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Liberty, equality, fraternity does not apply to France's Muslim population

The country's fixation with othering Muslims will inevitably detract from its rich cultural diversity
A French protester holds a march against Islamophobia two weeks after an attack against a mosque in Bayonne in November 2019 (Reuters)

On 16 October, French teacher Samuel Paty was decapitated outside his secondary school in a Paris suburb while on his way home. The attacker, 18-year old Abdullakh Anzorov, a Russian-born refugee of Chechen descent, was allegedly enraged by the teacher’s sharing of Charlie Hebdo's controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad with his class a week and a half before the attack. 

The satirical magazine prides itself on its non-conformist position and often publishes controversial, some would say bigoted, material. For example, the portrayal of the black former French Justice Minister Christiane Taubira as an ape and the well-publicised inflammatory cartoon images of the Prophet - both apparently in jest. When such actions are criticised, the perpetrators often remind us that those who are not francophone simply wouldn’t understand. 

Nonetheless, in spite of the cartoons' controversial nature, Paty opted to show them to his students to illustrate the concept of liberty. A parent from the school criticised Paty’s choice as Islamophobic, and following this dispute, which was amplified online, Paty’s life was brutally taken.  

Populist gains

Unsurprisingly, the attack has provoked debate both nationally and globally surrounding freedom of speech and the place of Muslimness, namely the presence of Muslims, alongside the existence of Muslim sites and customs, in French society and the West more broadly.

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Freedom of speech is allegedly under threat due to the Muslim presence in France, a position that conveniently sidelines the need for sensitivity and mutual understanding among citizens to ensure effective liberties for all. But this of course would need to be predicated by the acknowledgement of French Muslims as equal citizens. 

Darmanin’s demonisation of Muslim associations in France is riddled with incoherences and hypocrisies, has he forgotten the 1901 French law guaranteeing the freedom of association for all in France?

On Muslimness, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin took to Twitter on 19 October to call for the dissolution of Muslim-led and Muslim-centred anti-racist organisations, such as BarakaCity and the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF).

Darmanin went as far as describing these organisations as "enemies of the Republic". Darmanin’s comments are not isolated, rather they are part of a broader French political discourse, bordering on obsession, with Muslimness in France and its presumed alterity, incompatibility and backwardness.

While there has been a strong global call to support these organisations, arguably the damage is already done given the wide-scale public demonisation of these organisations and their work. Furthermore, these narratives, in spite of their origins in the left-wing liberal tradition, create fertile ground for populist gains in France, evidenced by the ever-growing success of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. 

Darmanin’s demonisation of Muslim associations in France is riddled with incoherence and hypocrisy; has he forgotten the 1901 French law guaranteeing the freedom of association for all in France?

Defining laicite

In a speech on 2 October and prior to Paty's murder, French President Emmanuel Macron spoke out to condemn alleged Islamic separatism in the country in which he drew on the French conception of laicite or secularism.

Thousands of people hold a march against islamophobia two weeks after an attack against a mosque in Bayonne and a rise in anti-Islam scaremongering in the French political class. The banner carried by the protesters reads 'Islamophobia kills'. (Reuters)
Thousands of people hold a march against Islamophobia in Paris. The banner reads Islamophobia kills on 10 November, 2019 (Reuters)

In spite of laicite’s philosophical egalitarian basis under which it was intended that there should be a separation of church and state, it is widely accepted that today, laicite in France is no longer about secularism and neutrality, rather it is a normative mode for the exclusion and targeting of Muslimness in France and has been this way for some time. 

It is widely accepted that laïcité in France today is no longer about secularism and neutrality, rather it a normative mode for the exclusion and targeting of Muslimness in France

This Islamophobic positioning through the lens of laicite demonstrated by the French executive is mirrored in the legislature and judiciary.

The evocation of laicite to control Muslimness in France is clearly demonstrated in legislative measures, such as the 2010 law against the covering of one’s face, popularly dubbed the "Loi anti-niqab" (anti-niqab law), and the 2004 "Loi Stasi" (Stasi law) that saw French Muslim schoolgirls prohibited from wearing a headscarf in schools, measures implemented in spite of the relatively low numbers of women who would be impacted.

Arguably these measures are less about secularism and more about controlling Muslimness, creating a public and political narrative, backed by legal frameworks, which seek to create a normative myth of Muslims’ - and especially Muslim women’s - otherness in France. This political signalling sadly often marks Muslims and particularly Muslim women out as legitimate targets.

A Muslim 'brain drain'

As is always the case whenever such attacks occur, Muslims worldwide came forward to condemn the attacks. Notwithstanding, as is often seen, the events provoked further attacks against Muslims in the country. For example, two visibly Muslim women wearing headscarves were attacked and stabbed by two French women at the foot of the Eiffel Tower in Paris last week.

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The attackers shouted at the Muslim women, calling them "dirty Arabs" and telling them that "this [France] was not their home", before forcibly removing the Muslim women’s headscarves.

This type of attack is not unusual in France. In 2019 the CCIF received 789 reports of Islamophobic attacks, a 77 percent increase from two years prior. Although such statistics are shocking, as with all hate crime statistics, these figures represent just the tip of the iceberg and, due to multiple factors, such as reporting bias, we will never truly know the depth and scale of Islamophobic attacks. 

Furthermore, international commentators noted that this specific attack on the two Muslim women received very little media coverage at a time when many French media outlets were fixated on Islam. 

Juxtaposed with this situation, there have been growing reports of French Muslims now leaving the country, with France now experiencing a Muslim "brain drain". Those who can flee France appear to be doing so, while stating "I love my country, but I’m not going to spend the rest of my life apologising for being Muslim. I go where I am respected." 

This represents the reality that, in the midst of a global pandemic which has seen many in France lose their lives due to Covid-19, there is still an unhealthy obsession with Muslimness in the country.

Furthermore, this fixation will ultimately impoverish and disadvantage France, and permanently deprive it of its rich cultural diversity.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Amina Easat-Daas is a Lecturer in Politics at De Montfort University, Leicester. She specializes in Muslim political participation and Gendered Islamophobia
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