the most vulgar anti-Muslim prejudice, expressed freely by certain of our fellow countrymen, be they from the working classes, the ruling classes or the intellectual elite.
This pathological rejection of all that is linked to Islam—which we rightly call Islamophobia—aims indiscriminately at anyone perceived to be Muslim, whether he is religious, agnostic or atheist. This contemporary figure of the "Muslim" can be considered in the same way as brought Jean-Paul Sartre to redefine the “Jew” with reference to 19th- and 20th-century anti-Semitism. In 1944, the existential philosopher argued that “It is the anti-Semite who makes the Jew”; in 2011, we can claim that “It is the Islamophobe who makes the Muslim.”
What, in today’s France, unites the pious Algerian retired worker, the atheist French-Mauritanian director that I am, the Fulani Sufi bank employee from Mantes-la-Jolie, the social worker from Burgundy who has converted to Islam, and the agnostic male nurse who has never set foot in his grandparents’ home in Oujda?
What brings us together if not the fact that we live within a society which thinks of us as Muslims? We are reminded every day—during conversations around the coffee machine, in news reports and in magazines—that we share a part of responsibility for such phenomena as the wearing of the burqa and praying in the street, today conceived to be fundamental to the future of the nation. Further, it is potentially our fault if the republican pact is undermined, and if the identity of France is in danger; and, incidentally, if little Afghan girls don’t go to school or if building churches in Saudi Arabia is banned. All this because we "look" Muslim or have a "Muslim name" or, even worse, because we have had the crazy idea to convert to Islam.
Of course, we can feign indifference; we can appear to be French, secularist and republican, devoted lovers of our land and our territories. But how long can we seriously hold on to this voluntary position when we are constantly sent back to our "Muslim" identity?
(I deliberately use a capital M, in French, because I refer to a category of identity of a new type, created by the glare of society, independently from the relationship to religion of any of its members.)
The Place of the Other
In Anti-Semite and Jew: An Exploration of the Etiology of Hate, Sartre made a distinction between those he calls “authentic” and “non-authentic” Jews. Authentic Jews take into account the way in which society sees them, while non-authentic Jews carry on as if they were not affected by this regard.
As Muslims of France and the West, we are today faced with the same existential choice between authenticity and inauthenticity. This choice has nothing to do with our beliefs, religious affiliation, or our relation to history and cultural references. It refers to how to think and act if we want to regain possession of our diminished existences without trying to fit into the mold of a pseudo-republican universality which is nothing more than a barefaced lie; it involves investing in the space which is really ours rather than acting as we are told. This space could also be that of the Protestant, the Jew, the Black or the Roma; it is simply the position of the Other, the one against which the dominant society tries to define itself; the one that shakes identity just as difference seems on the point of vanishing.
To be an "authentic" Muslim in France today involves taking on the paradoxical position of the Other from within. It involves confronting the gaze that alienates us while building on our daily experiences; and challenging the positions of those who refuse change. We all—believers and unbelievers with different levels of attachment to our cultures of "origin"—know what it is to be Muslim in France. We can no longer be insulted every day by those who govern us; we refuse to be used by journalists looking for headlines, polemists with twisted thinking and manipulative politicians hungry for an audience, fame and votes. We no longer want to hear learned commentators tell us how to live, feel and think.
The only thing left to do is to occupy the space assigned to us as “Muslims” with full consciousness. From there, we can begin to liberate "ourselves" and thus also liberate “them”; just as black Americans, women, and homosexuals have done before us and as all those forced to live with a crippled citizenship in an alienated society will do after us.