What are law and education good for? Not for promoting political equality, says Nadia Marzouki in her illuminating new book, Islam: An American Religion, at least under present conditions in the United States. Courts may more often enforce the rights of Muslims to equal access of various kinds than those in Europe (see, e.g., EEOC v Abercrombie & Fitch), but those victories have little effect on an overall Islamophobic public atmosphere. Moral philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum may exhort students to respect others, engage in critical thought, and engage a generous imagination, but these exhortations fall on deaf ears. This book is about why this is the case.
Marzouki’s double rebuke, forcefully stated in her conclusion (useful especially perhaps for those of us who are both lawyers and educators), is heartfelt and ultimately persuasive, but it did come as a bit of a surprise to this reader at the end of this opaquely mistitled but important book. Islam: An American Religion was first published in 2013 under the French title, Islam, une religion Americaine? (Editions du Seuil). It has now been republished by Columbia University Press with a foreword by Olivier Roy and a new introduction for the American edition by the author. Along the way the question mark seems to have been dropped from the title. It was not clear to this reader why that choice was made. Nevertheless, Nadia Marzouki has written a much more interesting and timely book than the one implied by either the French or the English title. She has written a book diagnosing a deep political impasse, one often represented as founded in an opposition between Islam and the West, but one in fact located within and about Western liberalism itself. “In a way,” she says, “the presence of Muslims in Europe and America contributes to giving coherence to an otherwise elusive public space.” Islam, in other words, provides the excuse for continuing the culture wars although neither liberals nor populists in the United States are engaging the lives of actual Muslims any more than they are engaging with each other.
After a first chapter briefly outlining the long history of the presence of Muslims in the United States—a presence properly understood not as an “encounter” but as “an open set of hybrid and ambivalent phenomena,” she says, referring the reader to the historical work of Kambiz GhaneaBasiri—the middle chapters do indeed helpfully and insightfully consider several very American contemporary contexts in which the opposition with Islam is apparently evident: antimosque protests, anti-sharia legislation, and the politics of the International Religious Freedom Act (IRFA). These sites of contest are skillfully set in both a longer historical frame as well as compared to different but equally revelatory flashpoints in Europe.
But this is not a book about Islam in America or about American religion primarily, however typical these stories are in many ways. Insisting on “the ordinariness of Muslim Americans and their high level of conformity,” Marzouki shows that what fuels Islamophobia in the United States is a set of programmed and predictable fears and misconceptions, fears and misconceptions with lives of their own, each independent of the actual facts of Muslim lives. It is all so familiar and discouraging. She is not discouraged, though. This is a deeply empathetic book about populism—about class resentment—and about the failure of liberal politics. While written before the election of Donald Trump, it speaks eloquently to our present condition.
Marzouki positions herself in a long line of French sociologists writing on the United States, offering a sharp critique of the American scene while using the comparison to illuminate the European one. Her voice is both personal and urgent, influenced, as she explains, by her experience of the politics of her country of birth and childhood, Tunisia. This triangulation of location, as mobilized by Marzouki, lends an important authority to her ability to speak credibly for the frustration of a range of participants:
The global spread of Islam is accompanied by a surprising standardization of the anti-Muslim argument. But this standardization is not, strictly speaking, the continuation of the “clash of civilizations” model. To believe in that paradigm, one would first have to grant the existence of an antithetical civilization. But today Islam is no longer perceived as a menacing culture but as a form of barbarity and humanity.
Marzouki carefully details the differences between French and American approaches to both law and politics, but in the end it is the similarity of the divisions in both populations that preoccupies her. What arrests her attention time and again is the standardized mimetic formatting that characterizes both sides, each demanding conformity to emotional and behavioral stereotypes as a condition of inclusion. Both the secular liberal and the populist enact the paranoid style of the injured lover, trapped as they are in a relation of patterned inevitability, unable to engage in ordinary politics, each demanding an apology of the other. Islam at times seems only the excuse. Having abandoned the liberal language of reason the interlocutors speak instead the language of sovereignty and sacrifice described by Paul Kahn in his work on American law and politics.
Yet the book also limns with intelligent sympathy the predicament of the Muslim in America, called upon to re-format her identity within the tight available types—as citizen and as possessor of a faith. Yet nothing she does to conform will change the situation. She is subject to relentless demands to apologize for the crimes of others, demands fueled by a small number of well-financed provocateurs with a standard repertoire of arguments about Islam—that it is not a religion, that it is un-American, that it persecutes women—all in the name of “protecting America, defending the people, criticizing elites, and calling for mass mobilization.” “[An] activist or a public intellectual who defends Muslim rights or an academic who takes part in the public debate all find themselves obliged to participate in something whose very structuring framework they disagree with.”
The conclusion is an impassioned plea for a different kind of political engagement. Citing Roland Barthes and Jacques Rancière, Marzouki concludes:
Only a human encounter may create some play, a gap in this irrefutable logic of words. It can make appear the possibility of an original relation, unstereotyped, to the world and the other, a relation of copresence and egalitarian dissensus rather than dialogue.
Why do law and education fail? Law fails because it practices a “savage ontology.” It “becomes the consecration of consensus and the status quo rather than the guarantee of equality;” courts are required endlessly to rule that Islam is or is not a religion. Excluding those without knowledge of the law, dishonestly de-politicizing the debate, law simply reproduces the opposition between religious freedom and Islam in the name of moderate Islam, inhibiting constructive political engagement:
[T]he standardization of the recourse to [the] category of religious freedom, which would be treated as essentially a legal matter, has the effect of making the opposition between religious freedom and Islam into the fundamental paradigm for understanding world conflicts, thus replacing the opposition between democracies and authoritarian regimes.
Education fails because it presupposes equality in a relation of inequality: “The reason, as Rancière points out, is that the community of equals ‘is not a goal to be reached’ through pedagogy and morals ‘but a supposition to be posited from the outset and endlessly reposited.”
Its pedagogy is unable to convey that “Islam might be ‘something’ between ‘all’ and ‘nothing’—something both banal and specific that can be described ordinarily without drama.” Marzouki urges us to take care about “the ever-increasing fragility of the liberal argument on which rests the defense of Muslim rights.”
These are acute issues for US universities. The inequality and condescension implied in a pedagogy that presumes to instruct students in how to treat others is backfiring and undermining the mission of higher education. A similar logic can be seen in the politics of climate change. (See this New York Times article on how Republicans came to see climate change as fake science.) Marzouki should be read by all who care about justice, equality, and education lest we lose our licenses to practice through inattention.