By Aksa Arshad
On October 16 a teacher in France was beheaded by an 18-year-old Muslim refugee. Following this, there has been a rise in Islamophobic hate crimes against France’s Muslims and with further attacks occurring in the French cities of Nice and Avignon.
The initial attack was in response to a publication of a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This wave of terror came only two weeks after the French President, Emanuel Macron delivered a speech claiming that ‘Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today’. It should be noted that this is not the first time such a cartoon has caused unrest. The satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, has twice been subjected to ambush for their cartoons of the Islamic Prophet. In 2011, they saw their offices firebombed after publishing a cartoon of the prophet on the cover of their magazine. And again, in 2015 when a terrorist attack killed 12 staff members and injured 11 others.
Needless to say, I do not condone any of the above-mentioned attacks and cannot imagine why anyone would. However, despite the deadly backlashes the country has seen over the years due to the cartoons which have been deemed offensive by the Muslim community. They refuse to give them up, all in the name of ‘freedom of expression’.
Whilst freedom of expression is central to a democracy the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) recognises that its exercise is limited by justifications “necessary in a democratic society” and to maintain public order. Evidently, the ECHR’s definition of freedom of expression has been disregarded in France, displayed through the lack of public order in the last month. This article will highlight how the French government are unable to accommodate cultural differences when it comes to the Muslim community, despite being a multicultural democracy. And will conclude that the ‘Islam crisis’ is just a distraction from economic inequality.
The French national motto of ’Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ (liberty, equality and fraternity) is misleading. As secular laws forbid Muslim females from wearing the hijab in schools and places of work and bans them from wearing the niqab altogether. Surely this limits their liberty as they are not able to dress how they would like and thereby are restricted from exercising their ‘freedom of expression’? Although some would argue that freedom of expression and freedom of worship are mutually exclusive, the line between the two is often blurred. This policing of ‘religious symbols’ seems hypocritical given that prior to his presidency, Macron, stated that the niqab is a personal choice and was in accordance with the values of the French Republic. Many European countries such as neighbouring Belgium have similar laws on the niqab, which have come under fire recently with the outbreak of COVID-19, as they resemble masks and are at many times even made of the same materials. Ironically, there are fines for wearing the niqab while face coverings are acceptable and essential.
Furthermore, while the French government conveniently makes exceptions for its Catholic population by providing part public-funding for private Catholic schools and with 6 out of 11 of their official holidays being Catholic holidays, they do not wish to make any such exceptions for their 6.6 million Muslim citizens. Arguably problematic, but it is not surprising as Catholicism is practised more widely in the West and is considered a majority white religion. Hence this highlights the incompetency of a multicultural democracy to accommodate cultural differences as Islam is treated as a ‘foreign’ entity. As suggested above, this anti-Muslim rhetoric seems to be a trend throughout Europe. In a survey, roughly two-thirds of respondents in Western Europe (ranging from 59% in Belgium to 70% in Denmark) perceived greater cooperation with the Muslim world as a threat.
To add to this, the persecution of the Jews was fuelled through a similar perception of them as a ‘threat’. Thereby, Muslims must be protected by the laws of a multicultural democracy, just as the Jews have been protected. Almost a year ago, the French adopted a law which criminalised criticism of Zionism. The controversial law treats anti-Zionism (opposition to the State of Israel) and anti-Semitism alike. In this way, criticism of Israel equates to racism but criticism of Islam is freedom of expression and not the former. The French will outlaw anti-Zionism – again limiting freedom of expression – but will not outlaw cartoons that are highly offensive to Muslims. This stance has been rejected by several Arab trade associations who have announced a boycott of French products.
The relaxing of secularism and introduction of laws which limit attacks on Islam are essential to ensure that the country’s Muslims feel both accepted and protected. A response which further tightens secularism and restrictions on Muslims is only likely to exacerbate pre-existing tensions. Personally, as someone who identifies both as a Muslim and a European, it’s disheartening when the two identities struggle to co-exist or rarely collocate. Even more so when we are told that we are not trying to integrate. I have spent most of my life trying to assimilate only for it to go in vain.
The assumption that Islam is incapable of peacefully coexisting with other civilisations and religions has divided and alienated Muslims from Western societies. Macron is doing the same when calling for ‘Islamic separatism’, he is further marginalising the community, rather than tackling the underlying causes – poverty. An estimated 40 percent of France’s Muslims live in and around Paris, many of them in the poor suburbs. It is simply not enough to just claim that ‘we are one’, action needs to be taken to reassure that France’s Muslims enjoy the same liberté as their counterparts.
Lastly, I can’t help but recall the Yellow Vests movement protesting the government’s tax reforms and wonder how long this narrative of ‘Islam in crisis’ will work to divert attention from his political and economic failures. The ‘Islamic crisis’ is to the French what the ‘migrant crisis’ is to the UK, mainly a distraction from economic inequality.
Aksa Arshad, Final year BA International Relations Undergraduate