The Roots of Islamophobia in France

Published on ZNet (first on Jacobin Magazine), by Nick Riemer, Aug 30, 2016.

The Burkini ban pursued in Cannes and about thirty other towns might have just been overturned in the French courts, but it was only the latest and most absurd Islamophobic assault endured by Muslims in the country.  

The French state has excluded and exploited Muslims for decades. The intensity of this assault varies, but the jihadist attacks in Paris in January and November of last year, and in Nice and Rouen in 2016, have sent it to fever pitch.

Of the 3,500 raids conducted since the start of that period, only six have led to investigations. In December, authorities in Eure et Loire admitted that they were targeting Muslims on a purely “preventive” basis, without any specific evidence against them.

Children have watched as their parents are handcuffed or dragged from their beds by heavily armed police. In the first three months of the state of emergency enacted after last year’s Bataclan attack, 274 people were placed under house arrest, the vast majority of them Muslims. Racial profiling is rampant.

Mosques have been violently ransacked by the police. Worshippers are humiliated and degraded, including through the use of police dogs. Around twenty mosques have simply been closed, and more will soon be shuttered … //

… A History of Violence: … //
Radical Islam: … //

… Islamophobia’s Legal Root:

  • Muslim repression is ideologically grounded in three linked keywords: secularism (laïcité), republicanism, and feminism.
  • Political secularism — codified in the famous 1905 law separating church and state — has deep roots in French life, originating in the post-1789 fight against Catholicism’s reactionary power. Anticlericalism, which initially referred to hostility toward Catholic priests, persists in French culture, and now often provides license for anti-Muslim tirades.
  • When Charlie Hebdo publishes racist cartoons directed at Muslims, as it regularly does, they are predictably explained — and, in fact, celebrated — as manifestations of a distinctively French secularism and anticlericalism. The right to ridicule Islam has become a de facto symbol of the republic itself.
  • Secularism emerges directly from republicanism, the ideology of the 1789 revolution that demanded freedom and equality. Unlike other bourgeois democracies, French republicanism is harnessed to a strong central state and is strongly invested in the original revolutionaries’ ideals — for whom, of course, Islam as a political issue was hardly on the horizon.
  • As the current French constitution expresses it, “France is an indivisible, secular, democratic, and social Republic. It guarantees the equality before the law of all citizens without distinction of origin, race, or religion. It respects all beliefs.”
  • When French politicians invoke republicanism today, they often do so to assert the state’s neutrality in the face of individual differences and to affirm the universality of the republic’s founding ideals. This neutrality, they argue, leads to the equal treatment of all as, simply, citizens.
  • In practice, however, appeals to republicanism dampen social contestation by disguising and consolidating inequities. It rationalizes the French ruling class’s dominance by providing its members with a made-to-measure justification for whatever policies they want to implement.
  • Manuel Valls, the current prime minister, is a past master of just this kind of ideological manipulation. As interior minister in 2013, Valls cited “republicanism” as justification for the destruction of Roma camps and the expulsion of many thousands of people. His hawkish response to the November attacks was likewise justified in “Republican” terms.

Inequality Under the Law: … //

Left Islamophobia: … //
Nuit Debout’s Missed Opportunity: … //

… The French left’s failure to join these struggles is especially serious in this context, since Nuit Debout came to life in response to a repressive new labor law that also targets French Muslim women. Article L.1321-2-1 allows the private sector to impose discriminatory practices like the headscarf ban on its own workforce.

Since the passage of the law, Islamophobic repression has escalated: in July, the mayor of Cannes banned the burkini from his town’s beaches. The decision was copied in around thirty other council areas, mainly in the south, and vocally defended by the prime minister before the Council of State reversed it on August 26. Both Ensemble, a component of the Left Front with a number of revolutionary activists, and the NPA denounced the ban immediately.

How far French elites will extend their attacks is an open question. As many voices are now arguing, it is urgent that the Left correct its checkered record on the question of anti-Muslim oppression to meet the challenge.

(full long text).

(Nick Riemer is an Australian political activist and an academic at the University of Sydney. He belongs to the history of linguistics laboratory at the Université Paris Diderot).


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