Muslims, France and the Sexualization of National Culture

“Sexagon”, by Mehammed Amadeus Mack · Refusing to choose between the “liberation” that France wants to impose on them and the “repression” that would be inherent in their religion, many Muslims invent new sexual and gender practices.

Early in January (9 January 2018), Le Monde ran a series of articles responding to the Weinstein affair in the United States—the exposure of sexual abuse by the media mogul Harvey Weinstein and the torrent of accusations of other men that followed in the #MeToo movement. The politologue Olivier Roy, arguing that culture, not nature, explained men’s misbehavior, cited the Cologne events in 2016 to remind his readers that the focus had switched from Muslim men’s sexual aggression to that of “hommes occidentaux” (western men). In the same issue of the newspaper, a group of 100 prominent women rushed to defend those “hommes occidentaux,” distinguishing between violent rape and “la drague insistante” or “la galanterie.” “Nous défendons une liberté d’importuner, indispensable à la liberté sexuelle” (“We defend a freedom to annoy, indispensable for sexual freedom”), they wrote. They denounced as “puritanism” and “victorian morals” the notion that la drague (even “heavy“or”clumsy”) might constitute unwelcome harassment. The article ignored the fact that job-related issues were often at stake—the exercise of male power to force sexual compliance or to abject female employees. Instead, they rushed to defend a long-standing belief that makes seduction one of the enduring and (for some) endearing traits of French national identity.

Resisting a “Sexual Civilizing Mission”

The defense of “une liberté d’importuner” did not explicitly point to the Cologne male aggressors, but it was implicit. Just below the surface was the fear that “submission” to Islamic authority threatened France. Those who have lauded seduction and galanterie have contrasted the openness of French sexuality with the covered, repressive practices said to be dictated by Islam. (Claude Habib’s Galanterie française, 2006, is a good example.) Indeed, their views on sexuality have become a key test of the fitness of North and West Africans for membership in the French nation. As Mehammed Amadeus Mack notes in Sexagon, “sexuality has emerged as a new battleground in the public debates about whether postwar immigration from the former colonies has eroded French identity.” (p. 2)

Mack joins the argument many of us have made about how this contrast between Islam and “France” obscures complexities on both sides; his contribution is to present in fascinating and full detail the versions of sexuality and sexual practices that remain hidden in the dominant portrayals. He examines the way in which “African and Arab minorities in France have queered or deviated from normative French understandings of sexuality, both heterosexual and homosexual.” (p. 2) He focuses on the inhabitants of the banlieues and the ways they resist what Mack calls a “sexual civilizing mission,” by which he means not only dominant invocations of heterosexual seduction, but also the emancipatory ideas of elite white French homosexuals—the communautarisme that defines their universalized visions of sexual liberation. Here he inverts the usual accusation of communautarisme against Muslims, leveling it instead against normative French views.

Mack’s sources are many: the “virile” style adopted by girls as well as boys in the cités and the sexual fluidity it performs; alternative readings of psychoanalytic diagnoses of “broken families;” fiction that portrays a more complex erotic life for banlieusards than is represented in the French press; “ethnic” cinema that likewise is attuned to complexity in ways the mainstream is not; and pornography in its depiction of the entwined desire of Arabs and French: “As becomes clear, the forces that divide these communities are also the key to their erotic reconciliation.” (p. 267)

There are many interesting challenges this book presents to stereotypes of Muslim sexuality. One is that it is wrong to depict these communities as homophobic. Another is Mack’s refusal the modern/traditional contrast, insisting instead that what he is describing is quintessentially modern—an engagement with dominant practices that relies not on the dictates of the Koran or the teachings of one’s elders, but is an expression of the realities of minority existence, its commitment to practices that make sense in the contexts of discrimination and the need for solidarity. So, for example, Mack writes that the choice of Muslim/Arab homosexuals to remain clandestine is a not a compromise with religious repression but a form of dissent, “not only from dominant gay visual culture and the imperative of hyperexposure, but also from agreements between minorities and the mainstream that put minority sexual diversity on the path toward homogenization and stabilization . . . Invisibility, in this context, means staying a while longer in an unregulated space of sexual diversity, liberatory or not.” (p. 15) And there is more to it than that: “immigrant and sexual undergrounds may come to resemble one another, in the way that both seek to escape the scrutiny of an often reproachful officialdom, whether that of the police or sexual modernity.” (p. 269)

A New Vision of Migrants’ Sexuality

If there are criticisms to be made of this book, it is that it is too long, often repetitious, and sometimes confusing, especially when it engages those who have contributed to the stereotyping of life in the banlieues by depicting only dysfunctional families and delinquent adolescents, and mistaking unfamiliar norms and dissident behavior for pathology. At its best, Mack’s argument with them is clear, but sometimes the lines of disagreement are hazy and not sharply drawn. In the chapter on psychoanalysis, for example, it becomes difficult to decide who Mack is criticizing and why, since some of those he seems to disagree with (Tahar Ben Jelloun’s discussion of immigrant men’s impotence, for example) substantiate some of Mack’s own points about the need to take social and economic experience into account. In that chapter, too, Mack’s distinctions are hard to follow: is it psychoanalysis tout court that he is condemning or what he alternately and confusingly calls “conservative” or “officialized” or “republican” psychoanalysis? And, one wants to ask, what psychoanalytic theory has informed his own readings of erotics, desire, fantasy and the political possibilities of pornography?

These objections aside, the book is important because it focuses not so much on the reasons for French misrepresentations of its “immigrant” populations (which many of us have been doing for a while), but on the creative, imaginative, and resourceful sexualities being produced by those populations, which contribute to the “queering” of dominant sexual paradigms, even those deemed transgressive. In the face of an already sexualized discourse about them, Mack demonstrates, they have “creatively bonded sexuality to race, religion, and class in a way that conserves their intersectionality. . .”(p. 269) Sexagon unveils a new vision of Muslim sexualities that ought to definitively close the discussion of “their” repression and “our” liberation. That, above all, is the great value of this book.