A lot of things are happening those days in France related to the big topic of Islam in the French society. In late September, two people were stabbed outside the former office of Charlie Hebdo as the satirical republished cartoons with the Prophet Muhammad. After showing Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons to his students and debating on freedom of expression in class, the teacher Samuel Paty, was beheaded on the 16th of October in a Parisian suburb by an 18 years old Muslim guy of Chechen origins who, most probably, didn’t act alone, the police arrested another eleven people linked to this case. Following this event, France started to vow the expulsion of 200 foreign suspected extremists. The 21st of October, two Muslim women were stabbed close to the Eiffel tower and it was reported that they were insulted as “dirty Arabs”. We don’t know what’s next but it doesn’t seem this is going in a constructive direction.
This opinion article was aimed at critically analysing the so-called “law on Separatism” announced by the President Emmanuel Macron in early October and accompanied by a very controversial speech he gave to the French people. In practice, it is very difficult to ignore what has been happening in France around the issue of Islam in public space and the legacy with the post-colonial heritage and Islamophobic culture sometimes triumphing under the common saying of “republic values”. Where is France going?
Blasphemy: a thorny issue
France is the European country with the highest population of Muslims. We will not discuss here what to be French means in this very moment but we need to outline the historically rooted principles that still have a tremendous influence on French society: first, the principle of laïcité (also understood as secularism) is of extreme importance for many French people and it is built within a process of positive emancipation and equity that developed back in the 14th century. Second, the laïcité principle goes hand in hand with the French concept of universalism, a principle that falls back into the times of Enlightenment and the Revolution, deeming that each human being enjoys fundamental rights like equality and liberty and that those are understood as the same for everyone, with the belief that no group should be given privilege of any sort. Third, together with those principles, it is important to bear in mind that the French colonial era is not solely looked at as a time of supremacism and brutality, but it’s packed with inappropriate romance of a glorious past (testified by e.g. the attempt in 2005 of creating a law in which in school it should have been taught about the “positive influence of France overseas”).
The heritage of philosophical liberalism is embedded in the French society and considers religion to be experienced only within a private and individual dimension. Moreover, the French state unreservedly defends freedom of expression. Among others, blasphemy is considered to be a right (not a violation or an offence), as also Macron in person recently reinforced. Those are the lenses we need to use when approaching the delicate issue related to the ongoing open wound linked to the satirical Charlie Hebdo and the correlated incident(s) and controversy around its publications. Over the issue of blasphemy, as a right or an offence, there is an ongoing (in my opinion unsolvable) debate which falls out of the scope of this article. What I am trying to do with these lines instead, is to humbly produce a critical reflection. It is needless to say that violent manifestations can’t be justified but they show quite blatantly a relevant point: there are some nerves over the perception of blasphemy among the variegated (maybe non-white) French sensitivities.
My understanding of this issue is that blasphemy and, in particular, the authorisation to tease Islam, is just one of the hurting elements within an already deaf and blind French society. Islam is in fact a religion that is associated with and is mostly preached by post-colonial communities in France. Blasphemy at this regard might reinforce a sense of humiliation which is consolidated within an already structurally racist society. This might be triggering for some. Trigger does not manifest solely through terroristic violence but it can manifest in many ways, among those, through a process of disillusion, exclusion and sense of alienation and rejection. This means that the person doesn’t feel as accepted and as belonging to the society which he/she is part of, since his/her sensitivity is not listened to nor even conceived. The sensitivity of those people is easily relegated under the voice “against the value of the republic”.
This reasoning doesn’t want to lead to the conclusion that there is the need to reform blasphemy in France or that French alienation is solely related to this issue. What is more virtually in need, is to overcome the colonial idea of universalism or that freedom and liberties are understood and experienced in the same way across all the different French communities. In this sense, blasphemy represents only an example. Some of the republic’s values belong to a very colonial white mindset and historical contingency which doesn’t mirror the current variegated French morphology. Thus, maybe there is a need to rewrite the values of the republic in a way that might also include the new French identities. This, without putting under discussion democracy, human rights or civil justice progresses. On the contrary, imposing on Muslim women so many “don’ts” without even asking their opinion and, assuming those “don’ts” will free them from their own cultural and religious chains, might be instead very undemocratic, despotic, sexist and, against human rights and freedom of expression. In that sense, the continued stubborn application of universalism of other times might sound anachronistic and perniciously racist.
What is this crisis about?
If on the one hand it is true that France needs to deal with a pervasively colonial heritage among its most important institutional, cultural and social assumptions, it is also true that the presence of jihadi and extremist hubs is a real and dangerous issue that needs to be addressed. Famous scholars such as Gilles Kepel eminently outlined the problem of funds and imams coming from Middle Eastern countries aimed at fuelling the French jihadi hub. This has been a reality for decades and it is still a controversial presence difficult to eradicate. In that sense, President Emmanuel Macron in his discourse states that he doesn’t want to denounce all Muslims. On the contrary, he speaks about a specific enemy which he calls “Islamist separatism” defined as a: “conscious, theorized, political-religious project materializing through repeated deviations from the Republic’s values, which is often reflected by the formation of a counter-society as shown by children being taken out of school, the development of separate community sporting and cultural activities serving as a pretext for teaching principles which aren’t in accordance with the Republic’s laws. It’s indoctrination and, through this, the negation of our principles, gender equality and human dignity”. He refers to those groups as: “organised in a systematic way that contravenes the republic’s laws and creates a parallel order, establishing other values, developing another way of organizing society which is initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take it over completely.”
In his very long speech to the French population the agreeable rationale traced in the words of the president loses consistency in some points. First, when he includes among the behaviours violating the value of the republic the decision of not shaking hands from Muslim women and, the wearing of the veil in public spaces – besides the ones in which it is already forbidden – as public transportation. Moreover, he defines Islam “a religion in crisis”, to him this is proven by the violent terrorist actions of Daesh and other jihadi groups that disrupted during the last years, not only France, but also Islamic countries. This kind of approach doesn’t take into consideration a few elements: first Salafi political thinking and organisations can trace their origin way back in the past together with huge terrorist events; second, the turmoil of a region and the presence of terrorist groups with violent religious flavoured ideologies might not be a sufficient element to declare that an entire religion preached by 1.8 billion people is in crisis. In fact, it might be misleading or too Eurocentric to take this perspective when Islam is framed in a very complex world scenario in which Muslims are also victims of genocide and do not play the role of the bad guy in the story (see the Rohingya genocide in Myanmar, the Uighur genocide in China and, among others, the heavy discrimination recently implemented under the new citizenship policy in India). These two points represent some inconsistency and show the judgmental assumptions taken for granted as a reasonable common ground. Furthermore, the endless fight against the veil is not consistent with basic rights as freedom of expression and freedom of religion in the name of the principle of laïcité. If the laïcité as a principle should grant a fair and equal treatment by the state regardless of the faith of the subject, why can’t this happen independently from the decision of wearing a religious symbol or not? And if the veil is against the values of the republic to what kind of rights is the republic referring to? One can argue for sure not to the ones of freedom of religion and tolerance. Is Islam really a religion in crisis? This can be discussed. On the other hand, I argue that certain principles of the French republic are clearly not anymore applied solely with the goal of granting rights to all French citizens but are used as tools to exclude many others from the French republic itself.
[Image source: POOL/Reuters/ Le Figaro]
To know more about the topic:
Alicino, F. (2016). Freedom of Expression, Laïcité and Islam in France: The Tension between Two Different (Universal) Perspectives. Islam and Christian–Muslim Relations, 27(1), 51-75.
Al-Saji, A. (2010). The racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 36(8), 875-902.
Burgat, François. (2019). Understanding Political Islam. Manchester University Press.
Kepel, G. (2017). Terror in France. Princeton University Press.
Roy, O. (2017). Jihad and Death. Oxford University Press.
Silverstein, P. (2018). Postcolonial France. Pluto Press (UK)
Taras, R. (2013). ‘Islamophobia never stands still’: race, religion, and culture. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 36(3), 417-433.