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French society in crisis: Islamophobia, terrorism, and the popular vote

At this turbulent juncture in history, it seems clear that the last five years in France’s history will be known for being some of the most violent experienced in the west since 9/11 took place, almost two decades ago.

The rate and nature in which terror attacks happen in France is seemingly unprecedented in Europe. There has been a large spate of incidents in the country since 2015 and these attacks have taken on an increasingly sinister and organised tone, simultaneously caused by, and resulting in wider French urban society becoming increasingly fractured. Long gone are the days of urban France à la Haine; the classic 90s film that brought the societal ills of the French banlieue (suburb) to the world stage. The vision of France that this film perpetuated seems rose-tinted in comparison to today’s tragedies and schisms. Yet concurrently, that same romantic vision of a broken society seems to have mutated exponentially into a very certain and ever-present reality.

2020: culmination of catastrophe

It has now been over five years since the fatal attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly newspaper. This attack was not the first, nor the last reprisal on the paper for its publication of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, that it first published in 2006. The editor of Charlie Hebdo, Stéphane Charbonnier, who was tragically assassinated in the 2015 attack was quite intent on waging a war against religion, despite previous attempts on his and his colleagues’ lives. Following a 2011 firebomb attack on the Hebdo offices he said:

 “We have to carry on until Islam has been rendered as banal as Catholicism.”

 In an interview in Le Monde in 2012 Charbonnier, or Charbo, his cartoonist moniker, said:

“I am not afraid of reprisals, I have no children, no wife, no car, no debt. It might sound a bit pompous, but I’d prefer to die on my feet than to live on my knees.”

 A chilling remnant of his memory, Charbonnier’s bellicose rhetoric lived on as the repeated reprinting of the cartoons met with yet more reprisals, including a stabbing on 25 September 2020, in which two people were injured outside the former Hebdo offices.

 Within the month of October, France took another deadly turn, with three attacks out of a total of nine that have already taken place in the hexagon so far this year. On 16 October Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher, was brutally murdered and decapitated by Chechen teenager, Abdoullakh Anzorov in the streets of Conflans-Saint-Honorine, a suburb of Paris. The teenager was said to have been in contact with a Russian speaking fighter in Syria just weeks before making the brutal attack. Anzorov is said to have travelled over 60 kms in an attempt to find Mr Paty, who was at the centre of a local parent community row over the use of Charlie Hebdo cartoons as learning material for lessons on freedom of expression. Other sources say Anzarov had opened a Twitter account in June 2020 and his posts showed signs of his final rapid and lethal road to radicalisation.

Just as the nation started to grieve the Paty tragedy, yet more violence unfurled. On 20 October two Muslim women wearing headscarves were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower. Their attackers, two women, called them “dirty Arabs” and told them: “This is not your home.” Despite the evident racism that motivated these attacks, they are not being treated very seriously, with the lawyer of the defendants warning the public against, “blowing the story out of proportion.”

In Nice on 29 October, three worshippers were stabbed and killed in the Basilica Notre Dame de Nice, by 21-year-old Tunisian man, Brahim Aouissaoui. Only two days later, France and the world recoiled again as Nikolas Kakavelakis, a Greek Orthodox priest was shot at twice while closing a church on the afternoon of 31 October. A suspect was arrested the same day but was released the following day as there was insufficient evidence connecting him to the incident. Father Kakavelakis is now said to be out of surgery and “doing well.”  Investigations into the incident as an act of terrorism were dropped the following day and the suspect has now admitted attacking the priest over a  personal dispute.

Religious freedoms in a strictly secular state?

Following the two successive church shootings, France’s President Emmanuel Macron said French people could,

“count on the nation to allow them to practice their religion in full safety and freedom”.

But at this point, nothing seems further from the truth in France. From the two subsequent attacks on places of worship, to the attacks on Muslim women, to the feelings of the French religious communities and those supporting them around the world; France feels like a place that is far from safe for people of faith.

The principle of secularism is a central tenet of French public policy, particularly in the milieu of public education. Historically, secularism, or laïcité as it its known in France, was established to counter the immense power of the Catholic Church and to free the State and its public services, particularly education, from the interference of the church. It is a concept that is deeply rooted in the history of the French Revolution, and its internationally revered beacons of modernity, universal rights, and freedom – liberté, égalité, fraternité. But how far can individual liberty really be respected by a state, if one does not have freedom to express religious belief within that state?

Religious divisions have historically been rife in French society, but the law requiring separation of church and state officially came into existence in 1905, and public schools were considered the grounds on which secularity had to be strictly adhered. This notion is fiercely protected in France today with a former senior national education official in France Jean-Pierre Obin saying recently that public schools played a leading role in:

“the cultural assimilation and political integration” of immigrant children who,

“were turned into good little French”

“Today, public schools can’t fully do this,” Mr. Obin said. “But I don’t see another model — especially the Anglo-Saxon model of multiculturalism, which I don’t think is more successful.”

 French colonial policy marches on: assimilation

 Obin’s sentiments, despite being made in 2020, strongly echo the French colonial policy of assimilation. In the 19th and 20th century when the French Empire was at its peak, assimilation was the preferred policy of the administration. It was used in the colonies of Asia and Africa as a tool for repression of cultural customs, religions and culture, and was a useful tool for convincing colonial subjects that the French culture, language and way of life was one that they should aspire to. At that time, the policy was not only used in the colonies, but also domestically in France when debates around assimilation came from anti-Semitic thinkers, who questioned the integration of the Jewish community in France.

When examining the question of assimilation by those in its colonies, France took a typical approach to other European colonisers, but the policy of assimilation was one that took precedence. The 1840 journey of Alex de Tocqueville to study Algerian tribes concluded that Muslim tribes of North Africa were the ‘least assimilable’:

“Muslim tribes, portrayed as deeply religious as well as polygamous, nomadic, and unwilling to work, were described as being the farthest from the national standard, and hence the least “assimilable”

Echoes of this narrative are still very much evident today in various ways, from the strong persistence of the French language above local languages, amongst numerous other examples of colonial boot prints that remain. Of course, with post-colonialism comes the modern question of immigration and the 1st 2nd and 3rd generations of France’s former subjects, who now live in the metropole. Assimilation is still a strict, if now more implicit, requirement of ‘Frenchness’. So, how can the children of immigrants from former colonies feel integrated if they are required to assimilate to the point of erasing their culture of origin?

This question has now become urgent as France has made moves to increase its adherence to its rigid policy of secularity in the last decade. One of the pivotal moves in recent history included the banning of religious symbols in the public realm in 2004, which included French schools, and the workplace for public servants. Countless cases of students being forced to remove religious symbols in schools ensued. But the most obvious religious symbol that this policy impacted is the hijab or Islamic headscarf worn by Muslim girls and women. Known colloquially as “L’Affaire du voile” (the scarf affair), the debate was initially stirred in 1989, when three schoolgirls were suspended for refusing to remove their hijabs.

The final implementation of the French law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols was introduced in schools in 2004. The law itself did not specify particular religious symbols, and prohibited items would include headscarves for Muslim girls, yarmulkes for Jewish boys and turbans for Sikh boys. However, in 2011 a new law came into effect banning face veils in all public spaces. A law that only affects Muslim women that wear the niqab (face covering that only shows the eyes), bringing the debate around religious identification squarely back to Muslim women.  The face veil or niqab is now banned from any public activity, including merely walking down the street.

French politicians in favour of the ban said they were acting to protect the “gender equality” and “dignity” of women.

 Contrary to the supposed aims of the ban, it has only intensified an increase in physical violence on women in veils and increased their marginalisation.  The lack of ability for a woman to even set foot outside of her front door for exercising her choice to wear a veil has caused Muslim women to become even further isolated. This along with the physical isolation caused by living in the banlieues signalled the death knell for a unified French society.

Rim-Sarah Alouane, an academic of religious freedom at the University of Toulouse, told  French media   that French secularism is increasingly being weaponised to silence Muslim voices – and not only the radical ones.

“Politicians, pundits and commentators are using laïcité to remove any visibility [of religious minorities from the public sphere], and at the moment it is being used against Muslims,” Alouane said.

In essence, the very law that sought to force assimilation of some kind has had the exact opposite effect. Stopping individuals from expressing religious freedoms, particularly groups that are already racialised and socio-economically marginalised, further embeds those notions of living on the margins, due to lack of acceptance in the public realm. In an effort to promote gender equality, French authorities are paradoxically creating greater gender inequality, weakening the agency of women, notably Muslims, that are already ‘Othered’ and perceived as ‘weak’ or ‘oppressed’. If the choice to wear a scarf is individual, and France’s constitution addresses the rights of the individual, then the taking away of that choice merely creates, not only isolated communities, but seriously depletes individual agency. In a country that is made up of 5.7 million Muslims, making Islam the second most widely practiced religion in the country, French efforts to promote genuine equality need to do better.

Islamophobia: International Muslim communities call for its recognition

The response from the Islamic world to this and other policies, was one that reverberated with the loss of agency that France’s radical secularism has brought about. Growing and normalised anti-Muslim sentiment is a harsh reality that Muslims face in the West and worldwide. In the UK, Islamophobic incidents rose 375% after Prime Minister Boris Johnson compared Muslim women to ‘letterboxes’. In a world of populist leaders that whip up such sentiments with impunity, how can the average person in the street be expected to recognise Islamophobia in this haze of publicly authorised racism, yet alone combat it?

Statistics show that there is a huge discrepancy between how Muslims feel they are treated in the West and how non-Muslims feel that Muslims are accepted. In 2018 alone, France saw an increase of 52 percent of Islamophobic incidents; in Austria there was a rise of approximately 74 percent. According to a February 2020 report in the New York Times, forty-four percent of Germans see, “a fundamental contradiction between Islam and German culture and values.” The figure for the same in Finland is a noteworthy 62 percent, with 53 percent in Italy. There are numerous examples of anti-Muslim legislation in Europe, from the UK’s counter-terrorism policies like Prevent that disproportionately target Muslims, to France’s “burqa ban”.  Another demonstration of the acceptance of this fact between Muslims and non-Muslims was represented in a 2009 Swiss law that imposed a national ban on minarets in 2009, a decision that was accepted by almost 60% of voters. A Gallup poll showed that 68% of Swiss people did not feel this was in any way discriminatory.

‘Despite a very public debate on the banning of a religious symbol of Islam, much of the Swiss population did not believe that the Swiss Muslim community should feel discriminated against.’

It is this reluctance for many to even accept the existence of Islamophobia, evidenced by lack of willingness to investigate islamophobia, for example in the UK’s ruling Conservative party, Trump’s Muslim ban, the normalisation of Islamophobic rhetoric in public fora, and the rapid increase of actual physical violence, again most notably towards Muslim women due to their public visibility, is a very hard pill to swallow for the Muslim world.

Macron plays at right-wing populism: free speech, but not for all

Macron has seemingly played into the same narrative on several occasions this year. In a speech on 2 October, Macron claimed that “Islam is in crisis” and unveiled new measures to combat radical Islamism on French soil. France has been subject to an unprecedented number of attacks – 267 people  have died in terror attacks since 2012 – Macron’s urgent need to address this is, of course essential and understandable. But as one of the key leaders of the free world, and at a time of the heightened emotions reflective of a period following tragedy, his response should be measured, and not one that feeds into populist narratives, further polarising a nation in deep divide.

In addition to causing further societal divide, the right-wing populist narrative is not always as secular as Macron and others would have us believe. Should Macron venture any further down this road, he will be in the company of others such as his opponent Marine Le Pen and Dutch politician Gert Wilders who are quick to,

“resort to language that presents “Judeo-Christianity” as the pillar of western European civilisation.”

This crusader-like rhetoric ties in directly with the ‘clash of civilizations’ narrative, but following this line is in in direct opposition to France’s laws separating church and state. And what role does this play in the right to free expression in France?

 Freedom of expression is a highly regarded tenet of French constitution and it is essential that it is upheld. But the French administration should ensure that they are not being reactionary in their application of this fundamental right.  An urge to respond with an iron fist could now easily diminish the freedoms that French people so enjoy. New laws that will reduce academic freedoms and others that include the outlawing of filming police, a real bone of contention following the death of Adama Traoré in police custody in 2016. This and other new laws demonstrate a path on which freedom of expression is crushed at worst, and at best starts becoming selective or self-serving. Writer Keenan Malik says,

“For all its claimed attachment to free speech, France has tough laws against speech deemed unacceptable.”

In an op-ed for Open Democracy Paola Pietrandrea succinctly summed up the importance of freedom in times of political and social crisis:

“French people should have the right to remain united, to understand, to stay sharp, do everything possible not to fall into the trap set by terrorists who have only one objective: to divide them.”

 “It is up to politics to lead the effort of collective elaboration of the mourning, to ensure the unity of the country. But that’s not what is happening. Politics instead tries to silence any attempt at reflection tying itself in knots to point the finger at the culprit, or, better yet, the culprits.”

 Several debates around freedom of expression have played out in the wake of the crisis. An article by Mehreen Khan of the Financial Times, in which she stated that Macron’s desire to, “use the state to prescribe a ‘correct’ religion”, she wrote, has “more in common with authoritarian Muslim leaders than enlightenment values of separating church and state”. Khan’s article was taken down by the FT following a letter of response from Macron himself entitled, ‘Letter: France is against ‘Islamist separatism’ — never Islam’, in which Macron claimed that Khan had misquoted him. But as suggested by Keenan Malik,

“Newspapers do sometimes excise articles…But they should do so only in truly exceptional circumstances, and then give a full account as to why. The removal of offending articles after criticism is, however, becoming a more acceptable part of our culture.”

Macron continues to fumble through crises, emphatically calling for freedom of speech, yet contradicting himself, seemingly unwittingly. This surely cannot be some kind of Trumpian ignorance on his part?

Apparently not, he does have has the political prowess to assess the appropriate narrative to not stir division in times of crisis.  In contrast to his rhetoric in French and European media, his tone in front of Arab media was well thought out and considerably warmer,

“I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights,” Macron said.

Election time again

So, what is behind Macron’s sharp turn towards populism? His 2 October speech signified an effort to appease his right-leaning electorate and his ever further right leaning cabinet. He only has next year to improve his approval ratings, that currently stand at a mere 41%, level pegging his popularity with far-right candidates such as Marine Le Pen.  As the political pattern often goes, it seems the spectre of elections and domestic ambitions have forced his hand.

“Secularism is the cement of a united France,” he said, calling radical Islam both an “ideology” and a “project” that sought to indoctrinate children, undermine France’s values — especially gender equality — and create a “counter-society” that sometimes laid the groundwork for Islamist terrorism.”

Despite proffering a hitlist of right-wing buzzwords that the Nigel Farage’s of the world would be proud of, his speech also hit a few correct notes. His most truthful and astute conclusion was to outline the responsibility that France itself bears for this “counter-society” that it built and is now eating it up from the inside out.

“We built our own separatism ourselves,” he said. In reference to the ‘banlieues’ and the widespread ghettoization across France’s urban areas.

“We have concentrated populations often according to their origin, their social backgrounds,” he added.

“We have concentrated educational and economic difficulties in certain neighbourhoods of the Republic. “

Signalling a firm nod to the direction in which Macron’s previously more centrist policies are moving, Macron’s right-wing Prime Minister Jean Castex lashed out in a not so subtle dig at previous “complacency” over the “ideological battle” against radical Islamism.

“I want to denounce here all the compromises that have been made for too many years, the justifications for radical Islamism: ‘We should flagellate ourselves, regret colonisation’,” Castex told TF1 television. “The first way to win a war is for the nation to come together, be united, proud of our origins, of our identity, of our Republic, of our freedom. We must win this ideological battle,”

Macron has not outwardly been a main proponent of the ‘clash of the civilizations’ war-like narrative that is often used by the far right, and somewhat ironically, by terrorist groups such as ISIS, to suggest the incompatibility of Islam with the West. However, it seems clear that now his political gains and a desperate power grab have helped him change his mind.

International condemnation and boycott campaigns worldwide.

The response from the Islamic world to Macron’s narrative has been varied with the majority denouncing his remarks. The responses have also, to a large degree, played directly into ongoing geopolitical battles. Condemnation ensued in countries including Jordan, Pakistan, Egypt, and Iran for the publication of the caricatures depicting Prophet Mohammed. Cairo’s Al-Azhar University, the most influential for Islamic scholarship in the Sunni Muslim world, described Macron’s statements as racist and called on the international community to criminalise anti-Muslim actions.

Numerous calls to boycott French products followed in protest after Macron’s defence cartoons were made from Muslim majority states and their leaders including Kuwait, Turkey, Qatar, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) denounced the,

“suggestions of certain French leaders…that risk submerging French-Muslim relations.”

In addition to being a criticism of Macron’s response to the recent terrorism crisis in France, the comeback from world leaders has fed into further polarisation, or in some cases have used this crisis to advance their own political goals. President Erdogan vociferously called for a complete boycott of French products and questioned Macron’s mental health.

Speaking on the reactions to his comments from many in the Islamic world Macron said,

“I think that the reactions came as a result of lies and distortions of my words because people understood that I supported these cartoons,”

However, if Macron took a more cognate look at the world around him, he may have better understood the incensed response. The protests and boycott movement were not just about the cartoons, they were about the response of an international Muslim community, that have been increasingly de-platformed, marginalised, physically attacked and whose accusations of Islamophobia have often been ignored, disparaged or ridiculed over the last 20 years. In the case of France in particular, international protest is also a response to a country that has reduced the agency of Muslims so drastically, that it is causing multiple serious internal socio-political crises.

The prospects of a unified society and countering violent extremism in France and the world?

First and foremost, Macron and all global leaders of his ilk, must stop purporting narratives that play into the hands of extremists. The notion of a ‘clash of civilizations’ is false and unhelpful. It feeds into tropes of colonialism, racism, and nationalism, in many cases is very far from a secular, liberal ideology. Moreover, it is these types of divisions that extremists, of all kinds, thrive on.

Secondly, if Muslims in France are to assimilate to and to understand secularity, then the French must also understand the importance of religious symbols to Muslims. Why is it considered impossible by so many in France, and all across Europe, to live in a country and adhere to its laws, but at the same time maintain one’s religious, cultural or racial identity? The two should not be mutually exclusive. It is possible to be a practicing religious person in a secular society, as long as the practicing of one’s religion is not oppressed. This is of course, not exclusive to Muslims, and only in a fair exchange of ideas and understanding can real liberty be achieved in liberal democratic societies. For having things all one person’s way or another, does not a peaceful society make.

As the great writer James Baldwin said,

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

Thirdly, there must be international recognition, and moreover recognition in the Western world in which Muslims are the minority, of the existence of growing and pervasive anti-Muslim hatred and biases. These include everything from the prejudiced dinner party chatter, to the actual government being called out for its own biases and prejudices, to the demand that every Muslim be somehow responsible for the actions of a deranged few. All of these demonstrations of inherent stereotyping and bias must have awareness and greater tolerance built around them. November is Islamophobia awareness month in the UK, a month in which its founders aim to do exactly that; create awareness, but that should be only the first step.

Finally, let the lesson be learned that real integration in society not only lies in tolerance, but in a genuine desire to understand another’s thoughts and ideas, even if these are contrary to your own. Everyone can and has the right to exist within a wider set of shared values, but can still be authentically themselves, with differing views, cultures, and beliefs. A truly modern and liberal society should be aiming towards this as the ultimate goal to create genuinely harmonious multicultural societies.

“The High Representative stresses that insulting religions and sacred religious symbols provokes hatred and violent extremism leading to polarization and fragmentation of the society. He calls for mutual respect of all religions and beliefs and for fostering a culture of fraternity and peace.” H.E. Mr. Miguel Ángel Moratinos, High Representative for the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in response to the recent attacks in France.

But as the world moves closer and closer to an all-encompassing illiberal, nationalist, and populist narrative, and political views seem to be hurtling backwards towards 20th century fascism, the pluralist dream seems a long way away. The world can only hope that the recent change of President in the world’s leading superpower allows us to move away from extremism in all forms, and towards a legitimately more united global future.


Featured image caption: ‘Français et musulmans, fiers de nos deux identités’ (French and Muslim, proud of both our identities).

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