The Republic Unsettled

Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism

The Republic Unsettled

Book Pages: 328 Illustrations: 1 illustration Published: September 2014

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, European Studies, Religious Studies

In 1989 three Muslim schoolgirls from a Paris suburb refused to remove their Islamic headscarves in class. The headscarf crisis signaled an Islamic revival among the children of North African immigrants; it also ignited an ongoing debate about the place of Muslims within the secular nation-state. Based on ten years of ethnographic research, The Republic Unsettled alternates between an analysis of Muslim French religiosity and the contradictions of French secularism that this emergent religiosity precipitated. Mayanthi L. Fernando explores how Muslim French draw on both Islamic and secular-republican traditions to create novel modes of ethical and political life, reconfiguring those traditions to imagine a new future for France. She also examines how the political discourses, institutions, and laws that constitute French secularism regulate Islam, transforming the Islamic tradition and what it means to be Muslim. Fernando traces how long-standing tensions within secularism and republican citizenship are displaced onto France's Muslims, who, as a result, are rendered illegitimate as political citizens and moral subjects. She argues, ultimately, that the Muslim question is as much about secularism as it is about Islam.


"The Republic Unsettled is thick, sophisticated thinking, which should unsettle the comfortable certainties of French and American secularism and monoculturalism. . . . Anthropologists like Fernando comprehend the situation most fully, and we owe it to our fellow citizens and our own societies to get the message out as widely and loudly as possible." — Jack David Eller, Anthropology Review Database

"[A] must-read well-threaded, well-argued case against the limits of (French/European) secularism’s claims to universality and neutrality, and thus an invaluable theoretical and practical contribution...." — Leonardo Schiocchet, Social Anthropology

"The Republic Unsettled is invaluable not only for anthropologists and ethnographers but also for scholars wanting to deepen their understanding of how contemporary secularism functions as a theory of politics and society, including through its contradictions, tensions, inconsistencies, anxieties, and instabilities." — Roshan A. Jahangeer, ReOrient

“By taking the debate away from the well-worn lines of whether or not ‘Muslims’ can be or are ‘integrated’ (in other words, whether or not Muslims are an unsettling presence or not in the republic), and by instead underlining how the republic itself is inherently ‘unsettled’, this book will no doubt rile many French secular republicans and become a key point of reference in future studies of the French Republic, lai¨cite´, and ‘non-normative’ identities.” — Natalya Vince, French Studies

The Republic Unsettled is a crucial and stimulating read for any scholar thinking about secularism and secularity, difference politics, contemporary France and Europe, and/or Western liberalism(s) and liberal (in)tolerance. The book (and especially its vivid, emotional, and purposeful introduction) can easily find resonance across a variety of social science, religion, and history disciplines.” — Carol Ferrara, Journal of Church and State

“That her book ends with a legitimate comparison between William Connolly's notions of critical responsiveness and agonistic respect and the way in which her Muslim French interlocutors think shows that the history of colonization, immigration and the creation of diasporas does not have to lead to a conflict of civilizations or economically reductive globalization but can produce rich and complex hybrids or mouvements aberrants that can genuinely contribute to human progress. What The Republic Unsettled manages to convey is that those who seem marginal to the present could be central to a better future, and that is indeed a very remarkable achievement.” — Nardina Kaur, Radical Philosophy

The Republic Unsettled is a dense, but extremely well written book that exposes and 'unsettles,' as the title indicates, secular republicanism by laying bare its numerous inconsistences and paradoxes. … In the aftermath of the Charlie Hebdo shootings, which has issued in an uncritically and self-gratulatory reinvigoration of secular republicanism in France, accompanied by a dramatic increase in anti-Muslim violence, Mayanthi Fernando’s book is more timely and urgent than ever.” — Jeanette S. Jouili, Journal of the Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World

"Fernando’s important book reminds us that it is not enough to dismiss the investments various actors, from the political right in Europe to oil monarchies in the Gulf, have made in unsettling the very republic her Muslim French subjects rightfully claim as theirs."  — Isa Blumi, Journal of Anthropological Research

"Because Fernando makes a lucid argument based on extended ethnography and sophisticated reading in political theory, The Republic Unsettled will surely be read widely by all those engaged in thinking about the politics of diversity in Europe." — John R. Bowen, American Ethnologist

"I offer the highest praise for The Republic Unsettled: it is a beautifully written book that readers will be eager to continue discussing long after they finish it." — Jennifer Fredette, Anthropos

"The questions Fernando poses in The Republic Unsettled about liberal secular-republican institutions and Muslim French life seem more urgent than ever." — Andrew Daily, H-France, H-Net Reviews

"One of the strongest points of this well-written and eminently readable book is the empathy that comes across for a great diversity of interviewees, empathy that in no way clouds Fernando’s sharp analysis of the tensions and contradictions of their positions. This is one of the most lucid and engaging recent books on an important topic." — John Tolan, Islam and Christian-Muslim Relations

"The Republic Unsettled is a brilliant book, at once a concrete examination of the experiences of Muslim French and a compelling analysis of the structural and discursive obstacles they face. A major contribution to both ethnography and political theory, this provocative, beautifully written work will appeal to those interested in debates about Muslims in Europe and the possibilities for thinking difference differently." — Joan Wallach Scott, author of The Fantasy of Feminist History

"This wonderful book about French secularism combines rich and sensitive ethnography with original argument and analysis. Mayanthi L. Fernando contends that the so-called problem of integrating Muslim immigrants from North Africa into French secular society tells us much about the questionable assumptions underlying French nationalist discourse on secular republicanism. This is an important contribution not only to the study of contemporary France but also to the theoretical debates on secularism. Essential reading for anyone interested in either."
— Talal Asad, author of Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam, Modernity


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Mayanthi L. Fernando is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction 1

Field Notes I: "Vive la République Plurielle" 29

1. "The Republic Is Mine" 33

2. Indifference, or the Right to Citizenship 69

Field Notes II: Friday Prayers 101

3. "A Memorial to the Future" 105

4. Reconfiguring Freedom 145

Field Notes III: A Tale of Two Manifestos 181

5. Of Mimicry and Woman 185

6. Asymmetries of Tolerance 221

Epilogue 261

Notes 267

References 285

Index 305
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5748-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5734-6
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