Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture

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Mehammed Amadeus Mack
  • Bronx, NY: 
    Fordham University Press
    , January
     272 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In his aptly titled Sexagon: Muslims, France, and the Sexualization of National Culture American French Studies scholar Mehammed Amadeus Mack joins a handful of scholars in other fields—including sociologists Sara Farris, Éric Fassin, and Nacira Guénif Souilamas, historians Joan Wallach Scott and Todd Shepard, and anthropologist Mayanthi Fernando—who point to the co-constitutiveness of constructions of Muslim sexuality and immigration debates in contemporary France. Mack argues that the Hexagon (France) has recently imagined itself against religious and racialized minorities whose “sexual citizenship” is barred when so-called anti-modern expressions like homophobia and the patriarchal veiling of women are exhibited (29). In setting the contemporary context, Mack presents an androcentric notion of “virilism” to capture a broader range of negatively construed attitudes regarding Muslim sexuality, including “women’s liberation, sexual violence, homophobia, excision, polygamy, youth sexuality, the hijab (or headscarf), and family size” (2). His critical discourse analysis focuses on French citizens of North African descent who live in the country’s socioeconomically disadvantaged banlieues (suburbs). Contemporary French demographic anxieties, he concludes, are thus not about language or citizenship rights but about a new border: values about gender and sexuality focused on LGBTQ rights and secular feminism.

Mack’s intervention into this scholarly conversation draws on an notable range of contemporary (1980s-2010s) French political debates, ethnopsychiatry, Francophone literature (classical, but also magazines and comics), cinema, and pornography to argue that pejorative representations of racialized communities of immigrant origin have focused on Muslims and are overtly sexualized. I would have liked to have seen some explanation of how/why Mack chooses these representations (and not others), but appreciate his careful translations and his lengthy citations; he does not assume his reader is familiar with this data. Mack also includes a helpful discussion on the terms and categories he uses in his introduction, and demonstrates impressive theoretical engagement with anthropological, sociological, and queer theory literatures. 

Given the number and range of materials analyzed, readers will surely find some chapters more relevant than others. While some points are repetitive, the five full chapters can be read and taught separately. In chapter 1 Mack pairs his emphasis on the “problematic” sexuality of banlieusard youth with journalistic and political discourses to show how the hijab can never be conventionally feminine (43) and how the Arab boy’s father is rendered impotent. Chapter 2 critiques the work of French ethnopsychiatrists, often called to “scientifically” delineate cultural and ethnic difference in their construction of a suburban “broken family.” This work, he claims, further bolsters the estrangement of immigrant-based sexualities from French sexual modernity (80). Chapter 3 turns to literary examples of the delinquent “Arab boy” and brings works by Rachid O., Abdellah Taïa, and Nina Bouraoui into dialogue with those by Bernard-Marie Koltès and Frédéric Mitterrand. Chapter 4 takes up similar immigrant sexualities on-screen, attending to “macho Arab” typecasting experienced by actors and introduces “innovative films” that seek to rehabilitate the “overwhelming vilification of Arab, immigrant, and banlieusard masculinities on-screen” (180). Chapter 5 is the most convincingly and sensitively argued, perhaps because, as he explains, he needed to convince his editor and publisher of its inclusion. Here he examines heterosexual and homosexual “ethnic” pornography. “The fantastical, surreal, or fictional accounts [in porn] that have depicted banlieue life,” he says, “arguably say more about anxieties regarding these areas than hyperrealistic portrayals that aim for sociological accuracy” (222). Even if this point is overdrawn and he engages in little of the sociological literature on banlieusard Muslim French youth, Mack effectively shows how, while it might exaggerate and distort the sexualization of immigration and race relations, pornography also elucidates (247), an argument that extends beyond this context. 

Sexagon, in sum, is a provocative and timely monograph. Based on analysis of an impressive and rich number of representations, which include alternative expressions of so-called Muslim sexuality, Mehammed Amadeus Mack convincingly depicts profound paradoxes in the Hexagon’s conceptions of desired sexuality, particularly its fetishism of suburban Muslims. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jennifer A. Selby is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Memorial University, Canada.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Mehammed Amadeus Mack is assistant professor of French Studies and the Study of Women and Gender at Smith College.


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