Jews Assimilated in Europe. Why Can’t Muslims?

Question: How should European states deal with the \r\nperceived problem of Muslim assimilation?

\r\nJoan Wallach Scott:  Well I think first of all you have to think \r\nabout the history of other groups’ assimilations as well.  Usually \r\nthey’re slow.  Practices are adapted pragmatically.  You have to begin \r\nby defining the population as assimilable and it’s unclear to me that \r\nMuslim, Arab, North, West Africans are considered ultimately \r\nassimilable.  I mean I think I have something in my book in The Politics\r\n of the Veil, there is a moment when a friend of mine who was opposed to\r\n the headscarf ban was talking to a quite famous Jewish politician and \r\nsaid to her, “You know this is terrible.”  And this woman said to my \r\nfriend, “Well, you know, these people are un-assimilable.”  And my \r\nfriend said, “That is what they used to say about the Jews.”  And this \r\nwoman was just outraged and horrified, but historically it is true.  \r\nJews were…  Anti-Semitism was a tremendous problem even for the most \r\nassimilated of French Jews.  I mean the Dreyfus case in the 1890s being \r\nan example of that. 
\r\nSo and actually I just read a book by an anthropologist, a guy name John\r\n Bowen who works on, use to work on Indonesia and now works on Muslims \r\nin France and he spent a lot of time in a lot of these little mosques \r\nall around and just hung out with people in cafes and restaurants in the\r\n mosque and what he describes in this book is a process of assimilation \r\nthat for any of us whose parents or grandparents in my case were… came \r\nto America in this case, but were immigrants one can watch over \r\ngenerations this process going on and what he describes is the sort of \r\npragmatic adaptations that have to be made, so for example, if by law in\r\n France you have to get married in the city hall before you can have a \r\nreligious wedding, it’s true with Catholics, true of everybody, and a \r\nnumber of the constituents in one of these mosques says, “Well they \r\ndon’t know if they even want to get married.”  “They’ll just go have a \r\nmosque wedding and that will be a more Hallel way of doing the wedding \r\nor they’ll get married their first and then they’ll go comply with.”  \r\nAnd the imam says, “Well you know you could do that if you want to, but \r\nsince there are no sharia courts in France if anyone wants to get a \r\ndivorce… and he says this to the women particularly, if you want to get a\r\n divorce you will have no recourse to a sharia court.”  “There will be \r\nno one to judge your situation.”  “If you don’t have a civil marriage \r\nyou won’t be able to get a divorce and so you’re going to be stuck in a \r\nvery difficult sort of situation.”  “Of course I’m not predicting that \r\nthis will happen to you, but…”  And so they do.  They get married in the\r\n civil courts.  Should they come to the imam and they say they want to \r\nbuy a house, but there are no Islamic banks in France, can they borrow \r\nmoney from a bank at interest.  Well he says, “You know it is probably \r\nmore important for you to have a stable place for your family to live \r\nthan to deal with this interest thing, so we can reinterpret what you’re\r\n paying as a different kind of interest, dah, dah, dah, or as one thing \r\ntaking priority over the other.”  And so they go and borrow money and so\r\n it goes these stories of adaptation.  You’re not allowed to slaughter \r\ngoats in your bathtub in the housing projects in which people live, so \r\nthey find interpretations in the Koran, which say you can give money to \r\ncharity instead of sacrificing an animal at the end of Ramadan, and so \r\nwhat is astonishing about the book is the slow and pragmatic way that \r\npeople are adapting to rules of sort of both social and political life \r\nin France.  They are assimilating.
\r\nAnd what he says at the end of the book is that the French government is\r\n far less accommodating on the other side, isn’t as attuned to this \r\nprocess of assimilation as it has been in past times when Portuguese or \r\nItalians or you know other groups, Jews have come and found their ways \r\nslowly over several generations of assimilating.  You know most…  You’re\r\n not even talking in the Muslim populations of the majority being \r\npracticing, being sort of orthodox in their practices, so I think the \r\nprocess is happening and it should be allowed to happen.  I would draw \r\nthe line.  I mean when groups come into schools and say they don’t want…\r\n just as I would be here, they don’t want evolution taught in the \r\nscience curriculum or they want a different kind of history taught.  I \r\nmean it seems to me there are lines that one can draw about what is the \r\nsort of the way we do things here and what are the openings to the needs\r\n and interests of the constituent groups. 
\r\nI mean in schools I would certainly say they have to teach the history \r\nof colonialism and of empire in a different way from the way it has been\r\n taught and that is not a matter of a concession to religion.  It’s a \r\nmatter of being more inclusive in the kind of history that is taught and\r\n that is written.  So it depends, but I mean I think there are certainly\r\n lines that one can draw which don’t involve capitulation to theocracy, \r\nwhich is what is always held out.  You know if we let them wear \r\nheadscarves or burqas we’ll become Iran tomorrow and I don’t think there\r\n is any danger that France will become Iran.  Turkey might be a \r\ndifferent story, where you’re talking about a 90% Muslim population.  \r\nIt’s a different set of problems and issues there, but in countries in \r\nwhich these groups are minorities I think you know then I become a kind \r\nof champion of American multiculturalism.  It seems to me we’ve done it \r\nright in a way that is in allowing a certain kind of tolerance or I \r\nwouldn’t even call it tolerance, recognition of the differences that \r\npeople bring with them even as, at least as long as people are not \r\nhaving to read Texas textbooks in the next years and but as long as \r\nthere is a kind of an educational system that into which they or through\r\n which they become participants in the democratic processes of the \r\ncountry.

Recorded April 26th, 2010
\r\nInterviewed by Austin Allen

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

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