Review of Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France by Naomi Davidson Cornell University Press

Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France. Naomi Davidson. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978080147831

In Only Muslim: Embodying Islam in Twentieth-Century France, Naomi Davidson has written a compelling and timely history of the official French attempt to “manage” Islam within France since World War I.  This was achieved through something Davidson names as Islam français (French Islam); an intermixing of French republican secularism and a specific vision of “Islam” that bore closest resemblance to orthodox Moroccan Islam.  This French ideology, the author convincingly argues, relied (and continues to rely) on a notion of Islam as something embodied by Muslim individuals. This, then, has led to a racialized understanding of Islam, as Davidson writes “The French belief in Islam’s domination of the Muslim’s physical self was less a cultural argument than a biologized one” (4).

Each of the six chapters, as well as the conclusion, explores the evolution of this concept, its implementation by the French state, and its contestation by “Muslim” individuals who were usually in France because of the French colonial empire (as soldiers, migrant laborers, and eventually immigrants).  In part then, the work also traces the French institutions that sought to mediate “Frenchness” and “Muslimness” as the presence of people from colonies and former colonies who were nominally Muslim increased within the French hexagon. This mediation ultimately produced a series of conflations that made “Muslim” popularly synonymous with “Arab” and especially “Algerian.”

The breadth of Davidson’s work, and the clarity with which she states (and frequently re-states) a complex argument, makes this a text that would work well for advanced undergraduate students.  One could envisage assigning the book in courses on Modern France, on Modern Imperialisms and their legacies, and especially for explorations of “Western” encounters with “Islam.” Chapters are extremely well framed, and could easily work as assigned readings for particular “moments” of study; for example Chapter 1 for a fresh discussion of the well-worn narratives of modern French history—the separation of church and state and the idea of “lacïté;” the “civilizing mission” and the legal status of colonial subjects; Chapter 4 for the Vichy regime’s mobilization of tradition, and Chapter 5 for the Algerian War’s role in the shaping of attitudes to Islam in France.

Central to the analysis is the role played by Mosquée de Paris in the formation and maintenance of Islam français.  Following the first chapter’s historical contextualization, chapter two is a detailed, and fascinating discussion of the story behind the construction of the Mosquée in the wake of World War One.  We learn of its contested meanings; a tourist attraction where “Islam” could be viewed and experienced; a pedagogical project in which Parisians learned about “Islam,” and a site of religious practice and of political contestation for the Muslims it supposedly served.  Most significant for Davidson, the Mosquée was a space where an officially sanctioned Islam francais could be practiced and policed, often through the mouthpiece of the Mosquée’s rector.

One methodological problem that Davidson’s work brings up but does not entirely resolve, is how to refer to those designated “only Muslim”  by the French state without replicating its reductive analysis. While the author frequently acknowledges this difficulty, there is no real attempt to consciously work through it, which at times renders those most affected by French institutional practice somewhat one-dimensional.  It is also difficult to discern any good will from French official attempts to develop “Muslim” institutions, but this problem, Davidson would almost certainly argue, is not the problem of individual decision-makers, but of the immensely flawed project that they were a part of “…if the history of Islam français  as embodied in the Mosquée de Paris has shown anything, it is that a religious system conceived by the state in cooperation with other elite actors and designed to serve as a tool to mediate between them and a subaltern immigrant population is doomed as a spiritual project” (217).

Davidson’s conclusion brings the reader to current and prominent examples of Islam français (most notably the ongoing “headscarf debate”) and here re-iterates her central claim that we lose a great deal when we only view such state intervention as manifestations of French secularism. Most significantly, she argues, Islam in France has been constructed as a “marker of essentialized difference” (219).  Indeed, Davidson’s tracing of the slippage between “cultural” and “racial” arguments made about Islam reminds us of a global predicament in which many of us claim to be “post-racial” but are (and have been), in fact, busy constructing exclusionary ideologies through other means.

Reviewed by Louisa Rice, University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire
Edited by Martin Pflug

(c) 2014 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 8, Spring, 2014. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy. [Originally published on the St. Scholastica website]