Civic Dilemmas Glossary

Our readings about religion and immigration contain terms that may not be familiar to all students. Use this glossary to brush up on the definitions.


antisemitism: A certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews. Antisemitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity, and it is often used to blame Jews for why things go wrong. It is expressed in speech, writing, visual forms and action and employs sinister stereotypes and negative character traits.

assimilation: A process through which immigrants accept the national culture of the host country and give up their former national identity.

babouches: Traditional Moroccan slippers.

banlieues: Suburbs on the outskirts of large cities in France where, in many cases, the majority of the population are North African immigrants. Many areas in these neighborhoods are marked by poverty, very high unemployment rates, black markets, and crime.

Beurs: The name second-generation immigrants of Arab descent gave themselves. Beur is the inversion of the sounds and syllables in Arabe (“Arab” in French)—an example of the French slang called Verlan (see separate entry). The word Beurs has a positive connotation, while the term Arabe is often derogatory.

burqa: An Arabic word describing a full-body veil. It covers the entire face and body, and the woman who wears it sees through a mesh screen that covers her eyes. It is most commonly worn in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Under the Taliban regime in Afghanistan (1996–2001), its use was mandated by law.

chador: A Persian word describing a full-length shawl held at the neck by hand or pin. It covers the head and the body but leaves the face visible. Chadors are most often black and are common in Iran, where, since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, they have been mandatory for all women.

community cohesion: A shared sense of belonging and purpose among members of a group who come from different backgrounds.

compulsory education: Education required by law for all students under a specific age. The Jules Ferry Laws of 1881–1882 and 1886 made primary education compulsory for boys and girls in France. These laws also banished religion as a subject and priests and nuns as teachers from classrooms in public schools.

diaspora: A term that originates from the Greek word meaning “dispersion,” diaspora refers to the community of people that migrated from their homeland. For example, the Jews who live outside of Israel are often called the “Jewish diaspora.”

djellaba: A Moroccan Arabic word for a traditional garment that is worn widely in many Arab regions. It has loose, long sleeves and a long skirt that can be worn by either sex.

egalité: French word meaning “equality.” This principle became part of the motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” that represented the new French Republic during the French Revolution (1789–1799).

emancipation: The granting of civic and political rights to groups or individuals (hence “liberating” them). The modern use of the term is associated with granting civic rights to religious minorities, such as the Catholics and, especially, the Jews in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Europe.

Enlightenment (also known as the Age of Reason): An eighteenth-century European intellectual movement that influenced many democratic movements. Among its tenets are the ideas that reason, science, and education can lead humanity to freedom and material progress; that since all humans are endowed with reason, they are capable of self-government; and that since many religious claims aren’t based on reason or science, they are largely false.

fatwa: An Arabic word for a legal decree or declaration made by a Muslim religious leader.

fraternité: French for “brotherhood.” The term, which emphasizes the solidarity and connection between all French citizens, was attributed to the French Revolution (1789–1799) in the nineteenth century. It became part of the revolutionary three-part motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité.”

French Revolution (1789–1799): During this political and social upheaval, the “Third Estate” (the common people) overturned the French monarchy and established a revolutionary government based on the principles of popular sovereignty. France’s revolutionary government took over vast properties owned by the church, the aristocracy, and the nobility and distributed them among the peasantry. With “liberty, equality, and fraternity” as its slogan, the French Revolution became an inspirational model for future democratic revolutions.

fundamentalism: Strict adherence to the literal words of an ancient text that is believed to be true (the Bible or the Quran, for example). While some fundamentalists seek to impose the principles and laws found in such texts on everybody (and sometimes even resort to violence), most fundamentalists live peacefully among their neighbors and respect the separation of state and church.

Genocide: A term coined by Raphael Lemkin to describe mass crimes directed against national, religious, or ethnic groups. To qualify as genocide, Lemkin argued, these crimes must be “directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of the national group.”

globalization: The increasing flow of people, ideas, commodities, languages, and traditions throughout the world. Modern transportation, migration, e-business, multinational companies, and trade agreements, as well as the use of the Internet and cell phones, speeds up this process and contributes to a “global culture,” which some fear threatens the diversity of human cultures.

guest worker: A category of workers who enter a country legally in order to work and are expected to leave after their visas expire. Following World War II, France recruited hundreds of thousands of guest workers from former colonies in North Africa to aid in its booming economy. Many of them stayed and made France their home.

Hadith: Reports by eyewitnesses, experts, and companions of the prophet Muhammad. Originally part of an oral tradition, these reports help different Islamic schools interpret the words, intentions, and actions of the founder of Islam.

hijab: Originating from the Arabic word for “curtain,” it is a veil worn by many Muslim women in observance of their faith. Hijab is a means of preserving one’s modesty, as well as a display of cultural affiliation and religious devotion. The hijab is one name for a variety of similar headscarves that cover the head and neck, and often the hair and forehead.

inalienable rights: Originating from the Enlightenment movement, this phrase refers to rights to which all humans are entitled—rights that cannot be taken away from them under any circumstances. These rights are defined, for example, in the American Declaration of Independence of 1776 (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”) and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen of 1789 (“liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression”).

interfaith: A term that describes actions, events, or organizations that bring together persons of different religious faiths and affiliations.

Islamist: Often described as fundamentalists, Islamists preach that Islam is not only a religion, but also a social and political system that governs most aspects of life. The majority of Islamists attempt to replace secular governance in a peaceful manner, but a small minority of them resorts to extreme measures, including violence and even terrorism.

kippah: Literally meaning “dome” or “mountaintop,” kippah is the Hebrew word for a Jewish skullcap often worn by many Orthodox and other Jewish men as a sign of devotion and respect for God.

laïcité: French for “secularity.” The term comes from the word lay or laity, which refers to Christians who did not belong to religious orders or to the clergy. Secularism is used to describe governments that maintain a separation of church and state. Countries such as France, which upholds this separation, ask believers to practice their religion for the most part in private. While generally the term refers to the neutrality of the state toward religious groups, some in France interpret it as the Republic’s official culture.

les affaires du foulard (“veil affairs” in French): A series of public debates about the right of Muslim girls to wear the Islamic veil to school in France. The first “veil affair” occurred in 1989. In 2003, Islamic veils (and other big religious symbols) were banned in public schools.

liberté: French for “liberty.” This term became part of the motto (“liberty, equality, brotherhood”) representing the new French Republic during the French Revolution (1789–1799).

Maghreb: A region of North Africa where three former French colonies are located—Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Maghrebian immigrants and their sons and daughters form a growing minority in France. In some urban centers, they make up the majority of the current population. These immigrants speak various dialects of the Arabic language and Kabyle, the language of the Berber or Kabyle people.

mezuzah: A small, ornamental case containing scriptural text on parchment, found on doorposts to traditional Jewish homes; a mezuzah serves to remind Jews of their religious commitment.

Montgomery bus boycott: Led by Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1956, this year-long boycott of public transportation in Montgomery, Alabama, gained national attention for the civil rights movement. The Montgomery Bus Boycott protested the segregation of public transit systems in the United States.

multiculturalism: An ideology and social policy that assumes that a society can have multiple cultural identities. In such a society, citizens maintain their group identity alongside their national identity. As an integration policy, multiculturalism attempts to create a two-way dialogue between the communities of newcomers (or minorities) and the rest of the population. In contrast, assimilation means that newcomers give up their minority’s identity and are expected to blend in.

nationalism: A political ideology that emphasizes national culture or interests above those of minorities and other sub-national groups.

nation-states: A term describing most modern states, where members of a single (and, ideally, homogenous) nation inhabit a defined geographic area or a country. The creation of nation-states began in the nineteenth century, and this process of nation-building required the creation of national communication, transportation, and educational systems and the marginalization of regional cultural differences.

nativist: One who believes that the interests of native-born citizens should be favored over those of immigrants.

niqab: A niqab covers the entire body, head, and face; however, an opening is left for the eyes. The two main types of niqab are the half-niqab that consists of a headscarf and facial veil that leaves the eyes and part of the forehead visible, and the full, or Gulf, niqab that leaves only a narrow slit for the eyes. These veils are popular across the Muslim world, though they are most common in the Gulf states. Some politicians have argued for banning the niqab; some feel that it interferes with communication or creates security concerns.

parallel societies: A community in which members of different backgrounds lack a shared sense of group identity and thus live separately, side by side.

Pasqua Law: Named after the French interior minister Charles Pasqua, this set of laws was enacted in 1993 in an effort to stem the immigration flow into France.

pluralism: The term refers to the belief that diversity is an asset to a society. See also: multiculturalism.

popular sovereignty: The belief that the people of a state should freely choose their state’s government and that no government can rule against the will of the people. The French Republic following the French Revolution of 1789 was founded on the principle of popular sovereignty.

Quran: The holy book of the Islamic faith.

radicalism: A political orientation that favors extreme changes to society, sometimes by resorting to violence.

Ramadan: An Arabic word for the ninth month of the lunar calendar. During an entire month, observant Muslims pray, atone for their sins, perform acts of charity, fast from sunrise to sunset, and celebrate the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. The month ends with Eid ul-Fitr—a three-day holiday that breaks the fasting period.

secularity: See laïcité.

sharia: An Islamic term, literally “the path to the watering place,” which implies the expression of Allah’s command for Muslim society. Generally thought of as a legal code based on the Qur’an, the term today can refer to both religious laws and religiously inspired ethics.

stigmatization: Negatively labeling a person or a group based solely on assumptions and stereotypes. Stigmatization is the result of prejudices, fears, or other negative feelings toward this person or group (for example, assuming that a Muslim headscarf signifies that the wearer believes in fundamentalism or radicalism).

Sufi: One who practices Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition. Sufis believe that by letting go of all notions of identity and individuality, one can realize divine unity.

transcultural/transnational identity: “Transcultural” is a term that refers to how people act as members of different cultural or national communities. “Transcultural identity” is a source of individual identity that draws from across national boundaries and cultural, religious, linguistic, and ethnic backgrounds.

Verlan: The inversion of sounds and syllables in a word to create a new word. The word Beur as a substitute for the word Arab is an example. The word verlan itself was created by inverting the two syllables in the French word envers, which means “backward.” It is a form of slang very typical of the banlieues.

Volk: The term Volk (pronounced “folk”) literally means “people.” Volk implies that citizenship in the national community is inseparable from blood relations. Volk includes language, custom, history, and mythology shared by all German people. In the 1930s and 1940s, the term was used to justify the persecution of the Jews, who were deemed a threat to the purity of the German nation. Some proposed the word Bevölkerung, which means “population,” to signify the diversity of German citizens.

Westernization: The process of adopting or imposing customs originating from North American and Western European countries.

xenophobia: Fear and hatred of foreigners or immigrants. It comes from the Greek words xenos, meaning “foreigner” or “stranger,” and phobos, meaning “fear.”

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