Everyday Islamophobia: Is France still a country of Human Rights?

As a child in France, you grow up with the patriotic idea that France is a great country doing all she can to protect human rights internationally.

Ever since our famous revolution, when we created the so-called universal declaration of Men’s rights, it is our universal duty to protect others. In this declaration, the word Men, Homme in French, was preferred to the gender-neutral Human, Humain, which in itself shows that the declaration in its essence was not made to be totally universal. 

After leaving France 5 years ago, I became disillusioned with this national propaganda. I truly believe that our poor human rights situation in France is deeply intertwined with the bad treatment of its Muslim population. This article will draw on the problems of French colonisation to explain the current climate of tension around the French Muslim community.

So let’s start with colonisation. It is useless to say that this was problematic, because of torture, oppression, repression and so forth. The decolonisation period was as brutal. Let’s take the most extreme example, the Algerian war, where French perpetrators of torture remain unpunished today. This war showed another facet of France to the world. It showed that France was able to torture and censor for the good cause of human rights. Films like the Bataille d’Alger, demonstrating the widespread use of colonial torture, remained censored in France until 2004. Is a country that tortures and censors a country of human rights? 

The consequences of the decolonisation wars in France were varied, including heavy flows of migrants to France from former colonies. These migrants who became French remain marginalised, in part because of insufficient integration strategies being implemented by the French government.

Consequently, migrants are relegated to colossal, precarious buildings on the city outskirts; the infamous banlieues.

This marginalisation of migrants, along with a deeply entrenched sense of injustice, appeared with the end of colonisation for some French, and many other factors led to an increase of racism.

A good example of the national rise of racism in the decolonisation period is the creation of the Front National (FN) in 1972. The party was conceived by Jean-Marie Le Pen, a former general of the Algerian war who was known to have used torture against Algerian freedom fighters. This party is known to be negationist, populist, extremist and to gather many racist, antisemitic and islamophobic members and supporters.

As stated in Hanna Uihlein’s piece, racism and Islamophobia are two distinct but often intertwined concepts. Islamophobia in France is inextricably linked to racism towards people originally from the Magreb. But Islamophobia is also problematically linked with our state, our laws, and our concept of secularism.

The legal separatism of Church and State in 1905 resulted in strict secular laws. In the French concept of laïcité, religion is strictly personal and should not be visible to others. It has resulted in the headscarves being banned in some public spaces such as schools, but also for teachers and journalists who have to choose between wearing their headscarf or practising their jobs.

This lack of religious freedom in the public sphere also creates a climate of tension and hate, as erasing Muslims women wearing headscarves from public spaces others them. This climate of otherness can also be felt by the rest of the population as it is a well-known fact that police heavily uses ethnic profiling when arresting people in the street.

Hence, when French Muslims express their view on caricatures being problematic, maybe displaced, they do not really complain about these cartoons, it is the general feeling of Islamophobia in French society that they decry.

They protest the systematic discrimination, their marginalisation, unequal violent police treatment. They complain about France being racist and Islamophobic.

This is an historical problem and the questionable situation of human rights in France is directly linked to the mistreatment of the Muslim population.

To the question of whether France is still a country of human rights, I respond: has it ever been one? Is a country that is sexist, racist, Islamophobic a country of Human Rights? Is a country that only considers white men’s rights as human rights able to claim the role of protecting human rights universally? 

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Why Islamophobia is more than a European Crisis

When Islamophobia is discussed in the media, the focus is usually on European anti-Muslim discrimination, especially in France. However, it is equally important to reflect on the way we talk about Islamophobia, what we consider as Islamophobic, and which types of anti-Muslim discrimination exist. Four issues are too often overlooked when we talk about Islamophobia.

1. Islamophobia is global

Islamophobia is heavily discussed in Western discourse as a European crisis, despite recent cases reflecting animosity towards Muslim populations across the globe. The persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the region of Xinjiang in China, where Uyghurs are being detained en masse in Chinese “re-education camps” and facing severe human rights violations, the accusations against the Muslim population in India for the spread of COVID-19 in the name of “CoronaJihad”, last year’s Christchurch mosque shootings in New Zealand, and the targeted killing and displacement of Myanmar’s Rohingyas highlight that Islamophobia is not only a European crisis. It is global.

2. Definitions of Islamophobia are fundamental but not ultimate  

Islamophobia is global – ok, but so is racism, sexism, and xenophobia. So, why do we address Islamophobia separately and who gets to define the term in the first place? First, it is important to define Islamophobia as a separate term, since anti-Muslim prejudice has increased markedly in recent decades. By naming this form of discrimination, it acknowledges its victims, raises awareness of their specific struggle, and prevents denial of widespread prejudices. However, as important as the very existence of the term is, we must ask ourselves what definition of Islamophobia is being discussed in politics and the media. In Britain, the Conservative Party claimed in 2019 that ‘Islamophobia’ cannot be defined in a meaningful way, which raised questions about the legitimacy of the state in defining (or failing to define) the term. For that reason, it is important to question the definition used in public discourse and to keep in mind that some definitions can do more harm than support to Muslims, especially when they incorporate negative connotations and lead to even more discrimination. 

3. Islamophobia occurs at different levels

While Islamophobia is a global issue and is relevant to discuss as a specific form of discrimination, it is equally important to stress its different levels. The media often portrays large-scale Islamophobic incidents such as the current situation in France, India, China, and Myanmar. While it is key to discuss these severe forms of discrimination, Islamophobia cannot be regarded as an issue which occurs only in such high profile cases. It happens everywhere and all the time. Whether Islamophobia  takes the form of extreme violence, discriminatory comments in public spaces, or in a feeling of constant insecurity for Muslims –it is ever present. At the same time, Islamophobia is reproduced institutionally through counter-terrorism initiatives especially after 9/11. In this context, when Barack Obama called on the Muslim community to speak out against terrorism, we must ask ourselves why Muslims as believers need to dissociate from acts of terrorism from Islam in the first place.

4. Islamophobia is not genderless

After having discussed different levels of Islamophobia, we must also tackle the issue through a gendered lens. Islamophobic rhetoric portrays Islam as a misogynistic religion that oppresses women. While religion must always be examined critically with regard to gender roles, stressing women’s invisibility within Islamophobic discourse is highly discriminatory and dangerous. “The obsession with Muslim women’s plight” reflects colonial thinking as well as it puts them in the center of Islamophobia by stressing their passive victimhood. Therefore, the narrative of oppressed women not only deprives women wearing hijab of their agency as feminists, but also victimizes women disproportionately by Islamophobia. This gendered Islamophobia must be detected and replaced by a constructive discussion about gender roles beyond religion, race, and culture.  

With these four issues in mind, we should return to the current Eurocentric discourse and ask ourselves how Islamophobia in Europe connects to Islamophobia in other parts of the world, who suffers in particular from this anti-Muslim prejudice, and from whose perspective Islamophobia today is being discussed. Only then can we do justice to this issue and tackle it holistically.  

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons