A Student’s Perspective: Religion and Diversity in France

UNC sociology MA/PhD student Shreya Parikh received our 2018 Ruth Mitchell-Pitts START Fellowship for summer research in France. We asked her a few questions about her experience.

(L) The Grand Mosque of Strasbourg. Strasbourg is in the Alsace region, which is not signatory to the 1905 Law of separation of Churches and State (or the law of Laïcité) in France. (Center) Saint Paul Church, a Reformed church in Strasbourg: While Catholic faith was historically dominant in most of France, Protestantism dominated in the Alsace region. (R) The Turkish mosque in Kehl: Once one crosses the border from France to Germany, one finds the Turkish mosque right next to the Kehl train and tram station.

Q: What did you do in France? Where specifically did you spend your time, and how long were you there?

A: I was in France, mostly in Paris region, from May till end-July 2018. During this period, I conducted preliminary research for my master’s thesis. This involved visiting religious institutions and associations, participating in activities associated with these groups, and interviewing individuals about their religious beliefs, practices, and citizenship.

A protest against the proposed asylum and immigration law (“loi Collomb”) that I witnessed in Paris. The proposed law has been interpreted to cut down on immigration and make the process of naturalization more difficult.

Q: What impact has the experience had on your plans for the future?

A: My ethnographic work in France this summer was a starting point of my adventure with qualitative methods. Before moving to the study of sociology, I was trained as an economist in quantitative methods. The two methods complement each other and the qualitative work adds a rich new perspective to my work.

(L) Walk on the banks of river Seine; (R) Paris, 19 arrondissement (in the north)

Q: How do you see the intersection of your place of travel and Europe? In what ways are they connected?

A: The rhetoric around religion and accommodating diversity in France has been emulated by many countries in the EU zone. Many political trends visible in France are also visible at the EU-level. For example, the security framework against Islamic fundamentalism, which has become prominent since the ‘migrant crisis’ in both France and the EU, tries to control those who are perceived to be non-citizens which in many cases includes citizens as well.

(L) A Hindu procession in the centre of Paris. This procession was a part of the Jagannath Yatra that takes place every year in Paris sometime in July. The temple is pulled across Paris by the worshipers. (R) Worshipers usually dance and chant in front of the Jagannath procession. The procession is open to everyone. In this picture, one sees the diversity of individuals who come together for such events.

Q: What was the highlight of your trip?

A: My initial research project was to understand the civil citizenship among the Muslim community in France. The civil component of citizenship determines the individual’s equality before the law as well as access to human rights. To have a comparative framework in my study, I decided to interview a few members of other faiths, among who was a young Catholic woman. Before speaking to her, I would have expected her to feel at ease with her French citizenship, assuming that her cultural and socio-economic background provided her the tools to enjoy the civic, political, and social components of citizenship. Yet, she mentioned that her moral citizenship (that pertains to values) had been put to question by her religious beliefs. For her, France did not represent her ethical values on questions like abortion, feminism, and LGBT rights and hence, she felt queasy about associating herself completely with France as a moral community. She later added that the fact that many Christian saints had walked on the French territory provided her a religious link to France. I find many layers to her conception of citizenship — for example, while there is a hint of rejection of Frenchness, there is also a sense of privilege that underlies her demand that France represent her ethical principles, which I did not find among the many Muslim individuals I interviewed. I look forward to expanding my research project to include more variation on religion as well as citizenship status to understand how the latter shapes the narrative around both religion as well as social and moral citizenship. ★