To reduce the anxieties that Islam provokes, “elite” discourse moves between a desire to relativise its importance and that of installing it in the French landscape. This is why Islam is often presented as being an integral part of the roots and the history of France. Its presence is said to be nothing but the resumption of an older history. This argument from authority is a highly risky one, as it refers to the time when Christianity, which was not yet called the West, was compelled to retreat by force of arms.
In reality, for several centuries now Europe has reversed this relationship of force. Islam had, just recently, disappeared from the countries of western Europe. In France, almost all Muslims are immigrants or the children of immigrants. The development of Islam there is thus linked to foreign immigration. The same could be said for the majority of other countries in western Europe. Islam is indeed a novelty there. The argument on the quantitive importance of Muslims in France is ambiguous and oscillates between two poles: underlining their minority character or insisting on their importance (second religion of France). Which is it?
The number of Muslims was said to be 4 million in 2008, that is 6.4 % of the population (estimate based on the study «Trajectoires et origines» [Paths and Origins], INED-Insee, 2008). Common sense tells us that 4 million individuals are not capable of overturning our way of life, our relationship to religion or our acquired customs, some of which have not yet undergone the test of time (liberated lifestyle and female condition).
Among young adults, slightly more than 1 in 10 is Muslim. In France we find, between the ages of 18 and 50, just over one Muslim for every four Catholics. If we now look at the most fervent among them, those who declare that religion is very important to them, in the 18-50 age group Muslims surpass Catholics by around 150,000. They are three times as numerous among young people born in France in the 1980s. The expansion of Islam is occurring in a France that is in an advanced state of dechristianisation. Secularisation increases among the indigenous population according to age and generation. In 2008, around 60% of youthful indigenes born in the 1980s say they have no religion.
Among the children of immigrants originally from the Maghreb (North Africa), Sahel or Turkey, by contrast, secularisation is on the retreat among the most youthful: only 13% said they had no religion in 2008. In 1992, 30% of people aged between 20 and 29 born of two Algerian immigrant parents said they had no religion. In 2008, in the same age range, it was only 14%.
Islam enjoys a more favourable demographic dynamic than Catholicism: a high rate of retention of the parental religion, high religious endogamy, higher fertility and immigration that will no doubt persist. It remains apart from the great movement of secularisation affecting Catholicism and Protestantism, the evangelical boom not compensating for defections among these. Add to that the fact that Muslims are highly concentrated in large conurbations, which increases their visibility and their capacity for mobilisation: in 2008, more than two thirds reside in conurbations of 200,000 inhabitants or more, compared to 39 % for people of another or no faith. Islam is the first religion of Seine-Saint-Denis.
If not the islamisation of France, we have to note an islamisation of the religious question and of certain areas. France thought it had left the religious question behind; Islam is reintroducing it. As secularisation looks, to our eyes, like an inexorable historical movement underway, we have a tendency to judge any movement in the other direction as an aberration that only alienation and despair can explain. We see the (re) islamisation of consciences as a sort of pathology, for which it would be necessary to treat not so much the symptoms, as the deep-seated cause: social misfortune.
This way of thinking has the triple advantage of deluding us about the nature of the problem, of proposing a familiar recipe and leaving intact our faith in the inexorable progress of secularisation. In these conditions, how could Islam change our way of life? This victim-oriented vision of Islam betrays a great narcissism – we are the origin of the Other’s misfortune – and great condescension – this Other is deprived of autonomy of will and the capacity to make choices. It also fits well with a relativistic era which prohibits the passing of judgement on practices that would have been judged unacceptable and it promotes openness to those who come from elsewhere. This is what explains our preference for moderate Muslims who resemble us a bit too much, those whose moderation consists only of repudiating violence to advance their claims.
If Islam is still a minority religion, it has however changed our lives in a domain that is vital to democracy: freedom of expression. For fear of being called racist, or now islamophobe (we have to acknowledge the success in the West of this notion which is however the preferred weapon of radicals to reduce freedom of expression), are added intimidation and fear (the «Redecker affair», censorship of school programmes). The Rushdie case even led to an inversion of the notion of incitement to hatred seeming to want from now on to anticipate the violent reactions of the defenders of Islamic norms each time they feel offended (the Danish cartoons).
Michèle Tribalat, demographer
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