Jews Assimilated in Europe. Why Can’t Muslims?

Like Muslims, Jews were once considered “un-assimilable” in Europe. But most found creative ways to adapt—as do Muslim immigrants today.
  • Transcript


Question: How should European states deal with the perceived problem of Muslim assimilation?

Joan Wallach Scott:  Well I think first of all you have to think about the history of other groups’ assimilations as well.  Usually they’re slow.  Practices are adapted pragmatically.  You have to begin by defining the population as assimilable and it’s unclear to me that Muslim, Arab, North, West Africans are considered ultimately assimilable.  I mean I think I have something in my book in The Politics of the Veil, there is a moment when a friend of mine who was opposed to the headscarf ban was talking to a quite famous Jewish politician and said to her, “You know this is terrible.”  And this woman said to my friend, “Well, you know, these people are un-assimilable.”  And my friend said, “That is what they used to say about the Jews.”  And this woman was just outraged and horrified, but historically it is true.  Jews were…  Anti-Semitism was a tremendous problem even for the most assimilated of French Jews.  I mean the Dreyfus case in the 1890s being an example of that. 

So and actually I just read a book by an anthropologist, a guy name John Bowen who works on, use to work on Indonesia and now works on Muslims in France and he spent a lot of time in a lot of these little mosques all around and just hung out with people in cafes and restaurants in the mosque and what he describes in this book is a process of assimilation that for any of us whose parents or grandparents in my case were… came to America in this case, but were immigrants one can watch over generations this process going on and what he describes is the sort of pragmatic adaptations that have to be made, so for example, if by law in France you have to get married in the city hall before you can have a religious wedding, it’s true with Catholics, true of everybody, and a number of the constituents in one of these mosques says, “Well they don’t know if they even want to get married.”  “They’ll just go have a mosque wedding and that will be a more Hallel way of doing the wedding or they’ll get married their first and then they’ll go comply with.”  And the imam says, “Well you know you could do that if you want to, but since there are no sharia courts in France if anyone wants to get a divorce… and he says this to the women particularly, if you want to get a divorce you will have no recourse to a sharia court.”  “There will be no one to judge your situation.”  “If you don’t have a civil marriage you won’t be able to get a divorce and so you’re going to be stuck in a very difficult sort of situation.”  “Of course I’m not predicting that this will happen to you, but…”  And so they do.  They get married in the civil courts.  Should they come to the imam and they say they want to buy a house, but there are no Islamic banks in France, can they borrow money from a bank at interest.  Well he says, “You know it is probably more important for you to have a stable place for your family to live than to deal with this interest thing, so we can reinterpret what you’re paying as a different kind of interest, dah, dah, dah, or as one thing taking priority over the other.”  And so they go and borrow money and so it goes these stories of adaptation.  You’re not allowed to slaughter goats in your bathtub in the housing projects in which people live, so they find interpretations in the Koran, which say you can give money to charity instead of sacrificing an animal at the end of Ramadan, and so what is astonishing about the book is the slow and pragmatic way that people are adapting to rules of sort of both social and political life in France.  They are assimilating.

And what he says at the end of the book is that the French government is far less accommodating on the other side, isn’t as attuned to this process of assimilation as it has been in past times when Portuguese or Italians or you know other groups, Jews have come and found their ways slowly over several generations of assimilating.  You know most…  You’re not even talking in the Muslim populations of the majority being practicing, being sort of orthodox in their practices, so I think the process is happening and it should be allowed to happen.  I would draw the line.  I mean when groups come into schools and say they don’t want… just as I would be here, they don’t want evolution taught in the science curriculum or they want a different kind of history taught.  I mean it seems to me there are lines that one can draw about what is the sort of the way we do things here and what are the openings to the needs and interests of the constituent groups. 

I mean in schools I would certainly say they have to teach the history of colonialism and of empire in a different way from the way it has been taught and that is not a matter of a concession to religion.  It’s a matter of being more inclusive in the kind of history that is taught and that is written.  So it depends, but I mean I think there are certainly lines that one can draw which don’t involve capitulation to theocracy, which is what is always held out.  You know if we let them wear headscarves or burqas we’ll become Iran tomorrow and I don’t think there is any danger that France will become Iran.  Turkey might be a different story, where you’re talking about a 90% Muslim population.  It’s a different set of problems and issues there, but in countries in which these groups are minorities I think you know then I become a kind of champion of American multiculturalism.  It seems to me we’ve done it right in a way that is in allowing a certain kind of tolerance or I wouldn’t even call it tolerance, recognition of the differences that people bring with them even as, at least as long as people are not having to read Texas textbooks in the next years and but as long as there is a kind of an educational system that into which they or through which they become participants in the democratic processes of the country.

Recorded April 26th, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen