Macron's secular crusade holds all France's Muslims responsible for the actions of a few

Macron's secular crusade holds all France's Muslims responsible for the actions of a few
Comment: By holding Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of a handful of extremists, France risks emboldening another group on the fringe: far-right racists, writes Taj Ali.
6 min read
27 Oct, 2020
French Muslims demonstrate against an upsurge in Islamophobic attacks last year [Getty]
On Friday 16 October, a history teacher who, as part of a lesson had shown his pupils cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, was beheaded in the Parisian suburb of Conflans Saint-Honorine. Samuel Paty, 47, was killed by 18-year old Abdullah Anzorov, a Russian-born refugee of Chechen descent who was later shot dead by police.

Today, France's leading politicians including Macron and his interior minister are seeking to instrumentalise the tragedy to further entrench Islamophobia in France. And by holding Muslims collectively responsible for the actions of Islamist extremists, another fringe group - the far-right - is emboldened.

Just two days after the murder of Samuel Paty, two Muslim women, Kenza and Amel, were stabbed repeatedly near the Eiffel Tower by attackers shouting "Dirty Arabs". Kenza was stabbed six times and ended up in hospital with a punctured lung. 

France must acknowledge that these violent attacks are the end result of a growing climate of intolerance that has been encouraged, not just by fringe groups of radical extremists but mainstream political figures such as French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Earlier this month in Les Mureaux - a suburb not far from the site of Paty's murder, Macron gave a speech in which he singled out Islam as "a religion that is in crisis all over the world today". During that speech, he unveiled his proposed programme for fighting what he characterises as "Islamist separatism".

Clothed in the language of liberalism and secularism, Macron's Islamophobia is insidious and dangerous

Aside from the obvious damange caused by singling out the already marginalised Muslim community in France, Macron's use of the term "separatism" is also deeply problematic. Often used in reference to ethnic groups demanding an independent nation-state within a larger geographical locality, Macron's rhetoric implies disloyalty and split allegiances in the Muslim community. Such language mirrors the far-right's rhetoric which has often sought to portray Muslims as the enemy within, intent on destroying western civilisation and its values. 

Macron also emphasised the need to "defend" secularism, implying the French Republic is under attack. While Macron's Islamophobia is not as overt as that of Marine Le Pen and the National Front, he's clearly borrowing from their playbook. Clothed in the language of liberalism and secularism, this form of Islamophobia is just as insidious and dangerous.

In many ways, Macron's mentality is a colonial one. Islamophobia informed France's colonial policy in Muslim-majority lands, where the French perceived Muslims' attachment to their religion as an impediment to their compliance with the French secular ideology known as laïcité.

It's this notion of secularism that led France to ban the display of religious symbols, such as face coverings, crucifixes or the burqa in certain settings. Macron's rhetoric, in many ways echoes what Rudyard Kipling referred to as "the white man's burden". This civilisational rhetoric was used to justify colonialism on the basis that it was needed to civilise the "savages".

Why should Muslims be expected to accommodate such dangerous Islamophobic tropes about our community? Were white people told that the "moderate ones" should apologise for the white-supremacist terrorist attack in New Zealand, the Charleston Church shooting or the 2011 Norway attack? Was French society ever held collectively responsible for atrocities committed by the French state during the War on Terror, or during colonial rule in Algeria, Vietnam or Haiti?

The dangerous rhetoric whipped up by media outlets and politicians alike about the Muslim community has, no doubt, contributed to a rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes across Europe. Last year, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) recorded 1,043 Islamophobic incidents in France, representing a 77 percent increase since 2017. 

Constituting less than 9 percent of France's population yet constantly a source of contempt for the French Republic, racism and discrimination is nothing new for French Muslims.

France prides itself on being a "secular" republic, and is still waging a long battle against what it sees as the influence of religion on laws and government. But while French secularism claims not to discourage any one religion, it is abundantly clear that the French republic uses it to engage in a process of actively undermining certain groups' religious freedoms. These misguided efforts to erase religion from public spaces have meant the Muslim community now faces discriminatory legislation seeking to impose restrictions on traditional Islamic practices.

The French government is increasingly blurring the lines between Muslim organisations campaigning against racism, and violent Islamist extremists. Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister recently referred to France's leading anti-Islamophobia organisation, the Collective against Islamophobia in France, as "an enemy of the Republic" and ordered it to close down

Macron's proposed law to fight what he calls 'Islamist separatism' is being formulated under a racist paradigm which constructs French Muslims as the enemy within

Shockingly, Darmanin even went as far as to link the presence of halal and kosher supermarket aisles in large French supermarkets to a failure to integrate in the wake of last week's beheading. Suggesting that these chains were failing in their 'patriotic 'duty' towards France.

France has long engaged in practices of state securitisation against its Muslim minority communities as demonstrated by the ban on face veils in 2011, followed by a 2016 ban on burkini swimwear in several French towns. These restrictions on Islamic religious practices and symbols were less about combating violent extremism, and more about pursuing a policy of forced assimilation and limiting religious freedoms for Muslims. 

In 2017, an anti-terrorism bill was introduced which allowed French authorities to restrict freedom of movement, conduct unwarranted house searches, dismiss workers from employment and close down mosques. A UN expert warned this law would undermine basic rights and freedoms. 

Macron's proposed law to fight what he calls "Islamist separatism" is based on a racist paradigm which constructs French Muslims as the enemy within. We are yet to see the full implications of this bill, but if Macron's rhetoric and legislative record, and France's recent violence are anything to go by, this new law will only further entrench Islamophobia in the Republic.

Islamist extremism and far-right extremism are two sides of the same coin. Both misinterpret the religion of Islam to justify their position and it is the vast majority of peaceful Muslims who pay the price.

As things stand, Emmanuel Macron and his far-right rival Marie Le Pen are on level pegging in the upcoming presidential election. It is therefore no surprise that Macron has sought to adopt Islamophobic rhetoric, pandering to the increasingly vocal the far-right. Appeasing the nationalist right will, however, simply reinforce their divisive message, which has used Muslims as scapegoats for society's problems for years.

If anything, Paty's murder and the increase in violent hate crimes against Muslims are evidence of the wholesale failure of French secularism as a concept. France's notion of secularism, one where the state can impose restrictions on religious freedoms and actively undermine minority communities, has done more harm than good. It has exacerbated divisions within society and created an atmosphere of hate and intolerance.

It is rhetoric from the top which sets the tone, and our leaders have a moral responsibility to ensure they do not empower far-right extremists by adopting divisive Islamophobic rhetoric. If the principles of liberty, equality and fraternity are truly universal, then they must also be present in the French government's treatment of the Muslim community.

Taj Ali is a freelance writer and political activist based in Luton. He recently graduated from the University of Warwick with a BA in History and Politics.

Follow him on Twitter: @taj_ali1

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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.