Rachel Brown on Food, Religious Identity, and the Appeal of Muslim Extremists

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to hear PhD candidate Rachel Brown speak about her research on food and religious identity in French and Quebecois Muslim immigrant communities. I found Brown’s talk fascinating and contacted her soon afterwards; I wanted to find out if her work was publicly available so I could write about it here on the blog. While Brown has written a chapter on her work for an academic publication it hasn’t been published quite yet. Lucky for me, Brown was willing to share a draft with me. Throughout this interview I will be referring to, and occasionally quoting, that draft in order to give you context for the questions I ask Brown.

According to Brown, her “primary research interest lies in the study of immigrant religious experience and how members of immigrant communities negotiate their religious identities through food and food practices in their host countries.” In order to write on this topic, Brown conducted fieldwork and semi-structured interviews in both Paris, France and Montreal, Quebec.

This was the most French gif I could find.

Kat: Hi Rachel, thanks again for being willing to share your research with me and our readers. Before I dive into the questions I have from reading your draft, can I ask, what drew you to this area of study?

Brown: I came to the project out of a love of all things food and all things France. On one of my many visits, I noticed that how and what the Muslim community in France ate was a point of interest for media, politics, and everyday conversation on the street between friends and neighbours. There was clearly a subject to be addressed. I figured if I was going to be in the field for a year I might as well be somewhere I love and studying something I am passionate about, and so I set out to study the topic of food and religion. As I got further and further into the topic I realized just how essential food practice is to identity, especially religious identity and my research has grown exponentially ever since. The importance of food in religious identity negotiation for immigrants can be seen across a variety of locations and traditions.

Kat: I’m also curious about the technical side of things. Did you intentionally limit your case studies to individuals from the Maghreb? If yes, then why? Also, how did you go about arranging these interviews, or even making these connections in the first place?

Brown: I definitely limited my study to individuals from the Maghreb. I did this because the largest Muslim community in both France and Quebec comes from the countries of the Maghreb. This is not only because of proximity, of the Maghreb to France, but also because of a colonial history between France and the countries of the Maghreb. When one thinks of Muslims in France, this is most often the community that comes to mind.

In terms of arranging the interviews, this was a tough process. I started by going to the Grand Mosque of Paris and just getting to know people there. I had to build up trust, and spent many hours just helping out at the mosque in order to show that I was not a journalist (a profession folks are very hesitant of in France) and that I meant well with my research. After people got to know me, some started to agree to do personal interviews with me. Once I conducted the first interviews the people I interviewed then put me in contact with friends or family members to interview. So I followed a snowball methodology. It was not easy to get people to talk to me, but because my topic is such an approachable one (who doesn’t want to talk about food?), it made it a little bit easier to get people to agree to interviews. Having the personal connection, and a validation from friends or family members that had already done the interview was also key.

The Grand Mosque of Paris

Kat: In your introduction, you point out how immigrants must make decisions about “what parts of his/her identity are fluid and which parts will remain fixed” after they settle in a different country. Since your interviewees generally identified as Muslim, religion is a major aspect of the identity that they negotiate. However, in your work, you focus specifically on the way consumption habits help establish identity. Why/how is food so important in this process of establishing identity in a new cultural context?

Brown: Food is essential to identity formation because food has a double function of solidarity and separation. By eating, or not eating, the same things we show that we are in line with others who eat, or do not eat those things; we are in solidarity with them. After all, the Latin word for companion means “bread sharer.” On the other hand, food creates boundaries; it separates “us” from “them.” It is in relation to an “other” where identity comes into question. Where would these processes be more evident than in a new cultural context where one is all of a sudden living in the middle of people and traditions that are completely “other”? In these circumstances, figuring out where one stands is essential, much more essential than it would have been in a context where everyone acts, and eats, in the way one is used to.

IMG_0522 (1)

Brown has kindly provided photos of some of the tantalizing food she helped cook and eat while conducting her research.

Kat: You mention in your draft that, for many of your interviewees, calling yourself Muslim and saying you were from the Maghreb essentially meant the same thing. For example, “Julia” told you that, “we are born Algerian therefore we are systematically Muslim even if we do not want it” (Julia, interview by Rachel Brown, Paris, France, September 17, 2012).

Within the Muslim communities where you were conducting these interviews did you find that food came to take on a deeper meaning when it symbolized both cultural and religious difference?

Brown: The difference between religious and cultural food practices was essential for my respondents and influenced how they acted and how they ate.

For example, if someone labelled a practice as a cultural food practice, instead of a religious one, it was much more open to change. The person was not as strict about keeping the practice. Whereas, if someone labelled a food practice as religious, it was much more resistant to change. The respondent would be hesitant to stop this practice and would stress the importance of continuing this practice in the host land. If one saw a practice as both culture AND religious it was probably the most important practice to keep. Not only to respect one’s religious convictions, but also to maintain connection to the homeland.


Kat: The individuals you interviewed all seem to negotiate their religious identity in different ways. You used Salman Akhtar’s typology from Immigration and Acculturation to create rough categories for how your interviewees carved out their immigrants identities. I’ve used quotes from your chapter to briefly outline each of your four categories for our readers.

  1. Ethnocentric Identity: “This encapsulates those people who emphasize their ethnic/religious identity in their immigrant location, often more so than they did ‘au Bled’ (in the homeland).”
  2. Hyperassimilated identity: “Adapting one’s identity and practice in the host location”
  3. Alienated identity: “This identity was often placed on second and third generation Maghrebine Muslims, who could not really claim French identity because of being ‘‘othered’’ by non-Muslim French, and yet at the same time could not really claim Maghrebine identity because of being ‘‘othered’’ by Maghrebines in the Maghreb.”
  4. Bicultural identity: “They embrace beliefs and practices of both home and host country.”

Which category did the majority of your interviewees tend to identify with?

Brown: This is a tough one to answer. It’s hard to break down into numbers exactly where my respondents lie in this typology. In France, I would say that many of my respondents fell into the “Bicultural Identity” category, which I label in my own research, the “transnational” identity. These respondents are trying to negotiate a two-sided identity, which is particularly difficult to do in France, where the French national identity is seen as the most important identity to hold.

Kat: You argued that individuals with a Bicultural Identity are often able to do what you refer to as “bounded creativity”. You quote Mohammed El-Bachouti when you describe an individual with bounded creativity as being “truly free to choose their actions, but they select one action versus another to mitigate conflict in the host country.” Can you give us a few examples of what that looked like for the individuals you interviewed?

Brown: For example, I had a respondent who would go for drinks with his colleagues after work in order to not reveal his difference. He didn’t want to be viewed as the person who didn’t drink, as separate from the group, and so he engaged in a practice that was not exactly in line with his ideals in order to avoid conflict. I also had another respondent who would eat pork when it was offered to her, in order to not cause offence to the person who was offering. She did not like pork, but she ate it in order to avoid perceived conflict.


Kat: In your chapter you mainly address your time in Paris, but in your talk you also discussed your time in Quebec. From what I remember of your talk, you said that you encountered more individuals who felt Alienated in Paris and more individuals who felt Bicultural in Quebec. Why do you think that is?

Brown: My dissertation explores the differences and similarities between the situation in France and the situation in Quebec for Muslim immigrants. While in both locations, the desire is often to claim a bicultural or transnational identity, in Quebec this identity is easier to claim than in France. In my dissertation I argue that the different approaches to nationalism in France and Quebec are the cause of this distinction.

Basically, to summarize, the French approach to nationalism is an exclusive approach. One is French and French only, all other identities should be kept private. In Canada on the other hand, because “everyone is an immigrant,” it is one’s origins and different backgrounds that make one quintessentially Canadian. By feeling free to fully express and engage both sides of one’s transnational identity in Montreal/Canada, my Montreal respondents felt more Canadian, or had a greater desire to “be Canadian.” In France, the opposite was true. They felt as though they could not possibly claim “French” identity, no matter how much they tried to change their everyday practices to be in line with “French” identity. By insisting on sameness, the French approach to nationalism actually leads to differentiation and communautarism. While by insisting on differentiation, the Canadian approach to nationalism leads to unity, national pride and identification.

Kat: When you sent me your chapter you also sent me an article you and a colleague wrote for The Star concerning the Charlie Hebdou attacks. In this piece you say that-

“Many of these youth [who commit acts of violence] feel increasingly alienated from French society as well as the ethnic and cultural heritage of their parents. They are nowhere at home. The only identity that they feel they can have an unnegotiated connection with is their religious one. If they cannot be a French or Algerian Muslim, they will simply be Muslim.”

This makes sense to me within the very anti-religious environment of France, but even Montreal has lost young Muslim Canadians to ISIS. Do you think these young people were recruited more easily because of similar feelings of alienation? Or do you think they may have left for different reasons?

Brown: I’m not really an expert in ISIS or Jihadist fighters or any of the topics that relate to this. I can say that when people, especially youth, feel alienated, when they don’t feel at home anywhere, this can lead to finding identity in extreme forms of religion. If the religious identity is the only identity that one feels they can claim, he/she is going to place a huge amount of importance on that identity.

Kat: During your talk, which you gave at our church, you mentioned that your faith affected your ability to connect with your interviewees. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Brown: Basically the fact that I was a Christian gave me what I like to call “spiritual street cred” in the community. In Islam, Judaism and Christianity are seen as sister traditions to Islam. I was seen as a sister of faith because I am a Christian. I think this was particularly effective in a context such as France where people do not profess their religious identities openly. The fact that I did made me approachable, made me similar to my respondents and therefore they tended to be more open to talking with me.

2012-05-04 14.07.28

Kat: In cultures like ours, that have basically taken a little bit of everything from everyone (with both food and religion), do you think that Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s statement – “tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are,” – has become less relevant?

Brown: Not at all! Actually I think it still holds completely true in a culture such as ours. Canada is a multicultural nation so it makes sense that our food culture is multicultural at its base. The fact that I eat all kinds of different food from all kinds of different cultures is exactly what makes me Canadian.

Kat: Are there any other major points about your research that I missed asking you about? Anything you would like to add?

Brown: I think one of the most important aspects of my work is simply showing people what simple everyday life practices look like for people and communities that are often stereotyped or seen as too “other” to understand. The fact is that, everyone eats, and if we can get a look at our neighbours everyday practices perhaps we can begin to see some of the similarities we have rather than the differences. Plus, what better way to get to know someone than to sit down and eat with them.

Kat: If our readers were interested in finding more information on this topic, where would you suggest they start? (i.e. books, scholars, etc)

Brown: Unfortunately there isn’t a lot of work done on religion and food, yet. This is beginning to change, but it is still a new field. That being said, a work like E.N. Anderson’s Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture (2005) or David Freidenreich’s Foreigners and their food: constructing otherness in Jewish, Christian and Islamic Law (2011) are helpful and interesting sources. Another book I love that explores the everyday food practices of lots of different immigrant groups is Lynne Christy Anderson’s Breaking Bread: Recipes and Stories from Immigrant Kitchens (2010).

Kat: Thanks so much for being willing to share with us! Your work is both compelling and relevant.

If you are reading this interview and wondering where you can find more information on this topic, then keep your eyes open for Everyday Life Practices of Muslims in Europe, edited by Erkan Toguslu (Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2015). Rachel Brown’s chapter in this book is titled “‘Tell me What you Eat and I’ll Tell you What you Are.’ The Literal Consumption of Identity for North African Muslims in Paris, France.”

One response to “Rachel Brown on Food, Religious Identity, and the Appeal of Muslim Extremists

  1. Pingback: 2015’s Cultural Battleground – Kat’s Account | Culture War Reporters

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