Interview with Nadia Marzouki

Nadia Marzouki, CERI Sciences Po

Nadia Marzouki (PhD in political science, 2008) recently joined CERI as a CNRS researcher. We are interested in knowing more about her and her research projects.

What is your primary research interest, and what was your PhD about?

My primary research interest and field of expertise deals with the controversies about Islam, both in Europe and in the United States. This interest follows a research path that started with the PhD I wrote on public debates on Islam in France and in the United States. My supervisor was Olivier Roy and I defended my PhD in 2008 here, at Sciences Po. I wanted to compare how two countries—with diverging understandings of the relationship between religion and politics, as well as secularism—deal with the issues of Islam and of Muslim minorities, and to see how Islam is built as a public policy issue in both countries.

The second question my PhD addressed was that of public expertise: do public intellectuals and public expertise use the contributions of social sciences, and if so, how do they do it? What is the use of academics’ research and how is it used? What is our relationship with public expertise, public debate, public commitment? Today, years after I defended my PhD, the question of the link between social science research on Islam and expertise and public debate has become even more significant. Demand for expertise is undoubtedly growing. Academics are increasingly solicited to comment on current affairs and Islam, in its multiple meanings.

My PhD gave birth to another project, a book (Islam, an American Religion, Columbia University Press, 2017), in which I set aside the comparative dimension of my research and chose to focus on the United States. The first reason was editorial: in France, there are many published works that deal with Islam in France and the field is quite well researched by now. The state of the debate in the U.S. was less known, yet worth examining and discussing.

Drawing on some aspects of my PhD I engaged into a new research on American controversies on Islam from the election of Barack Obama to the election of Donald Trump (2008-2016). While writing this book, I discovered something I had no idea about: paradoxically, it was under the administration of this very open-minded African-American President that the polemics concerning Islam in the U.S. proliferated. As if these were a reaction against the election of a man that was unacceptable for a great number of Americans. It is not under George W. Bush, nor just after 9/11 that anti-Muslim acts and controversies were the most numerous. It is mainly after 2008 that attacks against mosques increased and that the place of Islam and Sharia got disputed in courts.
My book was published in French 2013 and I updated it when it was translated into English in 2017. I added elements on Donald Trump’s campaign and on the turmoil this presidential campaign had triggered.

You have decided to move toward new objects of research. Can you tell us why and what this new research is about?

Indeed, today I would like to move toward another project and examine more optimistic, more positive trends. First, because I am under the impression that I have already said a lot on the issue of Islam in the United States, because I need to expand my field of research, and also because I am a little tired of working on “anti” movements: anti-Muslims, anti-migrants.

During my work on anti-Muslim movements in the U.S., I noticed the existence of something I then thought was merely anecdotic: the emergence of interfaith movements, or alliances between religious and non-religious groups fighting for civil rights and against populist and nationalist policy. These movements did not emerge only in the large and liberal cities of New York or Los Angeles for example, where such manifestations are a little predictable, but in small cities in conservative states where the Christian Right is very powerful. These movements, I have discovered, get organized and protest all discriminatory measures, especially violence against African-Americans and migrants.

This new project, on which I  am hoping to base my Habilitation à Diriger des Recherches (HDR), will try to answer the following questions: how do civil society organizations organize a new form resistance to the influence of the Christian right (since 2016 and even before) through religious and secular alliances? How do they manage to reappropriate an understanding of religion that would serve progressive causes (education, access to health) but also more radical (the rights of African-Americans to dignity, security) and even call to civil disobedience?

These movements take their inspiration from the civil rights tradition of the 1960s. They aim at reactivating the heritage of Martin Luther King: radicalism, civil disobedience, in which secular and religious arguments mix in harmony.

For them, there is no contradiction between the religious and the secular. It is possible to work with atheistic activists who are members of Human rights organizations and who care very little about religion but who defend the same cause, which differentiates them from populists and nationalists and from the Evangelicals on the far right. Whatever the motivations, it is possible to collaborate for the same cause. As a consequence, networks and alliances emerge that bring together believers and non-believers, and people from different faiths.

In the end, Barack Obama’s election served as a catalyst for the renewal of the secular-religious movements, that I have chosen to call ecumenical (in the sense that they invite all religions) and civic (in the sense that their interest is not in theological discussions or academic comparisons among religions, but in engaging with the world affairs in a public spirited way). From their perspective, civic and religious commitments are part of the same process.

Barack Obama’s message on hope, his ideal of a multiracial democracy plus the fact that some claimed the President was a Muslim actually contributed to reactivating these movements and giving them a raison d’être. Although they have existed for long in the American civil society, these movements became overshadowed by the Christian right who had gotten organized since the 1970s and had become very powerful through the years.

Donald Trump’s election boosted new movements in the American civil society. There are individual initiatives or movements coming from organized churches. One of the movements I am the most interested in was launched by an African-American pastor, William Barber, based in North Carolina. Barber describes himself as one of Martin Luther King’s heirs, yet he wishes to avoid mere sacralization of the hero of civil rights struggles. He has launched the Poor People Campaign, a campaign for the rights of poor people, in order to continue MLK’s struggle in the present.

Although he is African-American himself and was raised in the Black church tradition, he refuses to create a separatist movement and calls all poor to unite to fight for their social rights. For Barber, America suffers from a moral disease that translates into militarism, poverty, ultraliberalism, and the environmental disaster. His program is very political and the man is very eloquent and charismatic. He is capable of mobilizing a great many people. Barber organized rallies in about forty states last year.
His wish is not to be the leader of hierarchical movement, but rather to train and encourage sub-movements to organize in each state. And he is rather successful: during the last months, acts of civil disobedience have been organized in several small towns in conservative states. These protests often follow the same template: a group of people gather in front of the Town Hall or a state legislature and get arrested for protesting against rules or laws about immigration, health care, or minimum wages. These actions are peaceful and they are often organized with key local religious figures, two or three priests, pastors, or rabbis.

These movements are not well known because their actions are very local and their impact is very difficult to measure for the moment. Some may argue that these mobilizations are ornamental, yet the United States is a very decentralized country and things need to move at the local level. If you only look at what happens in New York and Washington, you will obviously miss part of what is going on.
This work on the American civil society is my own project that I am hoping to turn into my next book.

Are you part of collective projects?

Yes I am part of two projects, connected to my previous fields of research. The first is a thematic pluridisciplinary network funded by CNRS. The aim of this project is to bring together young academics, with or without a tenure track position, who work on Islam and who are confronted with the issue of engaging public debate. Take the example of a scholar working on Imams in France and who is invited to write a report for the French ministry of the Interior. Several questions arise: what are his or her deontological constrains? What ethical issues does the collaboration with ministry of the Interior raise? Or take the example of a scholar who gives an interview to a magazine and the journalist misquoted half of what she said. This could harm her research because the people she plans to interview next can read the article published in the magazine. The network is dedicated to engaging with ethical and methodological questions such as these.

The second collective project I am part of is also funded by CNRS. It brings together a group of American, European, Canadian, North African and Middle Eastern universities working on issues of radicalization. Together, we discuss the need to contextualize the question of radicalization, to stop considering this term as a magical word that we are able to understand fully. We want to contextualize the very issue of radicalization. We work on what motivates political actors to consider the violence of some young individuals from Muslim background in these terms. What other perspectives may better help understand this violence? To which previous forms of violence should one compare the present trends of so-called religious violence? Should they be considered only as something exceptional or can they be put in perspective with the violence of some far-left groups or some African-American radical separatist movements of the 1970s? We try to problematize the issue in a transversal way, and that’s why it is interesting to work with so many partners. This project will start in January 2019 and will last four years.

Interview by Corinne Deloy,
English version by Miriam Périer

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