How French 'secularism' became a front for Islamophobia

How French 'secularism' became a front for Islamophobia
Comment: President Macron has demonstrated once again that in France, inciting hatred or attacking a person's dignity is ok, if the target is Muslim, writes writes Malia Bouattia.
5 min read
17 Feb, 2020
President Macron said that blasphemy 'is no crime' [Getty]
Despite the entire country being at a standstill with yellow vest protests, strikes, and widespread anger towards the Macron government's attacks on welfare, labour standards, and public services, French media and politicians have managed to deflect debate yet again, away from the issues, and on to Islam. 

The trigger? A social media video by a 16-year-old. Mila, a student in France, posted a video commenting on having been called a "dirty lesbian", after she was challenged for saying black and Arab women were "not her type".

She continued to respond to criticism by stating "I hate religion. The Quran is a religion of hate." Adding that she's not being racist because she is criticising a religion.

The video sparked heated debate on national television, press and among politicians, especially because of the huge backlash that she received over what some considered to be her blasphemous, hateful and racist comments. Mila has since been re-schooled because of the threats to her life, and her family are under police protection. 

The online abuse and violent threats she received are of course deplorable, and their homophobic character make it more so, but the media focus is - as always within French mainstream politics when it comes to anything involving Islam - misplaced.

Firstly, that Mila's social media rant has gripped the nation's attention, shows how little is required for mass outrage to surround Islam and Muslims in France. Even more aggravating, however, is the hypocrisy of Macron and his government.

It is almost hard to believe that while his country is up in arms over mass unemployment, rising living standards, and police repression to name a few, Macron deems it worthy to use his platform to weigh in on the debate.

Macron has shown that when it comes to freedom of speech, his public protection extends to everyone but Muslims

Perhaps this is part his attempt to ensure his government can act as guardians of France's secular republic, or more of his transparent attempt to appeal to a far-right base. Either way. Macron has shown that when it comes to freedom of speech, his public protection extends to everyone but Muslims.

In his interview with Le Dauphiné Libéré, Macron framed the furore as one about the right to blaspheme, and the impossibility of comparing Mila's attacks on the Muslim faith, to attacks on her sexuality. He stated that "In this debate we have lost sight of the fact that Mila is an adolescent. We owe her protection at school, in her daily life, in her movements."

Funny how this call for "perspective" was nowhere to be found when a politician was caught on film attacking a mother accompanying her child on a school trip, simply because she was wearing a hijab. The president was not interested in considering the psychological trauma of the Muslim mother's child.

Where is his protection for Muslim students who have to reconsider their education and even future careers because of the restrictions to the face veil and hijab in educational institutions and the public sector? 

This entire affair isn't actually about blasphemy at all. The laws in France exist, they have done for a very long time, and they are clear about the rights of people to blaspheme and criticise religion. The concern is over the selectivity of the part of the law which dictates that inciting hatred or attacking one's dignity is illegal.  

In addition to being used cynically by an embattled government in an attempt to shift the national debate, the crisis also highlights a further worrying tendency: that of pitting Muslims, women, and LGBTQ people against one another.

It is a narrative which has been central to the last 20 years of the so-called War on Terror, which has positioned Muslims as representing a fundamental danger to women and LGBT rights, whom only the state can protect. 

Through this process Muslims are vilified, oppressed communities are divided, and the state's own repressive laws and institutions are whitewashed.

What's more, effective alliances from below are made more difficult given how the process obscures structures of oppression and pits different social movements against one another. It also makes the work of feminists and LGBTQ activists within the Muslim community - as well as that of Muslims within feminist or LGBT spaces - all the more difficult, because they are already seen as fundamentally at odds.

This narrative was, and remains, central to the national debates about the right of Muslim women to wear hijabs, niqabs, or burqas. The attack on Muslim women's right to wear what they want - a central feminist demand - is framed as the state acting in defence of all women. And unfortunately, important sections of the French feminist women have fallen for this argument.

We have something similar in the UK too, where LGBT rights have been weaponised within the government's so-called deradicalisation programmes.

Fighting homophobia and Islamophobia effectively starts with recognising the structures that reproduce and impose repressive laws

The weaponised use of LGBTQ rights within this framework has again increased tensions and tried to impose fundamental divisions between LGBTQ and Muslim people and groups. While people were right to point out the homophobia of some of the responses, just as in the case of Mila in France, very little was said about the fact that the programme people were protesting was aimed at "deradicalising" young children, and that it was using LGBT rights and identities as a prop to wage war on Muslim communities. Divide and rule at its purest. 

In France and elsewhere, the task for progressive forces is clear. Fighting homophobia and Islamophobia effectively starts with recognising the structures that reproduce and impose repressive laws, limited frameworks of identity, and constructed differences on all oppressed communities.

The enemy here is the state. And as long as we fail to unite different liberation struggles across the board - just like the workers, students, and the unemployed have done across France - we will be isolated, picked off one by one, and defeated.

The problem here is not blasphemy. It is reactionary ideas and the institutions that defend them. They must all be brought down. 

Malia Bouattia is an activist, a former president of the National Union of Students, and co-founder of the Students not Suspects/Educators not Informants Network.

Follow her on Twitter: @MaliaBouattia

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.