French Secularism: A Veil for Islamophobia

Haadiya Ahmed, Editor

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité. The national motto of France. Liberty, Equality, Fraternity. Unless, you are a Muslim.

The French Republic is renowned for espousing equality by situating laïcité or secularism as central to its domestic policy. Yet, the state has failed to appropriately employ it. Throughout the past few months, the world witnessed several atrocities in France. Political strife initiated when a French satirical magazine published cartoons of Prophet Muhammad and a French teacher, discussing the cartoons in class, was beheaded by a Muslim attacker. [1] In response to the incident, French President Macron unveiled a separatism plan to “defend France’s secular values against Islamist radicalism,” claiming Islam was ‘in crisis’ all over the world. [2] State propagation of the caricatures and a subsequent crackdown on Muslims has proliferated anti-Muslim sentiments and forged societal divides. Instead of identifying the root of the issue—whether that be the inadequate religious understanding of Islam amongst French citizens or social conditions inducing radical ideologies—state leaders have entirely antagonized the Islamic faith in the eyes of the public. Secularism is a political tool that has been abused to limit the visibility of Muslims communities and make expressions of Muslim identity illegal. Arguably, the French practice of laïcité is a form of extremism in itself.

The French Constitution stipulates, “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic, guaranteeing that all citizens regardless of their origin, race or religion are treated as equals before the law and respecting all religious beliefs”. [3] Secularism enforces strict separation of state and church wherein “religion may participate, but not dominate”— intending to foster equality for all private beliefs. [4] Observant religious differences are discouraged and public displays of religion restricted. Islam is the second-largest religion in France with 5.8 million Muslims inhabiting the country. [5] Nonetheless, according to a French survey conducted in 2013, three-quarters of French respondents believe Islam is an “intolerant” religion, incompatible with the values of French society. [6] Despite legal insistence of religious equality, dehumanization and politicization of Islam has been engrained into French society. 

French ostracization of Muslim individuals is not new. In fact, recent terror attacks are serving as justification for the renewal of past Islamophobic policies. In 2010, a law passed by the French Senate banned face-covering gear in public places, including masks, helmets, niqabs, burqas, and other veils. The prohibition infringed upon one’s agency by taking away the choice of Muslim women to dress modestly. Yetto Souiriy, a French-Muslim woman, commented on French laïcité saying, “Sometimes I think tolerance has gone backwards.” In the past, Souiriy has been withheld from accompanying her son on a school trip because of her hijab. However, another mother wearing a large, visible cross was allowed to attend. [7] This is just one out of many French-Muslim experiences that demonstrates the intentional, and systematic French targeting of Muslims. By advancing Evangelical beliefs and suppressing Islamic ones, France has veered away from the true values of secularism. 

Muslims worldwide have expressed contempt at France’s exclusivist attitudes, viewing them as a direct attack on their culture and identity. Islam has a strong tradition of aniconism and any visual depiction of the Prophet is strictly prohibited; thus, Macron’s defense of the French right to caricature was a deep insult to the Muslim community. Many saw echoes of French colonization in the way the entire faith was stigmatized for the actions of a few. Asma Barlas, a Bangladeshi professor, articulated, “Europe has also had a long history with non-Muslim terrorists but their actions were rarely, if ever, attributed to ‘Christianity’… Naturally, Muslims who aren’t terrorists – which would be 99.99% of us – are enraged by how our religion is anathematised.” [8] The immediate response from the Muslim world—from mass protests to boycott of French goods— demonstrates the widespread effect of this issue. Contrarily, in a rather orientalist fashion, the West has supported President Macron. Instead of addressing the hate and bigotry perpetuated towards French Muslims, Western powers have further propagated Islamophobic rhetoric by choosing to stand with France. 

President Macron’s proposed plan seeks to overhaul the way Islam is organized in France— from the training of imams to the existence of Islamic associations. Mosques will be under greater scrutiny of the state, limiting the community’s practice of the faith. According to Macron, these propositions aim to “liberate French Islam from foreign influences” and combat radical Islamism. [9] However, state monitorization of Muslim institutions as vectors of radicalization is an ineffective means of combatting extremism. Extremist individuals exist in every sect of society and in actuality, constitute a very small proportion of the Muslim population. If Islamic institutions will be monitored, then why not churches? By forcing Muslims to practice their faith in alliance with state regulations, enforcements prove to be social hindrances that deter religious pluralism. These limitations encroach upon individual freedoms and discriminate abreast interpretations of secularism.

France must equip its constituents with public discourse tools to navigate religious complexities and correctly communicate across lines of difference. It must celebrate all religions, not repress them under a mask of national security. France must reinvent its secular policy so that every citizen can freely express his or her faith without fear of being stigmatized. Until France treats its Muslim community members with the respect and dignity they deserve, the country cannot be deemed secular. 

[1] Al Jazeera, “Timeline: A Series of Attacks in France amid a Debate over Islam,” France | Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera, October 29, 2020), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/10/29/timeline-how-muslim-anger-towards-france-flared

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ministère de l’Europe et des Affaires étrangères, “Secularism and Religious Freedom in France,” France Diplomacy – Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, accessed November 21, 2020, https://www.diplomatie.gouv.fr/en/coming-to-france/france-facts/secularism-and-religious-freedom-in-france-63815/article/secularism-and-religious-freedom-in-france

[4] “What Is Secularism?,” accessed November 22, 2020, https://www.secularism.org.uk/what-is-secularism.html

[5] Maxime Gautier, “Population by Religion in France 2020,” Statista, May 12, 2020, https://www.statista.com/statistics/459982/population-distribution-religion-france/

[6] Stéphanie Le Bars, “74 % Des Français Jugent L’islam Intolérant : ‘Les Musulmans Doivent Entendre Cet Avertissement,’” Le Monde.fr (Le Monde, January 24, 2013), https://www.lemonde.fr/religions/article/2013/01/24/74-des-francais-jugent-l-islam-intolerant-les-musulmans-doivent-entendre-cet-avertissement_6002436_1653130.html

[7] “France’s Headscarf War: ‘It’s an Attack on Freedom’,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, July 22, 2013), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/22/frances-headscarf-war-attack-on-freedom

[8] Ibid.[9] “Macron Outlines New Law to Prevent ‘Islamist Separatism’ in France,” The Guardian (Guardian News and Media, October 2, 2020), https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/02/emmanuel-macron-outlines-law-islamic-separatism-france.

Image: https://www.voanews.com/europe/thousands-protest-islamophobia-france