The French Prevent: A weapon of mass denunciation
On 23 February the French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe unveiled 60 measures aimed at "preventing radicalisations in the fight against terrorism".
According the plan, "Prisons, schools, universities and public agencies are at the forefront of this all-out strategy - a genuine spider web of surveillance measures - as are the Internet and social networks."
The path of righteousness
The measures aim "to identify, report, and deal with the warning signs of a break with republican principles", said the prime minister's statement. Consequently, anyone considered to be "undergoing radicalisation" will be duly entrusted to the care of a group of psychologists, researchers, psychiatrists and republican imams to escort those radicalised individuals to the path of righteousness.
When violent measures are deliberately taken to exclude an entire portion of the population from the public arena, in the name of secular values, it is absolutely normal and justifiable to see resistance emerge
The French measures are openly based on Prevent, Britain's anti-radicalisation programme, despite the well-known abuses of the policy. In place in various forms for over a decade, Prevent is not only counterproductive, and criticised by the UN for promoting extremism, it is a cover for human rights violations that sanction an atmosphere of widespread Islamophobic paranoia.
Though certain failures - such as the police interrogation of a four-year-old suspect - may be laughable, or tragic, depending how you look at it, the former president of Britain's National Union of Students (NUS), Malia Bouattia, says Prevent initiatives include "excessive public security measures, anti-Muslim racial profiling, and the criminalisation of civil protest".
There is no reason why the consequences of a similar prevention campaign in France would be any different than those of its counterpart implemented across the Channel.
Though the plan seems to ignore the social and political levers of "radicalisation" (levers to which ideologies are ultimately tied), it is nevertheless being implemented within a political and social framework.
Its "radicalisation" criteria are directly borrowed, for that matter, from those established by the Constitutional Council when it banned the full face veil in France. In other words, any person who departs from "the minimum requirements of living together in society", according to the state's definition, will be targeted.
Such a vague catch-all definition has even forced dailies like Le Monde, which can hardly be ascribed with Islamist-leftist leanings, to comment that "it is a far cry from terrorist fantasies".
Yet this approach is consistent with the global response to "radicalisation" phenomena.
Arun Kundnani, author of The Muslims Are Coming, remarked that "since 9/11, the focus has been exclusively placed on the individual, as if the key to it all [radicalisation] lay in individual ideological indoctrination detached from the wider societal and political context", such as the endless wars against countries with Muslim majorities, or the widespread Islamophobia in the West.
Any disagreement with the official narrative is stigmatised, and its critics are accused of being "radical" or "at risk of radicalisation". "This is the essence of 'counter-radicalistion' strategies like the British government's Prevent programme," says lawyer and campaigner Brian Richardson.
The vague assessment of "radicalisation", centred on individual ideological divergences, indicates that the French government's plan will continue to pursue policies condemning an entire population, with the help of the usual media henchmen.
Any disagreement with the official narrative is stigmatised, and its critics are accused of being "radical" or "at risk of radicalisation"
Indeed, from the former prime minister Manuel Valls to the vilest of columnists, like Eric Zemmour, by way of philosophers Elizabeth Badinter and Alain Finkielkraut, there is a whole coterie of intellectuals roaming around the French political-media landscape spitting venom on Muslims and, in particular, Muslim women.
This sickening reality of Islamophobia, which has had years to settle snugly within government agencies and media outlets, is now being used to launch a genuine witch-hunt targeting any individual, association or political group daring to diverge from the official policy line: France is secular and republican, racism and discrimination are not a problem in France.
But secularism, no more than the republic, is not some everlasting value floating high above French society and history; it is first and foremost a societal relationship. When cohersive measures are deliberately deployed to exclude an entire portion of the population from the public arena, in the name of secular values, it is absolutely normal and justifiable to see resistance emerge.
Former prime minister of France, Manuel Valls, spent so much time putting together arms deals with the Egyptian dictatorship that he ended up adopting the rhetoric of the regime - accusing his current opponents of colluding with the Muslim Brotherhood.
An MP of the left-wing France Insoumise party, Clementine Autain, and even Benoit Hamon, the unfortunate Socialist presidential candidate, have recently had this accusation hurled at them.
The organisers of the Afro-feminist collective, Mwasi, found themselves inadvertently targeted for having dared to organise a festival with a majority of activities reserved exclusively for black women; an inspiring venue for sharing republican values therefore saw far-right conspiracy theory websites, the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, (LICRA) and the mayor of Paris in agreement on the intolerable excesses of such an event.
Ditto for Lallab, a feminist organisation that aims "to fight prejudices against Muslim women", which was also accused of having ties to the Muslim Brotherhood.
Then there is the current minister of education, Eric Blanquer, who took legal action against the Sud Education 93 union, not only for having organised a non-mixed workshop but for formulating the utterly blasphemous words of "government racism".
Rokhaya Diallo, Mennel Ibtissem, Houria Bouteldja… The list of victims sacrificed by the media in the name of republican values is as long as a month of Sundays, and it will no doubt get longer with the implementation of the government's new "de-radicalisation" plan.
In an article published on the Huffington Post, the leaders of the American Jewish Committee, Simone Rodan-Benzaquen and Anne-Sophie Sebban, called for the plan to be used to silence the "useful idiots of extremist ideologies", from "the communitarian to the self-proclaimed victims".
These, according to the authors, include the Indigenous People of the Republic (PIR), the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), and the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), respectively an anticolonial political party, an NGO supporting victims of Islamophobia, and a federation promoting Islam adapted to the European context.
Though the authors claim they are concerned about the upholding of "republican values", it is not the first time their organisation has attempted trampling the rights of freedom of expression. Indeed, the pro-Israeli lobby has gone so far as to accuse American Jews critical of Zionism of anti-Semitic collusion.
Schools, the new battleground
It should be mentioned in the current context that the prevention plan includes the surveillance of schoolchildren and students. The media hype is, therefore, likely to spread and to create an oppressive atmosphere in schools in France. Indeed, the prevention plan includes combating "conspiracy theories", these latter apparently being all the rage among Muslim youths.
Giving the government carte blanche to determine political "truths" from "falsehoods" is an Orwellian abuse that should be condemned by any person or organisation genuinely concerned with the preservation of basic democratic principles.
But to resist this all-out attack on freedom of speech and thought, the evil it claims to be fighting needs to be identified. It is true that in the aftermath of the 2015 attacks, especially, a tiny minority of Muslim youths - but not only Muslim youths – did express doubts regarding the official version of the facts, buying into various conspiracy theories.
However contrary to the systematic peddling of conspiracy theories in the fascist media sphere, deriving from hate-promoting and even genocidal fantasies aimed at minorities across the board (Jews, Muslims, LGBTs, blacks, etc), the "conspiracy theory" involving a tiny minority of Muslim youths, like Mennel Ibtissem, is above all a naïve response, the confused and flawed expression of an impression - that is perfectly understandable - that the government and mainstream media are not only hiding the truth, they are using the attacks to stigmatise all Muslims.
'Them' against 'Us'
The all-out attack announced by the French plan to prevent radicalisation will only reinforce such trends, fuelling, with all the certainty of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the feeling of "them" against "us" that terrorist ideologies feed on.
So teachers and public servants, slated to become police officers under the new plan, must work to preserve and to bolster freedom of expression and speech in schools and public places, to prove that Muslims, and especially Muslim women, facing government and media persecution, are not alone, and that it is indeed possible to fight racist attacks by solidarity between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Above all, we must avoid the errors of 2004, when young Muslim women found themselves virtually alone in the face of the government’s attack on their right to choose the way they dress.
The political left and trade unions, which have a strong presence in French schools and universities, would do well to look to their colleagues from across the Channel who are endeavouring to work side by side (despite open ideological differences) with a number of Muslim organisations in order to fight the ravages of Prevent policies.
It is possible to combat racism and authoritarianism - and consequently, the excesses of radicalisation - and to simultaneously offer an alternative to the "pyromaniac firefighter" policy of the French government, by respecting the right to self-organisation of oppressed populations, without diluting real political and ideological differences.
- Jad Bouharoun is a Lebanese writer and a socialist activist.
Opinions expressed in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.
Photo: French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe unveils his “National Plan for the Prevention of Radicalization” with members of his government in Lille, 23 February (AFP)
This column originally appeared in the MEE French edition and was translated by Heather Allen.