France's public conversation on Islam grows more shrill
Published 09/04/2016 | 02:30
There's a strange mood in France these days. Memories of the November terrorist strikes on Paris, which left 130 people dead, are still raw.
The state of emergency declared in the aftermath of those attacks remains in place. Heavily armed soldiers patrol the streets and train stations of Paris and other major cities. People watch each other warily on public transport.
A new campaign has been launched urging young French to join the country's defence forces as a more overtly militaristic tone creeps into public and political debate. Not everyone is in favour. Many of the army recruitment posters have already been defaced.
In the midst of all this, the long, vexed conversation about Islam in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population, is becoming more strained than ever. In the wake of the Paris attacks which were carried out by Isil affiliates, Nicolas Henin, a French journalist who was held hostage by the group in northern Syria until his release in 2014, warned his compatriots against falling into their trap.
What Isil wanted more than anything, he argued, was to see France divide and tensions grow between its Muslim citizens and the rest of the population. This would also benefit the far-right National Front, which increased its support base in the months following the attacks.
Since then, the public mood has grown more poisonous in a country which has long struggled to balance historically rooted ideals of secularism with the dynamics shaping its Muslim population, a large number of whom feel discriminated against and marginalised.
A recent editorial published by 'Charlie Hebdo', the satirical magazine whose offices were targeted by jihadist gunmen who killed several staffers in January last year, was criticised for implicating all Muslims in the acts of violent extremists.
The piece focuses on four Muslims: one real - the controversial academic Tariq Ramadan - and three fictional, a woman who wears the headscarf, a baker who does not use ham in the sandwiches he sells, and a jihadist.
What prompted much debate is the way the editorial weaves a narrative arc that links Ramadan, the headscarf-wearing woman, the baker and the jihadist: "None of what is about to happen in the airport or metro of Brussels can really happen without everyone's contribution," it says. The editorial also argues that French secularism is at risk due to what it claims is "a fear of criticising lest [people] appear Islamophobic".
The 'Charlie Hebdo' editorial was published around the same time the news Marks & Spencer had launched a head-to-ankle swimsuit for Muslim women prompted a storm of controversy in France.
In Britain, the right-wing 'Daily Mail' praised the new product line as "the ultimate proof Britain is truly multicultural" and observed other labels including H&M and DKNY had also begun to tap into the Muslim fashion market. But in France, women's rights minister Laurence Rossignol compared women who chose to wear such clothing, including the headscarf, to "American negroes who were for slavery". She later apologised for using the word "negroes" but defended her stance.
Elisabeth Badinter, a well-known French feminist, followed up by calling for a boycott of shops selling such fashions. "We shouldn't be afraid of being called Islamophobes," she argued.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls also waded into the debate. France bans the full-face veil in public but Valls argued that the headscarf worn by many French Muslims represented "the enslavement of women" and he claimed it was being used by some as a political challenge to the country's secularism. He also argued that while the ultra-conservative current of Islam known as Salafism, which he described as a "path to terrorism", might represent only 1pc of French Muslims, it was "winning the ideological and cultural battle" among them.
Such blanketing rhetoric worries those French Muslims already trying to tackle the challenge of radicalisation, particularly in the disadvantaged suburbs that ring Paris, Lyon and other large cities.
Others fret about the stoking of a culture war at a time when France remains skittish after last year's attacks. Marwan Muhammad, director of a campaign group known as The Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said Valls' remarks "contribute to the stigmatisation of Muslims in France and are unworthy of a prime minister." He noted drily: "We should tell Manuel Valls that unemployment is Islamic. It would motivate him to get rid of it."