Accommodation of Muslim minorities in higher education in Britain and France
The fractious relationship between state and religion is once again at the core of identity politics in Europe. In Western Europe, there has been renewed cultural and political anxiety regarding the perceived threat of Islam to a distinctively European secular consensus (Cesari 2013). This secular consensus presents the following characteristics: 1- an individualised view of religion, where spiritual beliefs are a matter of individual thought and conscience; 2- the socio-political expectation that religion should be kept separate from law and politics; and 3- the predominance of cultural and communal symbols linked to the traditional majority religion, i.e., the Christian faith (McCrea 2013). As pointed out by Modood (2015), because Muslims demands can exceed Christian requirements in terms of claims for public recognition and respect, this can lead to tensions with some groups weary of what they perceive as ‘religionising’ the public sphere. In higher education, these tensions can be especially acute because universities have a traditional secular culture in which criticizing the religious is not considered to be offensive, especially in France. The paper aims to address two questions. First, does the construction of a ‘Muslim issue’ in higher education represent a sub-category of the broader politicization of Islam and associated public anxieties and fears – including the much charged Islamophobia and counter Islamophobia claims? Second, to what extent do these political debates reflect alleged tensions between secular and religious ‘camps’ within higher education? Or are such controversies disconnected from the mundane reality of university management practices, with Islam being one relatively small element of competing demands for greater recognition and accommodation from diverse parts of the student body? The proposed paper will explore recent public debates concerning Muslim students in higher education in Britain and France.