Posted on 26 februari, 2010


Aiysha Varraich, masterstudent i Global Studies and Democracy vid Göteborgs universitet, låter oss i följande text spegla de politiska tongångarna i Sverige mot utvecklingen i Frankrike. Hon för argumentet att den etniskt bundna nationalidentiteten får staten att agera polariserande mot invandrargrupper som skiljer sig från den nationella identiteten, i detta fallet muslimer. Istället för att vakta de demokratiska värderingarna om frihet och lika rättigheter, går den franska staten emot dessa värderingar genom att särskilja muslimer som ”de andra” i samhället, och begränsa deras möjligheter att utöva sin religion. Hur detta skulle stärka en kollektiv identitet i ett land som har den största muslimska befolkningen i Europa, tycks lika paradoxalt som den ethnokratiska politik Sverigedemokraterna propagerar för. Läs Aiyshas skarpa och välunderbyggda diskussion inom detta ämne, bara på Upptakt.

ISLAMOPHOBIA – The Clash of Identities within France

”…a society is not truly democratic if it imposes on some of its members, as the price for admission to equal protection and status, the requirement that they deny/hide a deeply felt identity.” Elizabeth Kiss (pg 505, Rile Hayward, 2003)

Kiss’ comment strikes at the heart of the situation taking place in today’s France. There has been much media coverage of ‘Islamisation’ taking place, ranging from the denial of Muslim women’s right of freedom of expression (the banning of wearing the burqa in public) to the latest row over a ‘halal’ menu in eight of 350 fast food restaurants over the country. The French Revolution crowned France the leader of democracy and liberty, all which seem to be diminishing in this clash of identities that the country finds itself in. In this essay I intend to explore this clash of identities by exploring the societal security dilemma faced by France by first exploring societal identity formation of France as a nation state in today’s international political arena (Roe, 2006); followed by an exploration of the formation of the sub-identity of French Muslims, evaluating France’s critical role in constructing the social identity and difference of the liminal French Muslims. Concluding with a discussion of France’s national identity superseding its collective identity within the EU with respect to the transnational character nation-states are undergoing – in this case the existence of ideological identities such as Islam, within its borders.

Societal Security Dilemma in France – Identity formation in French community

First of all in order to explore the societal security dilemma France faces, it is essential to define what a society is. According to Roe societies are units constituted by a sense of collective identity: language, culture, traditions etc, i.e. through ethnicity. This is best represented by the nation-state today (Roe 2006). Societal security is endangered when a societal identity is threatened; in this case Islam is the threat to the French way of life: if society loses its identity, in theory the society will cease to exist. The only rival to the ethno-national identity is that of religion –it creates a ‘we’ over generations, is a form of self-identification as intense as nationalism.[1] The reaction to a threatened societal identity would be to reinforce the societal identity, effectively strengthening the collective identity. The cultural nationalism is what would be strengthened –i.e. language, religion and history.[2]This can be carried out through steps where culture becomes a security issue, therefore a priority of policy making. This line of argument has been criticized by scholars as treating “societal identity” as static, whereas society is a fluid concept which is constantly changing, effectively the identity is constantly changing. The criticism is valid in itself; however the evolution of an identity is still prone to the Heglian recognition relationship in which the creation/evolution of the “self” depends upon recognition by the “other.”[3]

French Muslims – “Self,” “other” or liminal?

The only rival of nationalism, as mentioned above, is the identity provided by religion, it creates the ‘we’ through generations. French Muslims face a dilemma that has put them in a grey zone. The wealth of literature that exists on identity formation discusses extensively the Helgian concept of “self” and “other”, as clear separate ideas, black and white. The French Muslim however, falls into a grey zone, where the national identity exists parallel to that of the ‘rival’ of religion. This grey zone is best defined as liminal:

“…Entities that are neither here or there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arranged by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial…They elude or slip through the network of classifications that normally locates states and positions in cultural space.” [4]

The religious identity of the French Muslim is posing a threat to the national identity, i.e. the “Muslim” is the threat to the “French”. This most certainly is a paradoxical as well as ambivalent position for the French Muslim. Both identities exist in parallel, one threatening the other. The reasons put forth by Rumelili for this tension is “because being sites where self and other coexist, they subvert the boundaries of identity, and any clear distinction between self and other.”  It is an extrapolation of the long drawn out conflict between the states of Greece and Turkey, found within the borders of one state.

According to Norton, liminal groups have a two-fold function in the constitution of national identities: firstly by being alike and “other” at once, they mirror the nations in their initial definition. Secondly, the similarity and “otherness” creates a need to separate the national identity from this by highlighting differences. (Norton 1988.)[5]

The Difference States Make[6]

An interesting argument is put forth by Clarissa Hayward in the essay “The Difference States Make: Democarcy, Identity and the American City”.  It explores the role that democratic states play in helping shape and reinforce social definitions of difference.[7] In the present case France as a democratic state has the largest Muslim population in all of Europe, and is the founding nation of democratic ideals such as liberty. The French societal identity is presently threatened by the French Muslim identity and France reinforcing its identity of a secular state by taking actions such as making it illegal for French Muslims to wear the burqa – curtailing a fundamental freedom of expression and belief. The difference that exists between the French Muslim’s dual identity as a community is being reinforced through legal mechanisms –effectively also altering the French identity of “bedrock of liberties.”

One way for France to deal with the social differences, as put forth by Hayward, would be to evolve from merely tolerating; “permitting, suffer, putting up with” the difference, and instead enable the democratic norm of political equality and inclusiveness through means that target the root of these differences being highlighted. Thus, the only way the state can continue to foster the democratic norms of a community’s collective self-determination is by respecting the rights of its “other” citizens.[8]

In conclusion, the present situation in France is reflective of Greenhill’s conclusion that the nation-state still remains the main actor in the region, superseding the collective identity that the European Union provides.[9] The case in point is reflective of liminal groups affecting the national identity of a state itself and how the state reacts, effectively further alienating the liminal group through measures that are meant to reinforce the identity of the “self.” The importance of this is that transnational identities have still not been catered for even in this globalised era that we find ourselves in, continuing a struggle for recognition for these liminal groups.

[1] Weaver defines collective identity as “what enables the word ‘we’ to be used” (pg. 167, Alan Collins (ed.), Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford: OUP, 2006)

[2] Pg. 172 ‘Societal Security’, in Alan Collins (ed.), Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

[3] Greenhill elaborates on this Hegel’s theory of recognition and further compares it to Wendt’s argument towards an overarching collective identity. Pg. 349 Greenhill, Brian (2008)

[4] Pg. 220 Gartzke, Erik and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (2006)

[5] Pg. 220 Rumelili, Bahar (2002)

[6] Rile Hayward, Clarissa (2003)

[7] Pg 501 Rile Hayward, Clarissa (2003)

[8] Pg. 502 Rile Hayward, Clarissa (2003)

[9] ”EU posed as a challenge to conventional statehood however individual nation states continue to be the most important actors in the region.” (Greenhill, 2008)


Gartzke, Erik and Kristian Skrede Gleditsch (2006) “Identity and Conflict: Ties that Bind and Differences that Divide”. European Journal of International Relations, 2006, Vol. 12, pp. 53-86.

Greenhill, Brian (2008) “Recognition and Collective Identity Formation in International Relations”. European Journal of International Relations, 2008, Vol. 14, pp 343-368.

Rile Hayward, Clarissa (2003) “The Difference States Make: Democarcy, Identity and the American City”. American Political Science Review, Vol. 97, pp.501-

‘Societal Security’, in Alan Collins (ed.), Contemporary Security Studies (Oxford: OUP, 2006).

Rumelili, Bahar (2002) “Liminality and Perpetuation of Conflicts: Turkish-Greek Relations in the Context of Community-Building by the EU”. European Journal of International Relations, 2002, Vol 9, pp. 213-248

Stern, M., 2006, “‘We’ the Subject: The Power and Failure of (In)Security”, Security Dialogue, Vol. 37, No. 2, 187-205 (2006).