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New Texts Out Now: Jeanette S. Jouili, Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe

[Cover of Jeanette S. Jouili, [Cover of Jeanette S. Jouili, "Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe"]

Jeanette S. Jouili, Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press 2015.

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Jeanette Jouili (JJ): I began research for this book in 2002, the year after 9/11. The global impact of that event was made evident in Europe as the media and European scholars increasingly scrutinized the activities and affiliations of young European-born Muslims, many of whom were adopting more visible and orthodox forms of Islamic practice. At the heart of the debate lay the question of whether this trend toward increased piety was compatible with Europe's secular, liberal values. Even if the media and scholars answered the question quite differently from one another, both sides took these “European” values as the unquestioned, self-evident matrix through which to evaluate Muslims in Europe. This evaluation became clear during the respective debates over the wearing of headscarves in Germany and France, with the events in France becoming the subject of international media attention.

Given how polarized the debate became in both France and Germany, I felt strongly that in order to meaningfully intervene in it, I would need to take seriously the lives and practices of the subjects of those headlines—the Muslim women involved in the more orthodox Islamic revival—and to study them on their own terms. As I entered more deeply into my empirical research, I found that the most basic concern of these women was being overlooked: that is, how to live as a good Muslim and a good citizen in spite of being a marginalized and racialized minority whose particular mode of life is despised by mainstream society.

These concerns led me straight to the field of ethics, which in turn meant that the book became an investigation of the particular ethical commitments that these women were making and how their commitments were impacting their daily lives.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?

JJ: The book engages with two broader trends within the anthropology of ethics: an inquiry into forms of ethical self-cultivation, on the one hand; and forms of moral reasoning, on the other. These two fields have rarely been discussed together, and they are even, at times, presented as rival or conflicting approaches within that overall field of study, with the first one often accused of not sufficiently accounting for freedom and individual resistances to moral codes. I find this opposition rather astonishing because both dimensions are so much part of what ethical practice is about and they cannot really be separated from each other. Ethical practice concerns the effort of improving oneself, of mastering one's "unruly passions," which can vary according to the particular moral code that a person follows. And this effort has to be pursued in a complex world, where different human beings coexist in circumstances full of constraints, structured by power relations and by different subject-fashioning projects. Thus, living well and ethically in these contexts always involves navigating situations where you have to deal with conflict, tension, and dilemma.

Perfecting oneself according to orthodox Islamic traditions means exercising meticulously the various Islamic rituals and duties as well as endorsing a certain set of doctrinal principles. In a context where these women have themselves been fashioned by a set of liberal-secular epistemologies, this work of self-cultivation turns out to be a thorny endeavor, definitely not a linear or easily completed one. The endeavor, therefore, is frequently accompanied by doubts, hesitations, and moments of failure.

At the same time, because these women live in societies where their mode of life is considered incompatible with European national norms and values, they have to constantly reflect on the broader consequences of their religious practices. Significantly, my interlocutors feel obliged to carry the "burden of representation" (a term that refers to the pressure on an individual of a marginalized group to represent the whole group), which to them has important ethical import. The burden includes the responsibility to represent Islam in a positive light to a society that, according to my interlocutors, has erroneous ideas of their religion. Therefore, their religious practices and modes of conduct have to be carefully fine-tuned to this imperative. Furthermore, they have to deliberate cautiously about whether their pious practices impact negatively on their capacity to contribute productively to a society that systematically excludes visibly practicing Muslim women. Significantly, the Muslim women I worked with all considered their active contribution to society—with an aspiration to improve the world around them—to be a moral and religious duty.

Examining their pious practices, struggles, and dilemmas pushed me to think about the ethics of the self and the ethics of intersubjectivity as two sides of the same coin and thus intrinsically connected. In other words, the "care for the self" and the "care for the world" are not necessarily antithetical endeavors. They converge into a particular ethical and political sensibility that is also interesting for those of us who want to think more profoundly about the possibilities of and challenges to coalition-building within democratic, pluralistic politics.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JJ: I would love to see my book reach a broad audience beyond the specialized readership of academics interested in the fields it covers. Sad to say, in the nearly fifteen years since I began this research, the debate on Muslims in Europe has not evolved much. The question of whether Muslims and their religious practices are compatible with European social norms and values continues to be widely discussed today—perhaps even more so, since in addition to the question of "integration," the issue of radicalization is now at the forefront. In the past decade, Islamophobic arguments have entered the mainstream, systematically conflating the question of Islam in Europe with the issue of radical extremism.

As I completed my final revisions on the book, large anti-Islam demonstrations occurred in Germany, followed by the attack on Charlie Hebdo. The debates following the tragic events in Paris have led to further political exploitation. The argument heard in the wake of these events was that an orthodox, socially conservative Islam becomes the incubator for terrorism. In other words, orthodox Islam is understood to lie somehow at the foot of a path that leads eventually to radical Islamism. This connection, by the way, is empirically false, because none of these young European-born jihadists who have made headlines has ever passed through a mainstream orthodox Islamic establishment. Similar arguments appear these days regarding the refugee crisis, where any expression of Islamic piety among the refugees, as well as the very fact of their Muslim faith, is exploited by certain voices as reason to reject their pleas for asylum. With the horrific series of attacks just happening, one more time, in Paris, this argument seems to find more promoters in Europe.

Like other scholars critical of the simplistic, and quite dangerous, response to Islamic piety, I would like my work to contribute to a broader understanding of the issues at the core of the debate. Specifically, I hope to help change the discussion of pious orthodox practices away from an analytical grid that emphasizes orthopraxis and obedience to rules towards one that considers the complexity of the ethical struggles that these practitioners engage with in their day-to-day life. Acknowledging that their life is not the product of a one-dimensional blueprint as many secular-minded people tend to think, but that it is as intricate as everyone else’s life might help us to find new grounds for conversations with each other.

J: How might this book speak to the most recent events in France, as well as the governmental and media reactions to them?

JJ: These abhorrent events are the consequence of many different issues, which I cannot address here. But one thing is clear: continuing to stigmatize mainstream orthodox Muslims as incommensurable with European societies and values, as especially French politicians and mainstream media outlets do consistently, is counterproductive. Rather, these communities should be seen as allies. As my book clearly shows, their deep commitment to making a rich heritage of Islamic erudition relevant for twenty-first century European Muslims renders a drift towards any type of extremism virtually impossible. By this I am obviously not saying that European governments should begin promoting orthodox Islam as a means to combat jihadist terrorism. But they should endorse these communities as full-fledged members of their societies (which they obviously are already) and not treat them as potential future threats, constantly under suspicion. 

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JJ: In my next book project, I am investigating the Muslim popular cultural scene in urban Britain. This scene initially emerged at the intersection between two very different trends: the religious normativity of Islamic revival groups and the political and aesthetic sensibilities of Afro-Caribbean and South Asian youth cultures in Britain. In recent years, however, this emerging Muslim cultural scene has been brought into an interesting relationship with the British government’s “preventing violent terrorism” agenda and its other neoliberal projects. As part of these agendas, the government has been deploying culture with the goal of cultivating tolerance, moderation, resiliency, and individual initiative among British Muslim youth, as well as promoting de-politicized attachments to the global Muslim community. Thus, in my research project, I examine the evolution of the Muslim popular culture scene within this political context; whether and how the scene is redefining its initial key objectives/goals, such as its educational mission; and how it is reevaluating its relation to the British majority society and to the global Muslim umma. Finally, I investigate how various ethical and aesthetic sensibilities are being reconfigured in the process.

Excerpt from Pious Practice and Secular Constraints: Women in the Islamic Revival in Europe

Practicing Islam in Inhospitable Environments

One Saturday a month, women gathered for a potluck brunch at the Centre d’Études et de Recherche sur l’Islam (CERSI ) in St. Denis, a banlieue (suburb) in the north of Paris. When I arrived, many women were already present in the classroom where the meeting took place. The tables were filled with food and beverages: tarts, quiches, baguettes, cheese, and Arabic pastry, along with a range of soft drinks and juices, tea and coffee. Everyone was busily reaching out for snacks and drinks while chatting and laughing with one another. Gradually the women sat down and the chatter slowly decreased. Olfa, teacher of the “Islamic morals” class at the center and main organizer of the brunch, stood up. A thirty-year-old woman with friendly eyes, she was dressed in a djellaba and a long headscarf. After greeting the other women with a warm “Salam ‘alaykum, sisters,” she sketched out the theme of the day: “How can we reconcile Islamic practice and worship with an active life in a secular [laïque] society?” While we were still eating, Olfa briefly outlined some of the central challenges that practicing Muslims can face in French society, provided some general advice, then invited the participants to share their personal experiences on the issue, both the difficulties they had encountered and their personal achievements.

Aliya, a woman in her early thirties, raised her hand and was the first to speak. She acknowledged that her turn to Islamic practice, in itself already a thorny and lingering process, had furthermore complicated her daily social life, especially on the professional level. An employee in a center for the socio professional insertion of migrant women, Aliya also recognized that she had been exceptionally lucky to be allowed to introduce her hijab (headscarf)—discreetly tied in the back—into her workplace. And after having hesitated for a long time, she had recently started to pray in her office, because making up the missed prayers in the evening had turned this act of worship into a burden. Generally she would do everything to hide her prayer, even interrupt it in order not to risk being discovered by her colleagues. The preceding week, however, she had not hidden it, and it was the resulting incident that Aliya wanted to share with the group.

Usually, I stop when I hear someone approaching, but that day something pushed me not to do so. During my prayer, I heard steps and could see out of the corner of my eyes a silhouette appearing at my office door. Instinctively I wanted to stand up, but something forced me to resist this impulse and I continued praying. My colleague left immediately when he saw me. I was extremely scared of his reaction afterward. But when he came in a while later, he did not mention anything at all. Only after we had finished our professional conversation and as he was about to leave the room did he turn around and say, “Mecca is over there; you prayed in the wrong direction.” Can you imagine that? I was speechless. I couldn’t believe what I had just heard. This guy was a Catholic though, the only religious person among my colleagues. You see, we face a lot of setbacks, but at times you encounter goodness and sympathy. We have to acknowledge that. And we need to be steadfast in our practice and pray to Allah subhanu wa ta‘ala to facilitate things for Muslims who live in a non-Muslim country.

As Aliya described her colleague’s reaction, the women paused eating, and exclamations such as such Masha’Allah and Subhan’Allah went through the room; those in attendance were visibly touched by that unexpected gesture of kindness. After Aliya’s concluding remarks, a vibrant discussion emerged. Some participants emphasized the duty to endure patiently the discriminations they encountered. One woman insisted on the importance of tactfully but persistently trying to make space for their religious practice, because that should be part of one’s religious freedom anyway. Another woman, again inspired by Aliya’s experience, raised the issue of building solidarities with religious people from other faiths. And all present agreed that no matter what approach they pursued, it was their essential duty to teach their non-Muslim peers about the misconceptions they held in regard to Islam and to try to represent Islam in the best way possible.

That Saturday morning discussion crystallizes in a lucid way the struggles that pious Muslim women face in their quest to live according to their religious principles within European secular societies. It is the task of this book to examine these everyday struggles closely. First, it explores how young European-born Muslim women cultivate (orthodox) Islamic subjectivities in a context that has increasingly stigmatized and politicized the practices that go along with these kinds of subjectivities. Like Aliya, many young European-born Muslim women did not rigorously practice their religion while growing up and frequently identified many internal resistances to their efforts to become more pious. Many of the challenges they faced in adopting (socially conservative) Islamic lifestyles can be explained by the fact that these women had been fashioned not only by European discourses and ideals, but also by various nonorthodox approaches to Islam, which, if not outright critical, are at least skeptical toward these very lifestyles. Second, the book investigates how these women cope on a practical level with the everyday difficulties of living a religious life in a society ever more hostile to visible forms of Islamic piety. The discussion that followed Aliya’s story revealed the various modes of reasoning that accompany individual responses to that challenge. And most significantly, the debate exposed that the individual’s response is rarely only about the practitioner’s effort to pursue her individual practice, but also about the overarching duty to represent the Muslim community properly within European society.

What intrigued me in listening to these kinds of debates was the constant, underlying concern to do the right thing. For these women, carefully adhering to one’s religious duty was certainly important, but it alone was never enough, because one always had to consider the social consequences of one’s individual acts. The women would point to an ethical-political commitment that does not disconnect the individual striving for pious self-cultivation from an understanding that the rituals and other practices that are part of that self-cultivation exist within a web of human relationships and therefore might impact these relationships too.

Ethics and its political consequentiality has become an increasingly important topic within the discipline of anthropology.[1] A now burgeoning literature acknowledges the centrality of ethics in the shaping of human communities and the “moral making of the world” (Fassin 2012: 4). Depending on their authors’ respective philosophical inclinations or affiliations, different domains within the vast field of ethical practices are described and theorized—modes of ethical (self-)cultivation, moral dilemmas and choices, or forms of ethical judgment and reasoning that already point to care for and obligation to others. These modes of ethical action can be either tacit and commonsensical or rationalized and intellectualized.[2]

My work contributes to the discussions initiated in this body of work and offers a number of interventions. It especially aims to bring into conversation perspectives with distinct intellectual lineages that are not commonly discussed together, in order to account for the complexity of the ethical struggles that these Muslim women face. Not only have my interlocutors learned to accept, comprehend, and internalize a range of pious practices and modes of conduct, but they also have to enact them in specific social contexts, in various moments of their everyday life, which raises questions about how each practice can or should be implemented in each context. By examining the various deliberations around these practices, I argue that Islamic ethical life quests are not merely hampered or disrupted by a context that stigmatizes and increasingly restrictively regulates, in the name of secularism, Islamic practice. Nor are these quests weakened by inconsistencies that might result from being confronted with and shaped by competing sets of moral codes. Rather, as I show throughout this book, these complicated and restrictive settings produce experiences of ambiguity, suffering, and injustice, thereby simultaneously creating conditions for the intensification of ethical labor.


[1] Anthropologists’ preoccupation with ethics has been significantly instigated by the so-called ethical turn in the field of philosophy, to which a divergent group of thinkers stemming from a variety of intellectual currents have contributed. The contemporary ethical inquiry can be roughly split into two larger streams: a more narrative, neo-Aristotelian current and a more “deconstructive” one. In spite of their significant differences and distinct intellectual projects, Alastair MacIntyre ([1981] 2007), Hans-Georg Gadamer ([1975] 2004), and Martha Nussbaum (1986) articulate the first current. The second is associated mostly with Emmanuel Levinas (1998) and the more recent work of Jacques Derrida (1995, 1997). Without abandoning the insights of antifoundationalism and poststructuralism, these thinkers want to find, nonetheless, an ethical framework for an increasingly pluralist world. On this second strand of postcritique ethics, see, for instance, Hoy (2004).

[2] See, for instance, Barker (2007), Evens (2008), Faubion (2001, 2011), Hirschkind (2006), Howell (1997), Laidlaw (1995, 2002), Lambek (1993, 2000, 2002a), Mahmood (2005), Mittermaier (2010), Robbins (2004, 2007), and Zigon (2008). The emergence of this field as a subdiscipline is furthermore signaled by two recent volumes edited by Michael Lambek (2010) and Didier Fassin (2012).

[Excerpt from PIOUS PRACTICE AND SECULAR CONSTRAINTS: WOMEN IN THE ISLAMIC REVIVAL IN EUROPE, by Jeanette S. Jouili. (c) 2015 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Jr. University. All rights reserved. By permission of the publisher, Stanford University Press. No other use is permission without the prior permission of the publisher. For more information, or to purchase this book, click here.] 

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