Last month, heated debates over Islam and national identity reignited in France. A hijabi woman who was accompanying her son at a school trip was aggressively asked to remove her veil. Then the staff of a university just outside of Paris received an email encouraging them to lookout for “weak signals” of radicalisation, which included: wearing a veil, growing a beard, eating halal or following the news…
Although France refuses to acknowledge it, Islamophobia is rampant across the nation, and can even be deadly. Let us not forget October 28, when a former Front National candidate (the country’s far-right party) attacked a mosque in the small town of Bayonne.
On November 10, around 13,000 people gathered in Paris to condemn Islamophobia in a protest organised by left-wing organisations. On top of other absent mainstream parties, not one single official member of the Socialist Party’s management joined the march.
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The only famous political figure that attended the protest was Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of LFI, a far-left party; whereas President Macron’s party En Marche declared in a tweet that protesters “are fighting in favour of political Islam”. And Manuel Valls, the former Socialist Prime Minister, labelled the politicians who signed an open letter against Islamophobia published on the left-leaning newspaper Libération, as belonging to the “Left of renunciation” and referred to it as a “shameful abandonment”.
Manuel Valls was born in Barcelona and did not take French citizenship until he turned 20. So why is it that French Muslims are constantly othered, and asked, “Where are you from?” when in more cases than not, their parents were actually born in France.
France’s secularist state is said to promote egalitarianism for all citizens. But whether it concerns the hijab ban in public spaces (like school, hospitals and the national transport system), restrictions of public prayers, the sports-hijab, the burqa or the burkini, contentious disputes over Islam’s compatibility with French Republican values are constantly back on the agenda. To the extent that it seems like France’s famous slogan “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité” is only valid if you’re not a practicing Muslim.
With new regulations targeting Islam increasing, it seems like France’s obsession with religious blindness is a cover for discrimination, and even hatred, against Muslims.
French politicians often say that wearing a veil is a form of female submission. But Muslim women are very rarely heard. On October 21, Sara El Attar—a young French hijabi woman—was invited on French television. It was the first time a hijabi woman took part in a public debate, in a hijab, in France, ever.
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This is a simple but stark reminder that although France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, its white, upper class and so-called secular feminism doesn’t represent Muslim women.
France is proud to have purged religion from the public sphere— a move that have made collecting and measuring data about race and religion in censuses illegal. Even the word “Islamophobia” has become controversial in itself.
Instead of being offered a helping hand, Muslims who declare feeling incapable of expressing their faith peacefully are often blamed for failing to integrate and adopt the requirements of French citizenship.
French Muslims aren’t marginalised because of their unwillingness to “fit in”; they are alienated because of how French society isolates them. If political leaders want to hold their nation together, an alternative, softer, view of French secularism must be heard. The question shouldn’t be how to build a society where our differences are concealed, but how do we build a society where our differences are celebrated and healed?