‘Islam is being hyper-politicised in France, but Muslims are not part of the debate’

·9-min read

The resurgence in attacks by radical Islamists on French soil has rekindled fierce debates on Islam, secularism and discrimination in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. But Muslim voices are largely kept out of the conversation.

On October 2, the day President Emmanuel Macron unveiled his plan to fight “Islamist separatism” in France, the mayor of the Paris suburb of Trappes, 35-year-old Ali Rabeh, was invited by French broadcaster CNews to discuss Macron’s proposed measures to root out radical Islam from the country’s deprived banlieues.

Rabeh began by calling for more police officers and public services in his town of 32,000 inhabitants, a working-class and ethnically diverse municipality with the unwanted distinction of having seen more homegrown jihadists travel to Syria, per capita, than any other in France.

The conversation soon veered into acrimony when one of the channel’s regular commentators quizzed the mayor about the prevalence of political Islam in Trappes, “a territory lost to the Republic”. He asked Rabeh whether he was even aware that Sharia law was applied there.

“There is no Sharia law in Trappes, nor anywhere in France,” a flustered Rabeh hit back. “There are laws in France to prevent anyone from applying Sharia law. Help me obtain more police officers for Trappes instead of repeating nonsense on TV.”

As another CNews pundit joined in the fray, lecturing the young mayor, Rabeh took aim at the commentators and editorialists whom he accused of pontificating on France’s commercial 24-hour news channels, with no real knowledge of the topic.

“These people know nothing, absolutely nothing about what’s happening on the ground, because they never set foot there,” he blasted. “They’re experts in TV newsrooms, experts in the leafy districts of Paris, who merely lecture and agitate.”

Islam or France

Amel Boubekeur, a researcher at the University of Grenoble who specialises in French Islam, says such heated exchanges are indicative of an ill-informed debate on Islam in France that is dominating the airwaves and stoking tensions.

“There’s a hyper-politicisation of Islam in France, but Muslims are largely kept out of the conversation,” Boubekeur said. “And so are the academics who carry out real research, but are chased away by the pundits.”

While Islam is a favourite topic of politicians and the media, Muslims seldom get to have their say, Boubakeur argued. The result is a difficulty to understand the extraordinary diversity of opinions and customs among the estimated five million people who make up France’s Muslim population, the largest in Europe.

There are multiple reasons for this, including a structural reluctance by France’s secular state to recognise and engage with religious pluralities. Boubakeur also pointed to a legacy of France’s colonial past “in the tendency to view Muslims as a single, homogeneous bloc” with an immigrant background.

“And then there’s the growing weight of the far right, which has imposed its preferred topics – Islam and immigration – at the very top of the agenda,” the sociologist added.

This has paved the way for hateful speech by the likes of Éric Zemmour, another CNews mainstay, who argues that Muslims must choose between Islam and France, ignoring the overwhelming majority of French Muslims who cherish the country’s laws and values.

Secularism ‘weaponised’

In his October 2 speech, Macron was careful to distinguish between that majority and the small number of radicalised Islamists who foster hatred of France and the Western way of life.

“The problem is an ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the Republic,” Macron said. He stressed that he was referring to “radical Islamism” and not Muslims in general, though he also argued that Islam was “in crisis everywhere in the world” – an assertion that has upset some Muslims well beyond France.

The French president reiterated his stance on October 21, following the gruesome murder of teacher Samuel Paty by an 18-year-old radical Islamist in a suburb of Paris. He vowed that France would never give up freedom of speech and the right to mock religion, including the Charlie Hebdo caricatures of the Prophet Mohammad that Paty had shown his pupils in class.

Two weeks later, as angry protests against France and its president swept across the Muslim world, Islamist terrorism struck again on French soil with the deadly stabbing on Thursday of three people in a church in Nice. The horrific attack, carried out by a 21-year-old Tunisian migrant, was swiftly condemned by France’s Muslim leaders, who called for Mawlid celebrations – marking the prophet’s birthday – to be cancelled.

Outrage over the recent resurgence in Islamist attacks has fuelled calls for a more robust response to a murderous ideology that has repeatedly shed blood on French soil – and a more assertive defence of the core principle of laïcité, or state secularism. It has rekindled a dispute between rival understandings of French secularism, which disagree on how far the state should go in asserting religious neutrality in the public sphere.

>> After teacher’s murder, a hunt for appeasers who ‘disarmed’ French secularism

According to Rim-Sarah Alouane, a legal scholar specialising in religious freedom at the University of Toulouse, French secularism is increasingly being “weaponised” to silence Muslim voices – and not only the radical ones.

“Politicians, pundits and commentators are using laïcité to remove any visibility [of religious minorities from the public sphere], and at the moment it is being used against Muslims,” Alouane said.

She pointed to a discrepancy between Macron’s concern not to lump together moderates and radicals, and a more hardline rhetoric coming from members of his government for whom criticising intransigent forms of secularism is a sign of complicity with the terrorists.

Islam and France

The term “Islamophobia” – used to refer to hatred of Muslims – has long been the subject of fierce dispute. Since the latest attacks, people who use the term have been described, at best, as appeasers of radical Islam, and, at worst, as its accomplices.

According to Razika Adnani of the Foundation for Islam in France, a body designed to foster a moderate form of Islam and improve relations between the French state and Muslim communities, the notion of a “fear of Islam” has long been used by Islamists to curtail all criticism of the Islam they preach.

Adnani said France was guilty of letting foreign countries finance the country’s mosques and provide its imams, “who have no knowledge of this country and its values.” She welcomed Macron’s pledge to "free Islam in France from foreign influences", stressing that the country is now paying “very dearly” for its past errors.

“Islamists want to live in separate communities, without respecting French laws and values, and this is neither in France's interest nor in that of French Muslims,” Adnani said. She added: “Muslims who have come to France want to be French and live here, but they are hostage to the Islamists.”

According to a survey of France’s Muslim population, published by the Ipsos institute earlier this year, 81 percent of people polled had a positive view of French secularism and 77 percent said they had no trouble practising their religion in France. Asked whether they loved their country, 90 percent answered “yes” and 82 percent said they were proud of being French – matching the percentages for the rest of France’s population.

However, the same survey found that 44 percent of French Muslims believe the rest of society has little regard for them. The figure rose to 61 percent among Muslims living in households earning less than the minimum wage.

Ammunition for the Islamists

The overlapping social, geographical, ethnic and religious discriminations suffered by many French Muslims living in the country’s most deprived suburbs has been amply documented by sociologists – as has their exploitation by Islamist radicals.

Dounia Bouzar, an anthropologist and member of the Observatory of Secularism, a state-funded watchdog, warned that intransigent interpretations of laïcité were also giving ammunition to France’s foes. She pointed at the frequent and highly publicised rows over garments worn by some Muslim women, such as hijabs.

Last month, several French lawmakers walked out of the National Assembly in protest at the presence of a student union representative who wore a Muslim veil, igniting a vitriolic debate. There was similar turmoil last year when a politician in Dijon asked a Muslim mother on a school trip to remove her hijab. In neither case were the women infringing on France’s secular laws.

According to Bouzar, such incidents are routinely exploited by Islamists to back their claims that Muslims are not free to practise their religion in France. The difficulty, she said, is to find the right balance between denouncing this imposture while also recognising the legitimate grievances of marginalised communities.

“Radical Islamists seek to portray their ideology, and their ‘separatist’ stance, as a defence of Islam,” she said. “Those who denounce this should not be treated as ‘Islamophobes’. But neither should the very real stigmatisation of Muslims be denied or dismissed.”

Bouzar added: “Every time we deny the discrimination and negative stereotyping that many Muslims are subjected to, we help the radical groups who feed on the discrepancy between the Republican promise of equality and the reality they experience day to day.”

Voices silenced

Amid the furore triggered by last month’s National Assembly walkout, few bothered to find out what the veiled student representative had to say. Her voice had effectively been silenced – by female lawmakers who marched out in the name of women’s rights.

Fatima Bent, the head of Lallab, a Muslim feminist organisation that campaigns for women’s right to dress and practice their religion as they please, argues that feminists who shun Muslim women for wearing a veil are guilty of the very sin they denounce.

“Using one woman’s fight to oppress another woman is not feminism,” she said.

Bent's group describes itself as neither pro- nor anti-veil, but pro-choice. It denounces an “obsession” by media organisations and politicians, saying Muslim women are routinely subjected to intrusion, harassment and violence.

“There are constant debates about Muslim women, their veils, their bodies – but women are not part of the debate. It’s a violation of their intimacy,” Bent explained. She said Lallab was frequently accused of “advocating hijabs”, lamenting a “demonisation of those, like us, who seek to combat both Islamism and Islamophobia”.

Like numerous analysts, Bent bemoaned the lack of nuance and complexity in discussions of Islam in France. Muslims are not a monolithic group, she stressed, and there is no fit-all norm for Muslim women.

“We defend women who are forced by their families to wear a veil and we defend those who are barred from doing so by societal judgements – it’s not one or the other,” she said, warning that ostracising women was no way to emancipate them.

Bent said Lallab does not deny the existence of radical ideologies that preach violence and hatred, nor the patriarchal oppression suffered by some Muslim women. However, she added, this should not be used to stigmatise all Muslims.

“France is going after the wrong target,” she said, warning that the “manipulation of laïcité creates a confusion between radical Islamists and other Muslims, ultimately encouraging Islamophobia and helping the extremists”.