Skip to content
Who's in the Video
Joan Scott is known internationally for writings that theorize gender as an analytic category. She is a leading figure in the emerging field of critical history. Her ground-breaking work has[…]

Like Muslims, Jews were once considered “un-assimilable” in Europe. But most found creative ways to adapt—as do Muslim immigrants today.

Question: How should European states deal with the rnperceived problem of Muslim assimilation?

rnJoan Wallach Scott:  Well I think first of all you have to think rnabout the history of other groups’ assimilations as well.  Usually rnthey’re slow.  Practices are adapted pragmatically.  You have to begin rnby defining the population as assimilable and it’s unclear to me that rnMuslim, Arab, North, West Africans are considered ultimately rnassimilable.  I mean I think I have something in my book in The Politicsrn of the Veil, there is a moment when a friend of mine who was opposed torn the headscarf ban was talking to a quite famous Jewish politician and rnsaid to her, “You know this is terrible.”  And this woman said to my rnfriend, “Well, you know, these people are un-assimilable.”  And my rnfriend said, “That is what they used to say about the Jews.”  And this rnwoman was just outraged and horrified, but historically it is true.  rnJews were…  Anti-Semitism was a tremendous problem even for the most rnassimilated of French Jews.  I mean the Dreyfus case in the 1890s being rnan example of that. 
rnSo and actually I just read a book by an anthropologist, a guy name Johnrn Bowen who works on, use to work on Indonesia and now works on Muslims rnin France and he spent a lot of time in a lot of these little mosques rnall around and just hung out with people in cafes and restaurants in thern mosque and what he describes in this book is a process of assimilation rnthat for any of us whose parents or grandparents in my case were… came rnto America in this case, but were immigrants one can watch over rngenerations this process going on and what he describes is the sort of rnpragmatic adaptations that have to be made, so for example, if by law inrn France you have to get married in the city hall before you can have a rnreligious wedding, it’s true with Catholics, true of everybody, and a rnnumber of the constituents in one of these mosques says, “Well they rndon’t know if they even want to get married.”  “They’ll just go have a rnmosque wedding and that will be a more Hallel way of doing the wedding rnor they’ll get married their first and then they’ll go comply with.”  rnAnd the imam says, “Well you know you could do that if you want to, but rnsince there are no sharia courts in France if anyone wants to get a rndivorce… and he says this to the women particularly, if you want to get arn divorce you will have no recourse to a sharia court.”  “There will be rnno one to judge your situation.”  “If you don’t have a civil marriage rnyou won’t be able to get a divorce and so you’re going to be stuck in a rnvery difficult sort of situation.”  “Of course I’m not predicting that rnthis will happen to you, but…”  And so they do.  They get married in thern civil courts.  Should they come to the imam and they say they want to rnbuy a house, but there are no Islamic banks in France, can they borrow rnmoney from a bank at interest.  Well he says, “You know it is probably rnmore important for you to have a stable place for your family to live rnthan to deal with this interest thing, so we can reinterpret what you’rern paying as a different kind of interest, dah, dah, dah, or as one thing rntaking priority over the other.”  And so they go and borrow money and sorn it goes these stories of adaptation.  You’re not allowed to slaughter rngoats in your bathtub in the housing projects in which people live, so rnthey find interpretations in the Koran, which say you can give money to rncharity instead of sacrificing an animal at the end of Ramadan, and so rnwhat is astonishing about the book is the slow and pragmatic way that rnpeople are adapting to rules of sort of both social and political life rnin France.  They are assimilating.
rnAnd what he says at the end of the book is that the French government isrn far less accommodating on the other side, isn’t as attuned to this rnprocess of assimilation as it has been in past times when Portuguese or rnItalians or you know other groups, Jews have come and found their ways rnslowly over several generations of assimilating.  You know most…  You’rern not even talking in the Muslim populations of the majority being rnpracticing, being sort of orthodox in their practices, so I think the rnprocess is happening and it should be allowed to happen.  I would draw rnthe line.  I mean when groups come into schools and say they don’t want…rn just as I would be here, they don’t want evolution taught in the rnscience curriculum or they want a different kind of history taught.  I rnmean it seems to me there are lines that one can draw about what is the rnsort of the way we do things here and what are the openings to the needsrn and interests of the constituent groups. 
rnI mean in schools I would certainly say they have to teach the history rnof colonialism and of empire in a different way from the way it has beenrn taught and that is not a matter of a concession to religion.  It’s a rnmatter of being more inclusive in the kind of history that is taught andrn that is written.  So it depends, but I mean I think there are certainlyrn lines that one can draw which don’t involve capitulation to theocracy, rnwhich is what is always held out.  You know if we let them wear rnheadscarves or burqas we’ll become Iran tomorrow and I don’t think therern is any danger that France will become Iran.  Turkey might be a rndifferent story, where you’re talking about a 90% Muslim population.  rnIt’s a different set of problems and issues there, but in countries in rnwhich these groups are minorities I think you know then I become a kind rnof champion of American multiculturalism.  It seems to me we’ve done it rnright in a way that is in allowing a certain kind of tolerance or I rnwouldn’t even call it tolerance, recognition of the differences that rnpeople bring with them even as, at least as long as people are not rnhaving to read Texas textbooks in the next years and but as long as rnthere is a kind of an educational system that into which they or throughrn which they become participants in the democratic processes of the rncountry.

Recorded April 26th, 2010
rnInterviewed by Austin Allen