“Comment ça se fait qu’en France des cloches sonnent à chaque heure pour manifester la présence chrétienne … et que les musulmans eux n’auraient pas le droit d’exprimer leur conviction religieuse. Alors soyons discrets jusqu’au bout et arrêtons toutes ces cloches.”

How is it that in France the bells ring each hour to demonstrate a Christian presence, and yet Muslims don’t have the right to express their religious conviction? So, let us be thoroughly discrete and stop all these bells.

~Iman Abdelali MamounFootnote 1

Scholars of France often point to French politicians, media, and public intellectuals as the actors with the greatest ability to impact discursive framings and guide debate on hot-button issues of the day. These pillars of elite discourse, largely centralized in Paris and sharing common educational and class background, hold disproportionate sway, it is claimed, in shaping public attitudes and dictating the terms of public debate (Suleiman 1978; Bowen 2010: 3; Gumbel 2013). Their significant influence has been particularly noticeable in recent years on topics related to Islam in France, Muslim integration in French society, laïcité, the recurring headscarf affairs, and questions related to the substantive content of “Frenchness.” Yet there is a fourth important actor, or “actant,” engaged in these debates—one that operates across elite and plebeian niveaux but has largely escaped notice.Footnote 2 This actant may be understood as common sense—with an analytical emphasis on the sensory connotations of the term. Common sense escapes notice both because it is empirically difficult to isolate and because it is so normalized as to be taken for granted.

Referring generically to reasonable judgement based on the straightforward perception of a situation, the presumed familiarity and imprecision of “common sense” marks it for easy dismissal as a topic of sustained scholarly inquiry, let alone as a key actant in politics. Yet other scholars, too, have pointed to the salience of common sense in shaping political outcomes. International relations theorist Ted Hopf, drawing on Antonio Gramsci’s theory of hegemony, has argued that common sense should be seen as a structural variable that works its way through everyday practices of the masses—whether wielded consciously as a “weapon of the weak” (Scott 1985) or unconsciously through habitual conduct. Hopf writes, “a common sense that is at odds with an elite hegemonic ideology may impose political, that is selectoral or electoral, costs on an elite that ignores it. Failure to heed mass common sense may result in demonstrations against […] policies, the emergence of alternative political parties and movements, and/or fractionation within the ruling party” (Hopf 2013, 323). Yet contra Hopf, whose theorization of common sense’s hegemonic capacity derived from logocentric discourse analysis and the circulation of ideas in social life, this article seeks to resuscitate nonverbal, intuitive, embodied experiences that feed into shared constructions of what constitutes reasonable judgement.

To this end, I invite readers to pause and reconsider the perceptive and interpretive acts embedded in the production of discursive knowledge, using contemporary France as a case study. Specifically, I want to focus on common sense in French politics by tracing individual and collective embodied knowledge generated by everyday ambient atmospheres, thereby drawing attention to the unconscious discernment involved in the process of the “simple” perception of situations and facts, as well as the relevance of this process for politics. In this reading, common sense, or collective sensing and knowing, is generated at the nexus of ambient sensory stimuli, human perception, and interpretation. Embodied knowledge on a range of civic topics may be derived from everyday experience in public space, yet the active role of this structuring force is often missed—not only in research on citizenship and religion but in political science literature more broadly.

This article offers an empirical, ethnographic investigation into one way common sense, in dialogue with constitutional and municipal law, manifests as a political actant that shapes practices of citizenship and participation in French public space.Footnote 3 To empirically examine a phenomenon as diffuse as common sense and its relation to civic behaviors, I single out the sensory register of sound, tuning into prototypical public Christian and Islamic religious sounds, namely the ringing of church bells and the Muslim call to prayer, or adhan.Footnote 4 It is generally the case that the adhan is not broadcast publicly from minarets in France. This is usually attributed to prevailing attitudes toward laïcité—a conclusion that has been stated with such certainty as to make further examination of the adhan in France seem unnecessary or even inflammatory. But this explanation does not provide an understanding of why the Muslim community of France—proportionately the largest in Europe—has not pressed this silencing as an issue of religious freedom as it has in England, the USA, Germany, and Sweden. What role does the adhan, and its public silence, play in French politics of belonging, and how, precisely, is the suppression of the adhan as a publicly aired religious sound reconciled with discursive normalization of ringing Christian church bells?

We have a limited understanding of how everyday sensory stimuli, in tandem with laws governing the use of public space and cultural expectations, generate hegemonic aesthetic norms that structure broad-ranging political attitudes in France. Thus, my empirical investigation into common sense politics is contextualized by contemporary debates on democracy and laïcité, and the supposed challenges the French Muslim community has faced in integrating into French society. A key take-away is that common sense among non-Muslim French, deriving from perception and interpretation of public sound, represents a stubborn obstacle to the French Muslim exercise of full citizenship.

This research contributes to work that has highlighted the shortcomings of rights claims within Western democracies (Fredette 2014) and the racial and biological entanglements that plague taxonomic categories of race, religion, and culture in French discourse (Davidson 2012). It also offers further support for arguments that point to the ways in which concept of laïcité, despite its widespread usage, has been emptied of consensual substantive meaning and, in consequence, is commonly co-opted for wildly different political ends. The hollowing of the concept of laïcité has been traced profitably through the lens of gender and racism (Fadil 2011; Fernando 2014; Selby 2012 and Scott 2007); through understandings of culture and identity (Barras 2013; Bowen 2010; Jouili 2019; Kastoryano and Escafré-Dublet 2016); and through public policy and debate (Ahearne 2014). This article complements this body of work by interrogating the entanglement of laïcité and the senses. In tuning into sonic forms of engagement, it takes literally Joan Scott’s assertion that “creating a reality one wants requires … the discrediting, if not silencing, of alternative points of view” (Scott 2007: 7 italics added). In so doing, it makes an empirical case for the political importance of embodied, sonic knowledge in shaping both discursive understandings of Muslim belonging in France and legal regimes that govern public space. It demonstrates how culturally entrained listening practices and habitual engagement with the sounded public environment structure rights to the city and the full exercise of citizenship, rendering embodied knowledge and common sense important actants in contemporary political debates.

Given its attention to religious sound in public space as a register by which to analyze French belonging, this article takes religiosity as a central premise. My interlocutors self-identified as Muslim, Catholic, or secular and were often engaged in debates on religion in public space by virtue of their official position or their physical proximity to churches or mosques. My depiction of religious practice, as well as my portrayal of the potential political impact of religious sound in public space, derives from conversations with subjects in the field, thus showcasing their diverse interpretations of appropriate religious practice. Fieldwork in support of this article took place between 2015 and 2018 and consisted of ethnographic research, interviews, and textual analysis of French national newspapers and constitutional and municipal law on the topic of religious sound. My ethnographic work involved eight discontinuous months of observation and listening in Paris, Marseille, and Le Puy-en-Velay. In Paris, in June, July, and August of 2016, I rented a small apartment in the ethnically diverse Goutte d’Or neighborhood of the 18th arrondissement, close to l’Institute des Cultures d’Islam. I made contacts in the neighborhood through the institute and engaged in informal conversations and semi-formal interviews with Moroccan, West African, and Algerian residents and practitioners of Islam. In Marseille, in December and January 2016, I conducted walking ethnographies of the city’s “basement mosques” to better understand the material, spatial, and ambient empirics of these sites of worship, using the “trouvetamosquee” website to identify mosque locations. In January and February of 2018, I lived with a family in Le Puy-en-Velay, sharing their home adjacent to the Puy Cathedral where I heard the cathedral bell toll regularly. I participated in local events related to the Lycée St-Jacques de Compostelle where one of my hosts was employed, attended evening Arabic language classes at the Mosquée al Rahman, and engaged in informal conversations with diverse residents of the town. Over the course of my fieldwork, I conducted open-ended and relational interviewsFootnote 5 with municipal officers, historians, campanarians, Catholic priests and nuns, imams, experts at the Centre Information du Bruit, mosque and church officials, Muslim and Catholic residents in mixed neighborhoods, representatives of the “Vivre Ensemble” and “Association Lumière” cultural initiatives, officials at the Grand Mosquée de Paris and the al Ghazali Institute in Paris, public “experts” on Islam, and officers of Muslim Associations in Le Puy-en-Velay and Saint-Étienne. Interlocutors were selected through direct contact and through snowball sampling. I also attended the March 2018 Rencontre Annuelle des Musulmans de France (RAMF) conference in Le Bourget, where I met and interviewed mosque officials from Strasbourg and a suburb north of ParisFootnote 6 to broaden the scope of my data and understand how the findings I uncovered in Le Puy-en-Velay might relate to Muslim experiences in other French cities.

The claims I make cannot represent “French Muslims” uniformly, just as there is no single “French Muslim” community that speaks with a unified voice.Footnote 7 My careful construction of the religious life worlds from which commonplace Catholic and Islamic practices emerge may nonetheless offer a valuable, and perhaps even broadly applicable, lesson on the active role of sensory perception in politics of belonging and debates on integration, and on the way that common sense may impact something as supposedly impartial and disembodied as law. It also represents a timely intervention into French debates on Muslim claims-making and their supposed “hypervisibility” in European public space.

In what follows, I begin with a brief overview of French law governing religious sound in public before turning to a case study examining the application of these laws at the municipal level in Le Puy-en-Velay, a town in central France with a prominent Catholic tradition and a French Muslim population of approximately 10 percent—a figure that aligns closely with national percentages which estimate total Muslim population in France to be at 8.8 percent (Hackett 2017). I discuss interpretations of these sounds by local residents who experience them and make sense of them as everyday components of their civic soundscape. Approaching common sense through thick description in a single sensory register makes it possible to render transparent residents’ reasoning rather than imputing explanations from an external vantage point. Finally, I analyze the political impact of sound-based forms of common sense in structuring rights claims in urban space, laïcité, and national belonging.

Regulating religious sound: the 1905 law

The French state’s approach to religion since the French Revolution has been one of non-interference, often summed up in the concept of laïcité, wherein the State protects “free thought” from religious influence, maintaining particular vigilance over public space and schools. Article 1 of the French Constitution of 1958 states, “France guarantees equality before the law for all of her citizens, without reference to origin, race, or religion. France respects all beliefs.” Similarly, the first article of the 1905 loi de separation des Églises et de l’État, commonly cited in debates on laïcité, states that the Republic “guarantees freedom of conscience and the free exercise of religion, so long as the worship does not disturb public order.”Footnote 8 At the highest levels, then, laws governing religion in public space treat recognized religions equally.Footnote 9 Put differently, French citizens have equal rights under law to practice their religion and express their religious convictions, or lack thereof, in accordance with their beliefs. Encompassed in the freedom to manifest convictions, Article 27 of the law specifically protects religious sound:

Ceremonies, processions and other external manifestations of a religion are regulated in accordance with article L2212-2 of the general code of local authorities. [N.b. Article L2212-2 concerns itself with the maintenance of public order, safety, security, and health.] Bell ringing will be regulated by municipal decree, and, in case of disagreement between the mayor and the president or director of the religious association, by prefectural decree. The Conseil d’États determines the cases in which civil ringing may occur.Footnote 10

Although applied to all recognized religions, the text of the law refers explicitly and exclusively to bells as the singular conveyors of religious sound, in line with norms stemming from France’s Christian heritage.Footnote 11 The law inscribes the secular State’s final authority over when and how often church bells may sound; city mayors, not church officials, are granted jurisdiction over the ringing of church bells, with regional prefects serving as higher powers in the event that a dispute cannot be solved at the municipal level.Footnote 12

In keeping with the premise of protecting religious freedoms, Article 27 authorizes the mayor to regulate bell ringing; however, she may not prohibit sound “such that the practice of worship is hindered” as determined by an administrative judge.Footnote 13 For example, in a 1994 court case the French Conseil d’ÉtatFootnote 14 ruled that the ringing of the Angelus bell prior to 7 a.m. could not be prohibited because of the religious nature of the sound, which did not, it was judged in this case, disrupt public tranquility.Footnote 15 In another case, it was decided that mayors may not arbitrarily prohibit church bells rung for approved civil purposes without reference to local custom.Footnote 16

Constitutional law protects Christian bell ringing in line with the normative protection of the freedom to manifest religious belief, but it delegates the authority to regulate this sound to municipalities, thereby deferring to local custom and granting power over the sensory environment to the office of the mayor. Thus, municipal public space becomes a laboratory for examining the interaction between local forms of knowledge and meaning, on the one hand, and national principles, on the other. In practice, bell ringing varies greatly from one church to another, as well as across cities and regions of France. Similarly, despite a prominent Muslim presence in many municipalities, French Muslims, generally do not attempt a public broadcast of their call to prayer. Thus, in spite of this formal legal equality, an attention to the sonic register reveals that when constitutional principles are applied in municipal politics at the level of the street, we may observe that the interpretation of formal law relies on embodied forms of knowledge and culturally constructed sensory regimes. In France, particular aural knowledges and norms dictate acceptability of religious sound in public, and even dictate what counts as “evidence,” or perceptible criteria, upon which the law may be applied. Understanding common sense, embodied interpretations of the law reveals that the ideal republican “difference blind” model is not, in fact, “difference deaf” in practice—nor indeed indifferent to any form of sensory alterity. As Nilüfer Göle and others have noted, Islam in France is rarely controversial in terms of institutional or textualized forms of subjectivity; rather, social dispute is visceral and “carried by corporeal performances and self-presentations” (Göle 2002, 183). Put otherwise, difference is easier to ignore, and thus tolerate, when it is abstract.

In order to understand how this plays out, and to discuss with specificity the regulation and broadcast of religious sounds in one setting, the following section presents a case study from the town of Le Puy-en-Velay in the Haute-Loire. The town is renowned for its Catholic character, but Puy, as it is commonly called, also has a small Muslim population with historic ties to Morocco. In 2011, Puy’s primary mosque became the target of attention in right-wing media in which it was accused of broadcasting the adhan. The possibility of a pluralist religious soundscape made this town of 18,909Footnote 17 a fruitful field site for questions related to mediating cultural and religious diversity in public space.

Le Puy-en-Velay: religious sounds and the right to the city

Located along the famed pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela, Le Puy-en-Velay has a long and rich association with the Catholic Church. In the Middle Ages, it was the seat of a major bishopric, and its cathedral, the Cathédral Notre Dame du Puy, has been an essential destination for pilgrims since the time of Charlemagne. Within an area of 6.48 square miles, Le Puy-en-Velay boasts 19 churches and one Islamic prayer room, as well as one freestanding mosque on the edge of town.

In February 2018, a month not marked for religious occasions, the three christened bells of the Puy cathedral rang in a “civic” capacity every hour between 7 a.m. and 10 p.m., as well as ringing one chime to mark every quarter hour. In an explicitly religious capacity, the bells also rang twice each day for Mass,Footnote 18 which included a fifteen-minute forewarning chime as well as the actual Mass bells; they rang for special Catholic occasions on February 2, 4, 6, 8, 11, 14, 22, and 27. On four of these days, the cathedral bells were rung using a “festive” technique, which involves multiple bells and a prolonged ringing engagement, two or three times throughout each day.Footnote 19 With this irregular ringing, the bells continue the custom of marking life events such as births, baptisms, weddings, and deaths, vociferously ringing in life cycles and marking time according to a biological clock. The other 18 churches in Puy ring as well, with the result that bell chimes may be heard frequently each day and throughout the day, for irregular lengths, with varying significations, and emanating from varying geographic points within the city.

Emanuel Rolhion, a civil servant in charge of municipal relations at the mayor’s office, said that to his knowledge, there were no legal restraints on religious sounds in Puy.Footnote 20 “If there is a complaint,” he explained, “then the mayor’s office has to intervene more fully. We will launch an investigation and eventually issue an arrêté municipal detailing precisely what steps need to be taken to restore public order.” He confirmed that Monseigneur Crespi, the current Bishop, was free to ring the Cathedral’s bells all day, if he deemed it appropriate, but pointed out that the Church was bound by its own laws and that bells were rung in accordance with a precise Catholic schedule.Footnote 21 “The mayor only intervenes in religious sound if there is a complaint or a problem, so, when necessary. But otherwise there is nothing civil that governs the ringing of bells,” Rolhion said. Rolhion was not alone in this opinion. Jean Jacques Liotard, the premier adjoint to the Mayor of Puy, said “there are no laws governing church bells, or, if there are, they were written very long ago and have since been forgotten. Today the church does more or less what it likes, and as long as there are no complaints about tranquilité, the mayor stays out of it.”Footnote 22

The same is not true for Islamic religious sounds. In contrast, Le Puy-en-Velay’s mosques, the Mosquée de la Bienveillant in the center of town, and the larger Mosquée al Rahman, would be required to file for a permit with the city in order to amplify their call to prayer because, as Rolhion explained, “establishments are not allowed to use loudspeakers to transmit sounds” according to municipal noise control laws.Footnote 23 The mayor may authorize the adhan by granting an exemption against the injunction of the use of loudspeakers in public space, but Rolhion said that, to his knowledge, the mosque had never petitioned the city to broadcast the call. He added that if the sound were to spark public controversy and come under legal scrutiny, a judge’s decision would be based on decibel levels but would also take into account the nature of the sound, the nature of the complaints, and the overall norms and expectations of the city’s residents. “At the end of the day,” Rolhion said, “it’s a bit subjective.”Footnote 24

Common sense as the arbiter of exclusion

Despite the frequency of bell sound, many people in Puy, when asked, claimed not to hear bell chimes in their town.Footnote 25 The question was fielded with some surprise, which often led to musing and then statements such as “well, yes, I suppose the Cathedral does ring the hours….” A few residents went so far as to vehemently deny the presence of any religious ringing—citing personal knowledge and embodied experience (“I have never heard it”) as evidence for their stance. While there was a general awareness of the bells, non-Muslim Ponots I spoke with were unable to tell me of their individual signification when asked. This excludes Father Bernard Planche, in charge of ringing at the cathedral. Planche suggested that while most residents of Puy (or Ponots) today were unlikely to know precisely what each ring tone signified, they might plausibly figure it out from context. As Planche noted with some regret, “there are no special ways of training citizens’ ears anymore—it’s simply a matter of accustomization.” In his opinion, contextualizing the bells was made easier by the fact that the tempo of the ringing often correlated with its subject—weddings were celebrated in a joyous, upbeat style that set the bells swinging; funerals, in contrast, were rung with single, echoing, taps.Footnote 26

The Ponots’ deafness to church bells may be understood as a double silence: first, bells are audible but unheard because of a subjective and culturally conditioned capacity to tune out some types of sound; and second, the ability to distinguish among bell chimes, or to understand the denotative content of the sound, has been lost, silencing its signification. In everyday experience, then, bell ringing is “dissolved” into background noise that forms the neutral baseline from which residents pay heed to their ambient surround, leading to an expansive conception of “silence” and tranquilité that enfolds, among other things, bell sounds. Church bells that resound across public space without the benefit of inherited or normed meanings speak to a tangible, empirical transformation of culture—representing an affective echo of earlier practices that lacks precise societal mooring in the contemporary era. As such, common sense represents a mechanism by which church bells come to be constructed as cultural rather than exclusively religious in legal contexts, even as analysis of the sensory perceptions underlying mainstream notions of common sense reveals the blurring of religious and cultural categories in society more broadly.Footnote 27

In support of the notion that bells are either not perceived or ignored as “normal” ambiance, lawsuits challenging bell ringing are infrequent in France. A March 2018 search on www.bruit.fr, a French organization dedicated to tracking noise complaints and the regulation of environmental noise, revealed six court cases that dealt with church bell ringing, spanning the period from 1974 to 2005.Footnote 28 When lawsuits do occur, courts fall back on broader noise regulation laws to adjudicate disagreement, but often rule in the Church’s favor nevertheless. In the northern French city of Douai for example, a city celebrated for its 80-meter Gothic belfry dating to 1380, and its 62-bell carillon that spans five octaves, residents living near the cathedral filed a noise complaint, claiming the bells were disruptive. The court authorized sound specialists to take noise measurements at the plaintiffs’ property and found that the bell clangor at the location of the complaint registered under the city’s decibel limit for disruptive noise.Footnote 29 Thus, the administrative court ruled in favor of the mayor (who in this case had sided with the Church and refused to moderate the bell ringing). If the bell sound had exceeded the city’s guidelines for noise, the judge could have asked the church to attenuate the ringing, but he would not have the authority to eliminate it entirely.

The primary mosque of Le Puy-en-Velay tried for a brief period to broadcast the adhan beyond its walls. The Muslim Association of Puy never asked the city for official permission to broadcast the adhan, but they did mount a small loudspeaker on the chimney of the old farmhouse, now refashioned as a discrete minaret and topped with an unobtrusive crescent moon. President Mohamed Boussikli said the mosque broadcast the adhan from the loudspeaker, particularly around Muslim holidays, but never received complaints from neighbors. At approximately 10 percent of the population of Puy, Muslims are a minority, but in terms of the spatial distribution of domiciles, there are “clusters” where Muslims constitute a majority of inhabitants.Footnote 30 The loudspeaker is mounted on the side of the building facing the parking lot, and Boussikli indicated that mosque-goers found it useful, particularly as they were approaching, because it gave them a sense of how much time they had before the prayer began. He added that hearing it gave the congregation a sense of joy and pride during the holidays.Footnote 31

Located to the southeast on a ridge that encircles the town basin,Footnote 32 the Mosquée al Rahman was built on farmland in 1990. It is separated from central Puy by train tracks, but there is a small, mixed, lower-income residential community, officially designated a zone urbain sensible, of ZUS, along the flank of the ridge leading up to the mosque. The mosque abuts a commodious parking lot which stands empty most of the time, but fills up on annual celebrations such as Eid al Kebir, when attendance swells to between 400-700 people. On a typical day, between 10 and 20 Muslims come to pray.Footnote 33 The mosque’s closest neighbor is a large, covered sports facility with community basketball courts and a swimming pool; a little further down the road, an equestrian center is surrounded by pastureland. The mosque is open to all, but it was founded and continues to be run by Muslims of Moroccan ancestry with ties to the city of Meknes. The congregation follows the Maliki school of Islamic law.

The broadcast of the adhan may not have upset any neighbors willing to engage mosque officials directly, but it came to the attention of a number of French bloggers and right-wing media outlets who sent a representative to interview Boussikli and then, in rhetorical outrage over the presence of an adhan in French territory, reblogged video footage of his “admission” widely. The interview shows Boussikli in the front of the mosque, with the loudspeaker visible in the background. He is filmed saying the mosque never had any complaints about the sound. The following excerpt by Catherine Segurane, writing for AgoraVox, Le Media Citoyen, is representative of the reporting that followed.Footnote 34 Segurane writes:

In theory, the minarets built in France are not intended for the call to prayer. In practice, several examples have been discovered. They were clandestine at first, but they have even dropped this pretense. […] What did we hear when we dared [suggest that minarets would lead to prayer calls?] “No, no, no, never would a Muslim think of performing the adhan in Europe. To suspect them was pure Islamophobia. The minaret was a simple architectural element. Promised, sworn, sealed. In reality, promises are only binding on those who believe in them, and examples of the call to prayer, either already being performed, or soon to follow, are multiplying.Footnote 35

Segurane charges mosques in Nanterre and Montluçon likewise of sounding the adhan. Other bloggers piled on, accusing mosques in Meaux, Bethoncourt, and Marseille of the same offense.Footnote 36 The anti-Islamic and xenophobic Riposte Laïque and l’Observatoire de l’Islamization posted what appeared to be a video of Laurent Wauquiez, at the time the mayor of Le Puy-en-Velay, speaking in favor of the mosques’ call to prayer.Footnote 37 The video, which contains awkward cuts that suggest amateur editing, was likely cobbled together to suit a political end. Liotard denied the report that Wauquiez, his former boss, would have authorized the Mosque to call the adhan, saying flatly that it did not happen. A life-long resident, Liotard had never heard the adhan in Puy, but added that the mosque was sufficiently far away that a prayer call was unlikely to be audible. Liotard suggested that the Riposte Laïque article was best understood as a political attack against Wauquiez, capitalizing on the “lightening rod” reaction the adhan issue was certain to evoke among its readers. The statement highlights the political salience that such seemingly small-scale, visceral civic encounters wield: journalists and politicians alike seize upon embodied markers of difference because they trigger powerful reactions—reactions that often span the Left–Right divide as they do not demand intellectual engagement or deliberation, but rather rely on common, presumedly pre-cognitive gut-feelings.Footnote 38

In 2013, the Puy mosque was the target of two hate crimes. In one incident, mosque-goers found a garbage bag containing a severed pig’s head wrapped in a French flag on mosque property. The mosque’s CCTV surveillance footage revealed that it had been deposited in a drive-by; the sedan was not local but had a license plate from nearby Lyon. In the wake of the act, mosque officials retrenched. They left the loudspeaker installed but used it only on religious holidays and at a very low volume, generally reverting to calling the adhan inside mosque walls and leaving its public broadcast aside.

Although the political right has been the most outspoken against the sound, the adhan has long met with widespread disapproval in the French public: a 1989 IFOP survey of French opinion found that more than one-third of French people are opposed to the construction of mosques because of their prominent visibility (the height of the minaret) and the supposed noise disturbance of the call to prayer.Footnote 39 A follow-up survey five years later found that, while negative attitudes toward minaret heights had fallen in favor of people who characterized themselves as “indifferent,” opposition to the prayer call remained as solid as before.Footnote 40 Former President Nicolas Sarkozy, capitalizing on this sentiment in 2010, and speaking on the topic of immigration, said “that there should be places of worship for Muslims is quite normal, there are more than 2000. But in France, there is no minaret, there is no muezzin that makes the call to prayer,” adding that he hears his compatriots when they say, “we want to stay in France, the France that we love.”Footnote 41

The reasons behind the disapproval are complex, but one element that contributes to its negative reception is the way in which the sound, and particularly the takbir, or the first line of the call to prayer, has been associated discursively with terrorism in popular media.Footnote 42 Instances of such reporting range from news reports of the Charlie Hebdo shooters’ shouting “Allahu Akbar” as they entered the building, to Muslim protesters chanting in streets,Footnote 43 and to the cooptation of the takbir by three non-Muslim French minors in Bezier who prank-called “Allahu Akbar” over the public announcement system on a train in southeastern France before threatening to kill the train’s occupants in a fake terrorist attack.Footnote 44 French media treatment of the adhan largely falls into two categories—either it is referenced in a descriptive sense, often in the context of evoking “exotic” Oriental alterity, or it is cited in association with terror attacks and violence.Footnote 45

Although public opinion and intimidation have played a role in silencing the adhan, there are without doubt more prosaic explanations for the absence of the Muslim prayer call in France as well. As voluntary associations, many mosques struggle financially, drawing most of their operating budget from the donations of their members.Footnote 46 As such, they have limited funds for full-time employees; a dedicated muezzin is often not a financial possibility. Often the imam doubles as the muezzin and calls the adhan, or, as in the case of the Mosquée al Rahman in Puy with its small daily congregation, any male member of the jammah may perform the duty. The mosque’s constituents rotate informally so that no one person is permanently responsible. In a context where communities have faced long uphill battles to find physical space for worship, the question of the adhan has often simply had to wait.

Silence as a political strategy

Although the Mosquée al Rahman did not field complaints from their immediate neighborhood in the wake of the broadcast, the Muslim Association of Puy has proceeded cautiously with regard to their loudspeaker since 2011. Abdel El Hamri, the association’s long-time treasurer, said that the threat resonates among the general population because most people are aware of the dawn prayer and, regardless of their political leanings, do not want to be roused from sleep unnecessarily. El Hamri explained, however, that the population had nothing to worry about because mosque officials took it upon themselves to limit the adhan.Footnote 47 As El Hamri put it:

no one wants to heap problems upon problems—Muslims in France have enough problems as it is. Islam is new for French, Christians, and Catholics. It will really bother people if we start calling the adhan and it might turn the people of Puy against us. The people of France simply won’t accept an adhan. Consider that there are more than 20,000 inhabitants in Puy, and of those, only about 2000 Muslims. We can’t impose our will.Footnote 48

Muslims of Puy have chosen public silence as a means of warding off debate and controversy, much like French Jews before them who had good reason not to draw audible attention to themselves.Footnote 49 At its most basic, silence represents a course of action by which to protect their interests; a political decision to “hunker down” in an uncertain environment.Footnote 50 In understanding this decision, it becomes clear that French law does not afford the same protection to French Muslims as it does to French Christians in terms of access to the city and rights to claim public sound waves for religious worship. Common sense conceptions of the proper aesthetics of public space help this inequality to fly under the radar. In Caitlin Killian’s words, “although all religion in France is supposed to be private, the cultural climate and calendar are conducive to practicing Catholicism, while we have seen, they are not conducive to practicing Islam. The requirement that people bear no distinctive signs of religious belonging and yet they inhabit everyday life that is rhythmed by the Christian calendar forces observant Muslims and Jews to make a choice. They can be either good French citizens and bad Muslims or bad Jews, or vice versa” (Killian 2007, 314). The mechanisms at work in the imposition of aesthetic standards on public sound echo Michel Foucault’s description of how governmentalized expressions of shared value are enforced (Foucault 1980, 55), and point to how Christian hegemonic norms permeate everyday experience in France in ways that are in tension with universal, secular, liberal state claims. Specifically, the strategy of maintaining public silence highlights the inability of French Muslim citizens to claim the same rights to the free practice and expression of religious conscience as French Christians.

With a few aberrations that have not made national news, the choice to silence the adhan—to self-censor this call in a public context—is one that has been made by almost all mosques across France. Mohammed Moussaoui, the former president of the Conseil du Culte Musulman de France, affirmed in 2009, “the song of the muezzin to call the prayer has never been demanded by French Muslims. The minaret allows for the identification of [the building as a] place of worship, just as the bell tower does in a church.”Footnote 51 He repeated this claim in 2011, saying, “minarets have never been used to call the adhan, and the Muslims of France have never requested to call the adhan, as certain people pretend.”Footnote 52 Djelloul Seddiki, Director of the al Ghazali Center at the Grand Mosquée de Paris, sees this as a wise practice. He counsels patience and advises taking things slowly as minorities in a Christian country, saying, “maybe in 100 years we can call the adhan here.”Footnote 53

Maintaining silence has effects beyond straightforward defense, however, and can range into the realm of agency or even constitute a modality of resistance.Footnote 54 Not broadcasting the adhan, for example, may act as a signaling device within the Muslim community, indicating that a given mosque is apolitical and that it seeks to practice Islam outside of the limelight and in line with Republican values. In this manner, public silence shapes political positionality actively and is not merely an impotent response to external forces. It likewise represents a withdrawal from full participation in what is perceived as a political process characterized by asymmetrical and disadvantageous power relations.Footnote 55 While the salience of silence as a signaling mechanism is difficult to assess scientifically in France, given the limited number of mosques that have attempted to broadcast the prayer call, Bernard Godard, Islam specialist and retired officer of the French Renseignements Généraux,Footnote 56 gives an illuminating counterexample. Godard explained that some mosques and prayer halls in suburban, Muslim-majority neighborhoods of Marseille call the adhan with impunity as a means of showcasing both their Islamic credentials and their lack of concern about repercussions from civil authorities.Footnote 57 It stands to reason that the absence of the broadcast adhan may be read as symbolic performance of ideology as well. Whether understood as purely defensive or as a mode of strategic resistance, the agentive limits of silence come to the fore in that this particular mode of public engagement does not seem to allow French Muslims to influence the texture of common sense.Footnote 58

Even when it is not broadcast externally via loudspeaker, as in France, the adhan itself is still performed inside mosque walls. According to my Muslim interlocutors in Puy, the call to prayer constitutes a communal obligation for the congregation, meaning that if one member performs the adhan on behalf of the community, then the obligation to God is considered fulfilled. Failure to perform the adhan without a valid excuse constitutes a sin from a doctrinal perspective.Footnote 59 As such, it represents an essential element of faith; the adhan is not optional. With this in mind, the Puy mosque’s choice not to request formal permission, and to revert to calling the adhan within mosque walls, suggests both a certain compromise of formal ritual, and further strategic benefits of silence. By attempting to negotiate the public broadcast of the adhan without involving city officials, the Muslim Association of Puy avoided being formally rejected. This goes beyond questions of ego or status to gesture toward the domain of agency: by not pursuing a formal petition, the mosque maintained control over when it might make use of the loudspeaker without formally breaking the law.Footnote 60 It also retains control of the signification of the adhan, which risks morphing or evolving in directions that the Muslims of Puy disagree with if interpreted within a juridical domain or exposed to public debate.Footnote 61 Choosing silence strategically allows for flexibility and case-by-case decision-making.Footnote 62

Silence represents another, perhaps less familiar, strategy by which Muslims negotiate belonging in France, alongside unveiling (Fadil 2011), the assiduous separation of culture and religion (Jouili 2019), the drawing of symbolic boundaries around Muslim religiosity (Beaman 2016), and informal negotiations of everyday life (Dessing et al. 2016; Selby et al. 2018). Adopting public silence strategically demands an intimate grasp of sensory norms structuring public engagement. Understanding how common sense qua judgement based on shared sensory perception operates across these tactics of belonging and identity would help illuminate choices and courses of action available to minority groups.

Scholars have pointed out the postcolonial state’s concern with defining Islam in such a way as to render it subservient to the State; as long as the adhan remains silent, and thus outside of national debate, it “belongs” to the communities who perform it, precisely in ways that Church bells have ceased to do.Footnote 63 Its public silence, then, performs two simultaneous functions—preventing State co optation and control of the adhan’s religious significance, however defined, and enacting a public adherence to Republican norms while simultaneously maintaining external, extra- and trans-national, influences in private.Footnote 64 The “gap” in State regulation of the adhan is somewhat ironic, given that the French state has at different times gone out of its way to privilege Islam in order to surveille it and maintain control over its propagation.Footnote 65 Attending to common sense as a political actant helps explain this irony, even as it uncovers naturalized hegemonic norms that structure citizenship and deepens understandings of French republicanism.

The choice not to call the adhan in public has further political implications. Widespread disapproval of the adhan among non-Muslim French lends political leverage to mosque officials in various ways. Specifically, the issue of the public broadcast of the adhan becomes a bargaining chip in early-stage mosque-municipal negotiations over construction permissions, in which Muslim leaders extract concessions in exchange for guaranteeing the future mosque’s silence. Slimane Nadour, the Director of Communications at the Grand Mosque of Paris, hinted at this latent power to play on the French majority’s fears when he said, “we have a minaret that is 33 meters tall. If we wanted to, we could blast the adhan all the way to Notre Dame.”Footnote 66 He quickly added that the decision not to call the prayer via loudspeaker represents an unspoken “modus vivendi” for Muslims in France, and that mosque leaders had no intention of taking this action. Thus, silence acts as a public performance of Republican values. Milton Viorst, covering Islam in France in 1994, wrote that in the lead-up to the construction of the “Cathedral Mosque” in Lyon, “construction began only after a decade of legal wrangling, during which Lyon’s Muslims agreed to shorten the minaret and suppress the muezzin’s traditional call to prayer five times daily.”Footnote 67 More recently, in connection with planning for the new Eyyub Sultan Grande Mosquée de Strasbourg (which ceremonially laid a foundation stone to mark the start of construction on October 15, 2017), the issue of the call to prayer came up after city hall opened the project to public scrutiny and gave residents the opportunity to provide feedback directly to the mayor. In response to concerns, city officials requested a clause guaranteeing that the adhan would be limited to the interior of the mosque.Footnote 68 Once written into contracts with the city, any future decision the mosque congregation makes about broadcasting the adhan is contractually constrained, turning the call to prayer into something that would have to be negotiated in court, rather than an expression of religious belief protected by Article 27 of the 1905 law.


The foregoing sections have centered on religious sound in public space as an inroad to analyzing sense-based collective judgements, grounded in the perception of the urban surround, that feed mainstream ideas of what it means to be French. Examining common sense understandings of “appropriate” sounds in public space within a framework of laïcité reveals several things about the politics of Muslim belonging in France, even as it attunes us to ways in which common sense operates to alter legal frameworks intended to ensure equal rights. First, while the nation observes the 1905 law that protects religious sound (under the aegis of bell ringing), municipalities retain control over the regulation of sound in their territory, such that the law may accommodate local preference. Public opinion in France, however, remains staunchly opposed to the open-air broadcast of the Islamic call to prayer on grounds that include noise concerns, the principled defense of secular space, xenophobia, tradition, and other subjective factors. The technocratic regulation of the adhan as “noise” under loudspeaker laws, coupled with public opposition (or at best indifference), creates a scenario in which municipal power brokers thwart the intention of the national principle protecting the expression of religious conviction, as well as the mandate to treat recognized religions equally under the law. Common sense understandings of tranquilité mute political debate on issues related to citizenship and belonging of French Muslims and equal rights to public space, transforming these into local-level, “trivial” questions of noise pollution.

Second, we see the French Muslim decision to refrain from broadcasting the adhan as a strategic move that protects their community from negative attention. It also acts to retain control over the significance of the adhan itself, sheltering it from alternative interpretations and associations. Further, preserving the adhan as a sound heard exclusively inside the private space of the mosque enables it to continue to enact most (though not all) of its functions, organizing temporality and spirituality, and physically positioning Mecca as the symbolic heart of the Muslim polity, even as French Muslims perform Republican norms in public.

Third, majority opposition to the sound imbues it with political weight, allowing Muslim leaders to leverage the promise of future silence as a bargaining chip in negotiations with the city. Godard considers that the public broadcast of the adhan would be even more incendiary than the veil or burka in French popular opinion, because veiling is a personal choice with individual consequences, whereas the calling of the adhan represents a communal, collective act.Footnote 69 The broadcast of the adhan from French mosques would be considered highly provocative, he said, adding “if a conglomeration of mosques got together to ask for permission then France might have a serious problem on her hands.Footnote 70 Godard suggested scholars should understand French Muslim voluntary suppression of the public adhan as an example of the community’s concessions toward living in Europe. Yet French Muslim approaches to the issue of the adhan reveal strategies predicated on an understanding that their community is excluded. On this issue, French Muslims are not operating as full citizens with equal claims, but rather retrenching and protecting themselves.

Finally, mainstream French conceptions of “silence,” it is revealed, incorporate ringing church bells. Put differently, many Catholics and secular French have stopped hearing Church bells; or, if they do hear them, mechanically-speaking, the bells no longer contain sufficient semiotic significance to draw attention to themselves. This common sense understanding of silence enables a cognitive dissonance with political ramifications. It makes it possible for advocates of bells to claim rights under the 1905 law, even as it allows people opposed to noise pollution to claim the right to “tranquilité.” This cognitive frame, in which bells are not considered an interruption of silence, enables broad coalitions of the political Right and Christian conservatives, as well as the atheist, secular Left, thereby affectively unifying non-Muslim French in opposition to the adhan. Thus, embodied knowledges inherent in common sense constitutes shared ground that may help explain the sometimes odd political alliances that have formed in recent years. These common sense understandings are triggered when political actors cite bodily, visceral events in political debates, relying on these to generate affective “shortcuts” that reference mainstream norms for their listening audience. In contrast, this normalized silence does not allow space for Islamic sound. When the adhan is characterized as religious, it is excluded from public space on the grounds of the same 1905 laïc formulation that protects the state from religion yet allows religious expression which does not interrupt tranquilité. Alternately, the adhan is categorized simply as “noise,” at which point it may be prevented on the basis of local environmental and loudspeaker laws. Both formulations do violence to the full participation of French Muslims in society.

Common sense understandings of silence transforms laïcité into an empty signifier that may be harnessed in the service of opposing political platforms, even as it erodes distinctions between culture and religion.Footnote 71 In the context of local politics surrounding the adhan throughout much of France, laïcité is evoked not in service of a secular project—freedom from religion in public space (in which case it would censor all religious sound including bells)—but as a means of protecting the traditional auditory fabric of Frenchness delimited by municipalities. Thus, this case study demonstrates how culturally entrained listening practices and habitual engagement with the sounded public environment alters the meaning of pacts and laws that constitute foundational principles of state projects. It situates embodied knowledge and common sense as critical, agentive, forces in contemporary political debates.