Weaponizing pseudo-secularism to promote Islamophobia: A case study of France
There has always been a massive disconnect between France’s ideals and practices especially given that respective French administrations remained adamant in demonizing, discriminating against, and targeting Muslims within the country.
‘Liberte’, ‘egalite’, and ‘fraternite’; i.e. ‘Liberty’, ‘Equality’, and ‘Fraternity’ were supposed to be the guiding principles of the French Republic and its overseas territories. Despite its toxic colonial legacy in some parts of the Muslim world and in Africa, Paris has also prided itself on maintaining one of Europe’s most secular constitutions where freedom of assembly, expression, and religion are guaranteed. That said, there has always been a massive disconnect between France’s ideals and practices especially given that respective French administrations remained adamant in demonizing, discriminating against, and targeting Muslims within the country. By adopting policies that strip Muslim communities of their religious identities, France remains one of the most Islamophobic countries in the world.
Nothing has changed in 2023. Emmanuel Macron’s 2020 crackdown on Muslims in the aftermath of the murder of Samuel Paty, who angered Muslim sentiments by committing alleged blasphemy, has been brazenly carried forward. In 2023, Muslims have been barred from wearing the ‘Abaya’ or the Islamic garment for girls and women which is a hallmark of modesty and decency. The move, which targets freedom of expression and secular ideals, came after months of heated debates over the wearing of the garment in French schools. It is in these very same schools that women wearing what they want have often been subject to harassment, discrimination, and ridicule. In light of this, the 2023 measure is completely unjustifiable.
The disturbing part about the ban is that it targets school children many of whom are not even aware of their civil and human rights. Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, in an interview for TF1, unabashedly stated that walking into a classroom in a state-run school in France should not result in people identifying the pupil’s religion just by observing them. The absurdity of the claims and the religious profiling of young children demonstrates a complete lack of regard for Muslim sentiments, beliefs, and customs. These measures, however, are not a novelty in France. In 2004, the country banned headscarves in schools, while, in 2010, it passed a ban on full-face veils in public which only served to alienate and largely anger its five million Muslim community.
From an ideological prism, the Macron government, which has often billed itself as ‘centrist’, has caved into the notorious French far-right. Islamophobia has become a symbol of conservative policy-making in France, and a government that has often pitted itself up against the far-right National Rally party headed by Marine Le Pen is now imitating the very same ideologies that Le Pen seeks to uphold. Ostracization of the Muslim community remains a deeply rooted tenet in the French far-right’s consciousness despite the French Colonial Empire’s toxic legacy of colonialism, particularly in countries such as Algeria as exemplified in the Algerian War from 1954 to 1962. The National Liberation Front eventually triumphed in the country, and Algeria gained independence at a heavy cost of 300,000 to 1,500,000 deaths.
In 2023, France continues to host a significant population of Algerians, Moroccans, and Libyans, many of whom are law-abiding citizens and practitioners of the Muslim faith. For a former colonial power to adopt measures that attack the very foundation of religious sensitivities of respective communities is simply inexplicable. One should expect humility from France if not reparations with respect for Muslim sentiments being common practice. The standard practice instead is issuing blanket bans on attire which is central to Muslim identity.
Opposition to such Islamophobic, draconian, and bigoted measures did come from politicians such as Daniele Obono from the left-wing La France Insoumise and Jean-Luc Melenchon. However, these voices have been largely muzzled out as across both left- and right-wing spectrums, crass Islamophobia is both tolerated and to a large extent, normalized. It was as recent as 2022 when the reeking hatred toward Muslim identity was witnessed in sport as French lawmakers backed a ban on wearing the hijab, an idea that was proposed by the right-wing Les Republicains Party. The justification provided was that the hijab could risk the safety of athletes while performing. The truth is that such arguments are flawed and redundant given that French history is replete with measures that specifically target Muslims and dehumanize and censure them.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee in 2018 stated that France’s ban on the niqab violated the human rights who wore it. That, however, was largely ignored by the Macron administration. According to legal scholar Rim Sarah Alouane, the hijab ban stands in opposition to the liberal core of the 1905 French law on the Separation of the state and the church, which is a law that France has been both weaponizing and distorting since the 1990s. This assessment is now evident given that the abaya ban, which targets some of the most vulnerable segments of society, children, is now in full force.
France should be characterized as an Islamophobic nation, at least at the policy and governmental level. It is unfathomable that a woman’s attire is suddenly seen as a national security threat despite the fact that France faces civil unrest. Considering an entire religion that has a diverse range of followers, ethnicities, and nationalities as the problem is simply bigotry. Muslims in France continue to face challenges of inclusion and the latest decision to ban the abaya will further worsen their plight.
After all, they are living in a country that weaponizes secularism to promote Islamophobia.