Under the pretext of free speech in France, Islamophobia has become an acceptable form of racism despite it targeting people and institutions because of their real or assumed adherence to Islam.
France’s Muslim population has always existed under a shadow of scrutiny and misunderstanding. The attacks in Paris in November 2015 have made things much worse. The French government hasn’t done much to temper, let alone challenge, the anti-Muslim climate that intensified after the attacks, and President Francoise Hollande’s pro-war rhetoric, designed to appease a restless domestic situation, made it even harder for French Muslims to live their daily lives with any sense of security or normality.
Unfortunate aspects of French heritage include a legacy of colonial domination that affects the present. The colonization of several Muslim countries has resulted in a prolonged tendency in France to view Muslims as less than equal to the “real” French citizen. The once-exploited indigenous peoples of North and Sub-Saharan Africa have given birth to subsequent generations who’re now full-fledged citizens and expect equal treatment, something unconceivable for the heirs of the French colonial empire. But as French society evolves to become more mixed ethnically and religiously, policymakers are preferring exclusion rather than an inclusive path. From attempts to repeal the right of soil to structural racism highlighted by numerous studies and hate crimes, racism in France has evolved from targeting people on the basis of their country of origin or skin color to targeting them on the basis of their religion.
The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) has been ringing the alarm bell since 2003 on the rise of anti-Muslim rhetoric and violence, but so far, to no avail. Under the pretext of free speech, Islamophobia has become an acceptable form of racism despite it targeting people and institutions because of their real or assumed adherence to Islam, and is present in public discourse, media, entertainment and even policymaking. France has implemented an arsenal of Muslim-targeted laws ranging from banning religious apparel in public schools to, in the current state of emergency, putting devout Muslims under house arrest on the sole basis of suspicion.
Hatred and subsequent violence against Muslims come in handy as ideological tools and political tactics: They not only enable politicians and media personalities to avoid speaking about governments’ failed socioeconomic policies, but also make French Muslims the ideal scapegoat for such failures and the convenient enemy within when the government fails to protect citizens.
News outlets have reported a significant rise in Islamophobic incidents since November, but such an increase isn’t unique to just France. Other nations including the United States, Britain and even Canada have all seen a rise in anti-Muslim hate incidents exacerbated by the late 2015 terrorist attacks. That Muslims are the first victims of so-called jihadi groups wherever they are based and that they were not spared during the attacks on Western soil does not seem to matter. Media tend to portray Muslims’ lives as less important than others.
The transnational characteristic of contemporary anti-Muslim sentiment is a reality all Muslims should be aware of in the post-9/11 age. In fact, this growing concern should be a sign that a better-connected, better-informed transatlantic network of Muslim leaders and activists must step up to meet the challenge. It’s well-known that in several Western countries such as France and the U.S., full-fledged industries and networks trafficking in Islamophobia, misinformation and racism have developed since 9/11. For instance, according to a recent report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), 37 organizations that actively promote anti-Muslim sentiment and misinformation received a combined revenue of $119 million from 2008 to 2011. One group known as American Laws for American Courts (ALAC) focuses on introducing legislation that vilifies Islamic practices. In 2011 and 2012 alone, 62 bills and amendments were introduced in 29 states and the US Congress that contained languages extracted directly from the ALAC’s “Model Legislation” template. This is emblematic of the kind of sociopolitical change that this network of anti-Muslim groups can affect. Less talked about are the connections and convergences — ideologically and logistically — of these industries across the Atlantic Ocean and across national lines.
Uniting anti-Islamophobia efforts
There is no coherent counter-discourse or equally strong opposition to racist sentiments pervading European politics, the U.S. Republican Party’s political rhetoric or the nativism of Canada’s previous administration led by Stephen Harper, among other examples. This illustrates the importance of uniting anti-racism and anti-Islamophobia efforts across the Western world into a more powerful bloc.
Islamophobia industries on both sides of the Atlantic work together to bolster each other’s work and status. They operate on the same issues, meet each other with more or less the same objectives in mind, and share connections and resources in addition to ideas. This has essentially created a global network of anti-Muslim efforts that draw from one another in a way that the leadership in Muslim communities (particularly in North America, France and the U.K.) has yet to recognize.
For instance, both Paris attacks in 2015 were followed by a slew of media interviews with Muslim leaders in North America. These guests displayed very limited knowledge of the political context for extremist incidents in France and Europe. It was even more striking that news anchors, while asking questions, were informing their guests of what was really happening in France. There is a need for Muslim organizations and leaders to start meeting regularly so all parties fully understand the context, coordinate their efforts at the international level and occupy platforms offered by international organizations. Many countries that Western Muslims call home have international commitments, not to mention that such nations continuously claim leadership in the “international community.” This is a unique opportunity that very few Muslim organizations have effectively seized.
If such transatlantic Muslim organizing were to take place regularly, it won’t come as a surprise to participants that North American and European Muslims share many of the same headaches. In fact, the overlap will reflect the startling incestuous-ness and convergence of the Islamophobia industry’s multinational nature and approach. What happens in France and Europe inspires much of the rhetoric and messaging in the U.S., and vice versa. For Muslims to move forward, they need to keep this reality in mind.
A laboratory for anti-Semitism
France’s reputation as a laboratory for the application of republican values (liberty, equality, fraternity) comes with a bloody history of political violence, much of which involves the targeting of minorities throughout the centuries. People often forget that leading up to the 20th century, France was also Europe’s laboratory for modern anti-Semitism. One only has to flip through the pages of writers and political philosophers like Hannah Arendt — whose Origins of Totalitarianism lays out the historical trajectory of modern European anti-Semitism — to remember the role France played. In his work “Reflection on the Jewish question,”
French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre detailed the mechanisms of anti-Semitism that went from a critique of Judaism to hating the Jews for who they are, leading to a result that we all know.
Those who care about the positive republican values that France is said to exemplify must recognize history in a way that prevents the recurrence of tragedy. France should not be allowed to become a laboratory for racist policies yet again, this time targeting Muslims in Europe and around the world. The anti-Semitic thinking and policy that plagued much of the world translated into unprecedented tragedy in the 20th century, one of the most violent and deadly in memory. Leaders and citizens alike today recognize the need to avoid repeating such history. The struggle of French Muslims against structural Islamophobia is not only a fight for themselves, but also for the rest of the country. Opening the floodgates of Islamophobia, as Nicolas Sarkozy did during his rise to power in the early 2000s, has only weakened France by turning citizens against one another.
I was asked about the demonization of Muslims in France and a word came to mind: “Islamodiversion,” meaning that anytime one wants to avoid deep questions about real issues, play the Islam card. This is true for France but is even more striking for the U.S., where only 1% of the population identifies itself as Muslim. Yet the Muslim minority occupies an outrageously disproportionate percentage of media coverage and focus during this presidential campaign period. It is as if Americans or French people do not suffer from political misrepresentation, public deficits, skyrocketing income inequality, police violence, rising poverty, decline in education standards, aging infrastructure, retirement funds on the verge of collapse and startling military spending, among other issues. So who benefits from keeping these issues under the rug?
The signs today are not encouraging. France’s right-wing National Front, led by the infamous Marine Le Pen, has now become mainstream. Her father, Jean-Marie Le Pen, the party’s founder and one of Europe’s foremost contemporary anti-Semites, based the party’s political direction on venomous anti-Jewish outlooks and long represented the lunatic fringe in domestic politics. After Jean-Marie Le Pen made repeated bigoted remarks, Marine Le Pen led the charge to expel him formally from the party in 2015. But she also changed the formula of political operation in a way that doesn’t damage the political structure and ideology of her party.
Marine Le Pen’s takeover of the National Front has brought to the mainstream what was once a fringe party. She replaced anti-Semitic rhetoric with an Islamophobic stance that fits much better with Europe’s current political and public opinion, allowing her to stress the National Front’s apparent commitment to France’s republican values, which she says is dulled by political correctness, lax immigration laws and weak-kneed left-wing or liberal intellectualism.
Marine Le Pen has thus gotten an immense amount of media coverage, much of which portrays her as a politician wanting to get away from France’s stale, mainline electoral center, which has betrayed the country’s original values for the sake of making minorities and liberals happy. For instance, she has openly called for a moratorium on legal immigration to France since 2011, citing immigrants as adding to France’s crime rate and national debt. Despite the National Front’s limited political success, Le Pen has succeeded in shifting the political climate in a way that affects not just Europe, but also the rest of the world. Her progress mirrors that of Donald Trump, another aspiring national leader whose flaming rhetoric and bombastic attitude has polarized the Western world. But Trump and Le Pen share the same political experience: None. Neither has held public office at the federal level (yet), but they are still capable of setting political agendas. This sidereal emptiness in our political spheres must worry us to the highest point. How can two inexperienced individuals manage to be taken so seriously? Where are the alternatives?
In this political climate, Western Muslims must not only fight injustice, but also be part of a wider counter project to promote social justice as a moral obligation and an expression of care for others. Western Muslims are not the only ones facing injustices; so it is upon them not only to connect the dots across Western Muslim spheres, but also to include their struggle in a bigger one for social justice, side by side with persecuted ethnic minorities and socially dominated groups.
As a French citizen, I believe that we are nearing the end of the French political system as it is today. Even major French political figures agree on its unsustainability. The choice ahead will likely be between an atomized society that can again be manipulated to wrongly direct its frustrations minorities and the vulnerable, and one that actually bases its policies on the kind of unity that doesn’t leave out certain communities just because they’re of another religious or ethnic background.
The Islamophobia industry
The ascent of Donald Trump’s political stature and rising stock as a candidate corresponds somewhat to the successes of Marine Le Pen in ways that are rather uncanny. In a matter of months, Trump has become perhaps the most prominent Islamophobic political figure in the world. His proposal to keep all Muslims from entering the U.S., among his other radical ideas and statements, is something that even Le Pen has not suggested. The Paris attacks and shootings in San Bernardino certainly primed the U.S. citizenry (in particular those sympathetic to Trump) to hear and accept as reasonable such racist, anti-Muslim ideas.
Yet this convergence with Europe’s intense anti-Muslim politics should come as no surprise. The Netherland’s Geert Wilders, a high-profile politician, is still recognized as one of the continent’s most anti-Muslim figures and is a regular visitor of anti-Muslim events in the U.K. and North America. Le Pen did the same by reaching out to prominent Islamophobes across the Atlantic.
During the 2015 Human Dimension Implementation Meeting of Organization for Security Co-operation in Europe, the biggest human rights event in the continent (and a source for transnational policymaking) that drew attendance from 57 countries, I came across several prominent American anti-Muslim figures who used the platform to promote their ideology. Where were their North American Muslim contradictors?
All this should remind Muslims in North America and Europe that there simply cannot be a continuous lack of communication and connection between activists on both sides of the Atlantic who seek to combat Islamophobia in a systemic way.
Globalization is not only to buy cheaper electronics from across the world. It is also an opportunity for human rights activists to build solid communication lines and share experiences, resources and expertise to better lead their struggles at home.
Muslims cannot remain regionally isolated while the opposition has for years been developing international networks in ways that connect transnationally. If Muslim communities don’t foster international connections, they will always be playing catch up.
This isn’t to erase particular differences with respect to multiple challenges that Muslims face in, say, the U.S. versus France. The conditions in France and much of Europe are arguably worse; French Muslim women cannot work in government bureaucracies or even from home as nannies without taking off their headscarves, to list just one example. France may be the first to implement certain kinds of anti-Muslim legislation in the West, but it has inspired many Western nations to start clamping down on the fundamental religious rights of Muslims. If these problems are not addressed at their root, one possible endpoint would be for all affected countries to experience the worst eventual outcome.