This conversation with Mayanthi Fernando constitutes a new episode in a series of discussions with US-based researchers whose terrain of political investigations is situated in France. After Crystal Marie Flemming and Mehammed Amadeus Mack, Mayanthi describes her methodology and her work that she articulated in her book, The Republic Unsettled that was published in 2014. We talk about the ideological, legal, and discursive framework through which secularism (laicité) is approached, and often politically instrumentalized in the French Republic. In a second part, we describe the aspirations of the Muslim French community between “a right to difference” and “a right to indifference,” as well as the political activism that is undertaken in resistance to structural islamophobia in France.
Mayanthi Fernando is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Her first book, The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism (Duke University Press, 2014), alternates between an analysis of Muslim French politics, ethics, and social life and the contradictions of French secularity (laïcité) that this new Muslim subjectivity reflects and refracts. It explores how Muslim French draw on both Islamic and secular-republican traditions as they create new modes of ethical and political engagement, reconfiguring those traditions to imagine a future for France. It also examines how the institutions, political and legal practices, and dominant discourses that comprise French secularity regulate and govern–and profoundly disrupt–Muslim life. In so doing, it traces a series of long-standing tensions immanent to laïcité, tensions not so much generated as precipitated by the presence of Muslim French. It argues, ultimately, that “the Muslim question” is actually a question about secularism.
– The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism, Duke University Press, 2014.