“Fear must change sides”: the French government targets Muslims

By Mike Phipps

The murder last month of a schoolteacher by an Islamic fundamentalist, followed by an attack at a church in Nice which left three dead, appears to have set France on a collision course with much of the Muslim world.

In response to the brutal murder of Samuel Paty, a teacher who showed Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of Mohammed to a civics class in the western Paris suburbs as part of a lesson on toleration, French President Macron made a speech in which he said, “We will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away.”

Turkish President Erdogan denounced Macron’s speech as a provocation and called him “mentally unwell”.

Struggling in the opinion polls, with the Turkish economy floundering, it’s unsurprising that Erdogan seeks to shore up his political base with this kind of rhetoric. Similarly Imran Khan, Pakistan’s prime minister, attacked Macron for attacking Islam. But beyond this grandstanding, it’s the impact within France itself of Macron’s response to the murders that should really cause concern.

There are an estimated five million Muslims in France, about half of them non-practising. The overwhelming majority do not support radical versions of Islam. While the issue of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Mohammed is not widely framed as one of unlimited free speech, nor is it touted as a pretext for violence. A sermon circulated to mosques following Samuel Paty’s murder by the main French Muslim representative body, the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman, said, “The law of the Republic permits these cartoons but obliges no one to like them. We can even detest them. But nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies murder.”

This model response has not deterred Macron’s government from pursuing a highly aggressive policy towards Muslims that chooses to blur the distinction between the broad religion and the political outlook of a small extreme minority that feed off it. Interior minister Gérald Darmanin went so far as to suggest that the secular values of the French Republic were threatened by halal aisles in supermarkets.

Even before the recent murders, President Macron denounced “separatist Islam” which aimed to take control of French society. In a wide-ranging speech, he criticised town mayors who had allowed “sectarian menus” – without pork and including halal dishes – in school canteens.

“Pork or nothing” has long been a rallying cry of right wing politicians in France, keen to demonise Islamic cultural practices.  Macron’s endorsement of this, while simultaneously bemoaning the fact that parents faced with this ultimatum may choose to home-school, is an indication of his willingness to play along with such rhetoric, which has proven electorally popular for far right parties down the years.

Analysis also suggests that the stigmatising of Muslims is also being fed by far-right forces indulged by much of the French media.

A price is paid for the language so casually used by politicians and pundits. In the aftermath of the murderous attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in 2015, over thirty mosques were burned. The media demanded that the Muslim community accept collective responsibility for the attack. In a TV interview, Yasser Louati, a former airline pilot born and raised in Paris, who at the time of the attack was working with the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, gained notoriety for pushing back against this narrative.

“Sir, the Muslim community has nothing to do with these guys!” Louati said. “Nothing. We cannot justify ourselves for the actions of someone who claims to be Muslim.”

Louati’s response was pertinent. As elsewhere, France’s Islamic terrorists are likely to have spent more time in prison cells than at the mosque.

In 2012, Mohammed Merah went on a shooting spree in in Toulouse, killing seven. A next door neighbour commented, “No one can excuse what he did, but he is a product of French society, of the feeling that he had no hope, and nothing to lose. It was not al-Qaeda that created Mohammed Merah, it was France.”

 But, as with Louati’s response above, this is not an answer the media and politicians, in their search for a ’fifth column’, want to hear.

In 2017, I had the opportunity to interview Yasser Louati and asked how Islamophobia had become so mainstream in France.

“Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was always a tolerance of anti-Arab racism,” he told me. “Even Socialist Prime Minister Laurent Fabius said National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was asking the right questions. The assault became visible in the 1980s when French Muslims became visible and demanded full equality. In response, the French establishment questioned the capacity of Muslins to become fully French.”

“The tool with which Muslims are attacked is –laïcité [secularism],” he explained. “It used to mean the neutrality of the state, but it has been redefined to attack people’s beliefs. This state-sponsored racism had been made acceptable by turning it into patriotism.”

President Macron’s speech on ‘Islamic separatism’, made before the recent murders, fits into this framework.  Writing in The New Arab, Louati, now head of the Justice and Liberties For All Committee, argued that if Macron’s proposals were enacted, they “would spell the end of the right to free assembly, and would pave the path to prosecuting any individual or organisation accused of being ‘separatist’.”

Despite decades of discrimination, police brutality and social and economic marginalisation inflicted on France’s Muslims, Islamophobia is not a term that is widely accepted in public discourse.

In fact, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, which Louati previously worked for, is now one of scores of Muslim organisations targeted by the Interior Ministry for a ban. Minister Gérald Darmanin denounced the organisation as an “enemy of the republic”. 

The Collective issued a strong statement, addressing why it had been targeted: “Why? Because we are one of the most prominent Human Rights Organization in the country, one of the most involved with International Organizations at a global level and the most widely supported by communities at a grassroots level.  We showed how the state of emergency (enacted in 2015), while unfortunately failing to address terrorism, has infringed on fundamental freedoms for all citizens, as raids on thousand Muslim homes resulted only in a stronger securitization and stigmatization of communities. We have challenged the burkini ban in 30 cities across the country in 2016. We have supported victims of hate crimes and discrimination successfully, over the last 16 years, gaining momentum and support, nationally and internationally.”

While the Collective Against Islamophobia in France fights for its right to exist, the fate of other organisations has been sealed. Muslim humanitarian NGO BarakaCity, which delivers aid to two million people in 26 countries, has already been shut down.

Following the murder of Samuel Paty, President Macron declared that “fear must change sides”.  But Muslims are already living in fear.  The ban on face coverings, introduced in 2010 and later condemned by the United Nations Human Rights Committee as a violation, has created a climate of open hostility against niqab-wearing women.

Recently, MPs, including from Macron’s own party, walked out of a meeting on the impact of COVID-19 on young people, objecting to the presence of the Vice President of the French Students Union, who was wearing a veil. And last month police arrested two white females after they allegedly repeatedly stabbed two Muslim women in Paris while shouting “dirty Arabs”.

The government has now announced plans to impose a fine up to 75,000 euros and to send to prison for up to 5 years anyone who refuses to see a doctor of the opposite sex. Beneath the rhetoric of liberal equality lies a pernicious and reactionary authoritarianism.

As well as organisations being banned, the police last month raided the homes and offices of numerous individuals and over 50 associations that, as the Interior Minister freely admitted, had no link to the Paty murder: instead the aim was to “send a message”.

Some see such measures as polarising, with the government instrumentalising a tragic killing to wage war against not just fundamentalists, but Muslims in general. The justification – secularism – is not weaponised in this way against other religions.

But the attack by ministers and media pundits is being broadened to include left wing journalists, politicians and organisations like Amnesty International.  If Islamophobia is not a term that France’s political establishment is willing to recognise, Islamo-leftism is firmly in their sights.

It’s not just religious cultural practices that are being targeted – even the teaching of communitarian approaches and intersectionality is deemed by the Education Minister as not “compatible with republican values”.  This goes hand in hand with France’s prime minister saying the French public should no longer be making a critique of France’s colonial history, something the country has never really started doing.

This aggressive new approach has put the government on collision course with its own Observatoire de la Laïcité whose head argues that laïcité means simply that the state should be neutral and that the public should be free to practise whatever religion they want. There is now pressure from the government for him to be replaced.

One academic wrote recently, “I myself had problems organising a conference on Islamophobia, racialization and the ‘Muslim problem’ when I was (very inconveniently) banned from using the words Islamophobia, racialization and the ‘Muslim problem’ because they were too ‘provocative’ (a favourite word of the free speech fetishists whenever they try to limit someone else’s free speech… I was also banned for the same reason from using an image of a woman wearing a tricolore veil to illustrate the event, and was instead asked to use orientalist images of Muslims as people from another continent and another century – I declined.”

In practice, the teaching of critical race theory or intersectional approaches is not particularly embedded in France. Over 100 French academics rushed out a manifesto in agreement with the French Minister of Education that ideologies imported from North America were responsible for “conditioning”’ the violent extremist who assassinated Samuel Paty.

Nor is there much Islamo-leftism elsewhere in France:  the organised left has been notoriously feeble in defending the rights of Muslims – from Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the founder of La France Insoumise, who once said that it wasn’t French to wear the veil, to France’s New Anti-capitalist Party, which in 2010 expelled a veil-wearing Muslim member who had been the subject of a media witch-hunt when running for public office. These positions underline the inability of much of the left to differentiate itself from the dominant narrative, which emanates from the far right.

The right wing pushback against the very limited attempts in France to decolonise the curriculum is part of a wider attack on academic freedom in the west. It chimes with the Trump agenda, and that of the UK Conservative Party, in demonising certain teaching approaches and shutting down debate about the colonial and racist past of western countries. It borrows from a far right playbook which attacks ‘cultural Marxism’ as the source of society’s ills and is part of an internationally coordinated offensive to put nationalist ideology above academic freedom and internationalist values.

That a centrist government like that of Macron should also be deploying these arguments shows how successfully alt-right ideas have penetrated the mainstream discourse. They need to be resolutely resisted.

In the UK, this is happening. The Coalition of Anti-Racist Educators, funded by the group No More Exclusions, draws a direct link between the disproportionate number of black students excluded from school and the ideological straitjacket which the government has imposed on teaching practices. It is currently taking the government to court over its recent Relationships and Sex Education guidance which restricts the use of anti-capitalist and anti-racist materials in schools.

Image:  The French president Emmanuel Macron, Source: http://www.kremlin.ru/events/president/news/54617/photos,  licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.