ODVV interview: The French government inflames...
France is home to a sizeable Muslim population that is rapidly growing in number. The state does not collect religious or ethnic census data in accordance with an 1872 legislation, so it’s difficult to ascertain how many Muslims of different nationalities and racial backgrounds live in France. However, it’s estimated that there are 6 million Muslims in France, half of whom are born or naturalized French citizens. Muslims of Algerian descent make up the largest subgroup. With the global refugee crisis looming large, the number of France’s Muslims is expected to rise.
In 2012, the Interior Ministry estimated that there are around 2,500 mosques in France. Notwithstanding, a 2016 report by the Senate put the figure at approximately 3,000. France’s strict edition of state secularism and the 1905 law that stipulates the separation of church and state prevents the government from offering funding for the construction of mosques. Moreover, the government mandates that religion and religious practices should be kept private without interfering with social life. Even though the French government runs programs to counter violent extremism and radicalization and encourages the integration and assimilation of Muslims, and while the constitution notes that all citizens are equal regardless of their background and belongings, French Muslims face serious societal challenges and endure discrimination on different levels.
A recent study shows that French Muslim jobseekers “are less likely to get a callback for an interview than their Christian counterparts.” According to Prof. Marie-Anne Valfort of Pantheon-Sorbonne University, religious Muslims “must submit twice as many applications as religious Christians before being called back by the recruiters.”
Discrimination against Muslims in France exists in many other realms, too. A case in point is the French government’s ban on the full-face Islamic veils in public places, which was introduced on 11 April 2011. Data from 2015 show that 1,546 fines of each €150 had been imposed under the law for the women appearing in public with face veils. Earlier in 2004, the government instituted a ban on Muslim headscarves and other “conspicuous” religious symbols at state schools. In 2015, a 15-year-old Muslim girl in the north-eastern town of Charleville-Mezieres was banned from class twice for wearing a long black skirt, deemed by the school authorities as too religious for a secular institution.
Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has arranged an interview with Dr. Amina Easat-Daas, the Project Officer of the Counter-Islamophobia Kit at the University of Leeds to discuss the rise of Islamophobia in France and the French government’s response to anti-Muslim discrimination. The transcript has been edited for clarity.
Q: About six million Muslims live in France. Are the majority of French people concerned about the rise of the population of Muslims in this country? Is this mentality that Muslims jeopardize the French lifestyle dominant in the society?
A: Firstly, since faith-based statistics are not recorded in France, the figure of six million is an estimate based on ethnic community sizes and the presumption that those who have immigrated to France, and their descendants, are in fact practicing Muslims. This ambiguity that rises from not monitoring faith statistics in France, rooted in secular principles or laïcité, leaves room for uncertainty.
In addition, a key Islamophobic narrative centres on the notion that Muslims intend to “take over”, both physical in terms of population sizes, and also culturally through the spread of Islamic culture. This argument is seen often in mass media in France and globally. Therefore, the ambiguity surrounding estimates of any faith community in France also opens up the potential for over-estimation of Muslim population sizes and in turn subsequently may allow for the fuelling of Islamophobic arguments that posit a Muslim takeover of France.
Furthermore, the promotion of the idea that there is a rapidly growing Muslim population as seen in French popular culture undeniably influences the normative French perception of Muslims in the nation. This then adds to the perception that Muslims in France seek to disrupt the status quo and instil Islamic culture as the norm in the country. The problem with this idea is multiple; not only is there no such plan to threaten or diminish the French way of life, additionally such ideas reduce French Muslims to a monolithic and flat community. It neglects the complexity of the French Muslim community.
Q: France is a secular country where the constitution is predicated on the separation of state and religion. On this basis, the French media openly criticize and even ridicule the divine religions. Are the French Muslims entitled to expect the society to respect their beliefs and religious sanctities?
A: The default position, as one might expect, is that all citizens of the republic expect the constitutional values of secularism. The enactment and normative practices surrounding secularism or laïcité in France are the source of issues between the French Muslim population and the French state.
First introduced in 1905 and formally known as the “law concerning the separation of church and state”, laïcité was inspired by French enlightenment philosophy. Laïcité sought to lessen the powers of the Catholic Church in France and bring about greater equality for French citizens regardless of their beliefs. At its inception, it focussed heavily on the neutrality of the state and as such there is no recognition or funding of any faith group in the country. This understanding of secularism in France is typically referred to as “ideological laïcité”.
Nonetheless, there is a recognized shift in the nature of French laïcité. Secularism in France is now more properly described as “combative laïcité”. This shift sees a more dogmatically enforced privatization of religion in the country – including, and perhaps especially for Muslims. In her review of the way in which laïcité is implemented by the French state, Laachir states that the primary objective of secularism in France today is to “contain, control and regulate Islam in the public sphere”. The headscarf ban in schools presents an obvious example of the application of “combative laïcité” and the ways that this has led to the specific regulation of public expression of Islam, and in particular, Muslim women. This has led to specific legislation that infringes Muslim women’s rights rather than having their religious rights respected by the state.
Q: Have the measures by the French government to counter extremism, terrorism and radicalization been successful? What do you make of the role of the Muslim community leaders in fighting these phenomena?
A: Since 2016, de-radicalization centres have been put in place throughout France. These centres operate programs that seek to de-radicalize individuals who have been identified as showing signs of radicalization. This is in addition to Macron’s pledge to counter terrorism as a principal foreign policy objective.
Prior to this, between January 2015 and October 2016, the government ran a “Stop-Djidisme” [Stop Jihadism] campaign, which included citizen reporting platforms and education of citizen responses to major terror incidents. The short-lived program was subject to criticism of potentially furthering radicalization. Notwithstanding, the project also exacerbated national Islamophobic narratives that centralize Muslims and create a climate of suspicion between all members of French societies, rather than creating a safe space and valorizing Muslims.
At the state level, perhaps more should be done to better understand the causes of radicalization rather than further othering of French Muslims. Muslim communities too have a role to play in combatting radicalization. The task is too significant for any one institution or community to effectively combat alone.
Q: How have the living conditions of Muslims in France changed as compared to 2015 when the Charlie Hebdo attacks took place? Do Muslims and other groups of people interact with each other peacefully or are their relations still influenced by misunderstandings and contradictions?
A: It would be erroneous to pinpoint the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks as a specific turning point in the French Muslim experience; rather, there is a documented generalized and steady increase in Islamophobia throughout the nation. This generalized increase in racism and hostility towards Muslims in the country naturally shapes the relationship between French Muslims and the wider population. Instead, relations between French Muslims and the wider community are shaped by Islamophobic narratives that frame the Muslim community as a source of threat – demographic threat, cultural threat, violent threat and as a threat to gender equality. These misconceptions influence the lives of Muslims in France, be it in education where the Loi Stasi prohibits young Muslim school girls from attending school whilst wearing the headscarf or be it in employment whereby Muslim women face often strict limitations on their outward appearance. So, 2015 and the Charlie Hebdo attacks and their aftermath perhaps only exacerbated hostility towards Islam and Muslims in the country.
Most significantly, whilst the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo Parisian offices were abhorrent and cannot under any circumstance be justified, the national response following the attacks was also problematic. Although many Muslim community leaders came forward to denounce the attacks and distance them from Islam and Muslims, this fell on deaf ears, rather one had to wholeheartedly agree with the national statement “Je suis Charlie” in spite of the often inflammatory position – in terms of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or anti-black racism – held by the publication.
Q: Does being Muslim contradict being French? Have the French Muslims been able to successfully merge their religious identity and their national identity and become an inseparable part of the social fabric?
A: Absolutely not – hybrid and multifaceted identities are very much normal part of everyday lives for most individuals. In France, however, given the normalization of its assimilationist position, one must conform to a fairly homogenous and monolithic model of acceptable “Frenchness”. This restrictive model of Frenchness impacts minorities across the board, including ethnic minorities, socio-economically disadvantaged and religious minorities. Under the limited understanding of the French identity one must entirely accept the tenants of French secularism and surrounding normative debates.
Regarding Muslims in France, the uniform model of accepted identity and the growing climate of Islamophobia often means that Muslims find limited space to express their hybrid French and Muslim identities and that this is arguably more keenly experienced by Muslims in France rather than amongst other marginalized minorities.
Q: Is Islamophobia being considered a threat to solidarity and national unity in France? Is the government determined to combat Islamophobia as one of the many forms of racism and discrimination?
A: Although groups such as the Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France [The Collective against Islamophobia in France] have worked tirelessly, and continue to do so, in the fight against anti-Muslim racism in the nation, little official governmental work has been undertaken in this area. Instead, it is not unusual for French political officials and elected representatives to become involved in and promote Islamophobic narrative. For example, most recently at the end of February 2019, commercial chain Decathlon sought to launch its sports hijab, aimed at Muslim women who wear the headscarf and wish to partake in sports. This business endeavour was met with intense scrutiny by politicians. The sale of the sports headscarf was very quickly criticized by the wider French public, including politicians. For example, French health minister Agnès Buzyn stated "it's a vision of women that I don't share. I would prefer if a French brand did not promote the headscarf”, thus placing the practice of wearing the headscarf as external to ideas of nationhood. Therefore, rather than actively and effectively combatting Islamophobia and other forms of racism in France, the government contributes to and inflames Islamophobic tensions in the nation, which in turn may send a message of the acceptability of anti-Muslim racism, discrimination and hate crimes.
Q: What’s the threat posed to France by the ultra-right groups such as Marine Le Pen’s National Rally or the anti-immigrant AFO group that are opposed to the immigration of Muslims to Europe and claim the Muslims are integration-resistant? In June 2018, the French police charged 10 members of AFO with planning to carry out terrorist attacks on the French soil. Are the people and the government sufficiently prepared to counter the threat from these parties?
A: On the one hand far-right groups indeed represent a threat to any civilized nation. The far-right inspired terror attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand where over fifty Muslim worshippers were killed are a clear and heinous manifestation of this as being a global threat, not just one that is restricted to France. However, as with the rest of the world, attacks carried out by presumed Muslims receive a disproportionate amount of media and political attention. This intense scrutiny and focus, such as that with followed the Bataclan attacks in November 2015 or the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, perpetuates the oversimplified notion that all Muslims in the country represent a source of violent threat, whilst failing to adequately recognize the growing terror threat caused by far-right and populist rhetoric.
In order to effectively challenge this growing threat, there must be a coherent understanding of the nature of far-right anti-immigration and Islamophobic narratives, in particular their causes, drivers and nature. This understanding will subsequently allow for an understanding of how far-right terror may manifest and thus governments will be able to more effectively respond to threat. In addition, in France and beyond, the conception of terror must go beyond one that is solely attributed to Muslims and instead the framing of terror and its perpetrators must more accurately include the subtleties and complexities of the phenomenon.
Q: Are the French Muslims viewed as second-rate citizens with limited civil rights and freedoms compared to the non-Muslim majority? Do you think there is systematic discrimination against the Muslims or do the discriminatory behaviors and incidents happen rarely?
A: On paper French Muslim citizens are entitled to the same rights and freedoms as any other French citizen, after all the national motto emphasizes egalitarianism as a central concept. Nonetheless, closer examination of French legislation and their practice highlights potential inequalities in the nation. In particular the controls imposed on Muslim women’s dress, via both the 2004 Loi Stasi, which limits the wearing of “ostentatious faith symbols”, which predominantly affects only young Muslim schoolgirls who wear the headscarf, and also the “Loi Anti-Niqab” implemented since 2010 removes the right of women to wear the veil should they wish to do so. Both aforementioned legal projects curtail the rights of French Muslim women in the name of protecting secularism.
Q: What’s the most reliable solution to counter Islamophobia in France? How is it possible to change this narrative that Islamophobia is merely a shield for Islam that protects it against criticism and revision?
A: The Counter-Islamophobia Kit project as funded by the European Commission and led by the University of Leeds, worked to address effectively challenging dominant Islamophobic narratives across Europe; notwithstanding, the research findings are arguably valid beyond the European context. The project examined the best practices in countering islamophobia in eight countries; France, Germany, the UK, Belgium, Hungary, Czech Republic, Portugal and Greece. Across the board we identified common tools that may be applied to effectively challenge Islamophobic narratives, without entering a cycle of reproduction of Islamophobic tropes.
These included the use of arts and media to challenge distorted representations of Muslims, normalizing the Muslim presence, challenging assumptions of Muslim sexism and the alleged threat posed by Muslims, highlighting Muslim conviviality with the wider society, challenging institutional Islamophobia and building inclusive futures which include Muslims. Nonetheless, these strategies rely on the effective defining of Islamophobia, and the acceptance of its existence, and documentation of Islamophobia in order to effectively deconstruct specific elements of Islamophobic narratives and in turn reconstruct more realistic narratives in their place. In sum, the work requires collaboration and commitment by multiple stakeholders across levels of society.
By: Kourosh Ziabari