The Only Way Out is Through: The Case of French Muslims and Laïcité

December 17, 2020



By: Adam Beddawi, Policy Analyst
December 17, 2020

L AST MONTH, the news that French President Emmanuel Macron intended to crack down on Muslims in France reverberated across the pond. Since then, Americans’ attention has diverted to the many twists and turns surrounding the Trump-to-Biden presidential transition.

But the issues in France have not receded. In reality, tensions have stretched only more thin. The political dynamics in France generate unique responsibilities for Muslims across Western Europe and the United States.

Last week, Macron introduced a law designed to punish organizations and individuals that ostensibly threaten French secularism. While the law won’t make explicit mention of Islam or Muslims, a government official confirmed its focus “on those espousing a version of radical Islam that promotes violence.” The most notable articles in the law include:

  • Stricter sanctions for those who threaten civil servants, including teachers. 
  • Scrutiny of the funding of religious associations, especially from abroad. Some religious institutions have already been forced to shut down.
  • Extending the state’s requirement of religious neutrality to contractors in the public sector, including in public transport.

While the law was introduced on the 115 year anniversary of France’s law on the separation of Church and State, it should be placed in the context of a multi-faceted punitive turn in French politics. Earlier this month, Macron’s government drafted legislative steps to protect French police from “physical or psychological harm”, ban French citizens from distributing or publishing footage of them, and grant French police “access to security cameras” as well as the ability to monitor public demonstrations through drones equipped with facial recognition technology. 

These events mirrored a long, hot summer of civil unrest in the United States. This places the American Muslim community in a precarious position; while our community has gained broader acceptance among the general American population, we have been a reliable scapegoat in those moments were establishment politics manifest in social strife. Over the last few weeks, the Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC) held a series of panel discussions designed to better understand these policies and draw out their potential implications for the American context.

The False Promises of Laïcité 

The first thing to confirm is that the dichotomy between Western and Islamic perspectives on free speech is a false one. The principle lies at the foundation of Islamic philosophy and civilization, and remains an unambiguous fact among good-faith discussants. Instead, our conversations became strategic discussions over how to leverage the tendency in Western political discourse to weaponize anti-Muslim bigotry to avoid addressing general concerns about invidious economic and political systems. When we spoke with Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French legal scholar and PhD candidate, Alouane situated these recent policies in the longue durée of laïcité, the French government’s mode of secular administration dating back to their 1882 decision to replace religious teachings with civic education in public school curriculum. The restraints imposed upon French state and civil servants in 1905 further inculcated a secular ethic distinct from that of American society. French secularism functions to guard against the religious influence on the state, whereas American secularism guards against the state’s influence on religious practice. 

In either context, Muslims become the phantasmagoria upon which secularism relies. Owing to their colonial legacy, France has one of the largest Muslim populations in Western Europe — the country’s second largest religious group, after Catholicism. That same legacy allows French national political discourse to recast social ills like ghettoization, downward mobility, or unemployment as symptomatic of Muslims’ failure to integrate into French secular society, rather than policy failures of the French government. This symbolic schema is the very same one which reimagined German Jews as the phantoms of Nazi society. In Nazi Germany, each social contradiction lent further credence to the notion that an answer to the Jewish Question would bring with it the answer to German social and political instability. Caught in that same dynamic today, certain groups of French political actors leverage conflict to serve their own respective agendae. In fact, the foundation of today’s French police forces was laid by Nazi collaborators like Maurice Papon, who in 1961 administered the massacre of between 200 and 300 unarmed, peaceful Algerian protestors. President Macron has tacked further to the right in an effort to close the distance between himself and far-right leader Marine le Pen, against whom Macron will contend for re-election. 

The French human rights and civil liberties activist Yasser Louati credits the 1905 law for protecting against the potential influence of powerful religious interests, but indicts French government for never extending these protections to French Muslims. Dr. Melyssa Haffaf, an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, identified this as emblematic of the false promises of French universalism, within which people from the former French colonies occupy second-class status despite having fought alongside France in both World Wars and the First Indochina War. Dr. Myriam Francois argued that, despite this, French Muslims more closely adhere to France’s republican institutions than the overall French population. That is, apart from the two institutions which subject them to the most routine aggression: the police and the media. 

The media portrayal of French Muslims distracts from the fact that they are, predominantly, a multi-ethnic working class community -- just like the American Muslim community. They are also, largely, a ghettoized community. The unemployment rate among Muslims in France is 14%, which is significantly higher than that of the general population. Muslim women who wear a hijab stand a one percent chance of getting a job, which tends to be as a self-employed nanny. Even those Muslims in the workforce are either subject to the harsh, invisibilization of low-skill sectoral employment or the soft bigotry concomitant with the elite status positions. In totality, Louati calls these conditions a “social apartheid” for the majority of Muslims as well as a “social death sentence” for many Muslim women. In fact, Louati describes France as the “laboratory of Islamophobia.”

These social and cultural conditions are not just expressions of Islamophobia, since they would aggravate and antagonize any population. They are inhumane conditions, particularly when juxtaposed with those enjoyed by first-class citizens, or populations unmarked by stigmas. They are also conditions that exist throughout Western Europe and the United States to some degree. For Louati, they do not reflect an “identity crisis” among Muslims. Establishment fears of separatist Muslims are instructive; their reflexive response is to allude to the fear that something has been lost due to the presence of some problematic population. This analysis obscures the objective dynamics of national decline. 

In the words of Nagib Azergui, a Moroccan-born engineer and leader of the only Muslim political party in France, the Union of Frech Muslim Democrats: “When Macron speaks about separatism, he deliberately focuses on Islamism rather than on Corsican separatists, or wealthy people building a life on the margins. We’re an easy target.” 

Unequal economic systems cause widespread dissatisfaction, and, somewhere down the line, violent uprisings. In the final analysis, what has been lost is not some mythic national identity, but those generations of people whose work, love, care, and energy may actually build a nation worth identifying as one’s own.  

What is to be Done?

France’s reactionary policy toward Muslims is a clue for those documenting the rise of populism throughout Western Europe and the United States. Economic inequality tends to threaten the social fabric; those relationships, norms, and customs that reproduce society. At a certain stage of development, dissatisfaction articulates different, often contradicting visions of how to change the status quo. Out of political expediency, establishment governments elide the implications of social unrest by identifying and punishing a scapegoat. In the United States, the rise of Donald Trump was due, in part, to his tactful identification of Muslims as just that.

Whether in France or elsewhere, the response from Muslims should be clear. We must be organized enough to engage the broader political processes which articulate scapegoats at the expense of concrete solutions. In his closing comments on our panel, Louati prioritized the establishment of platforms through which Muslims can freely exchange ideas and build solidarities between themselves and other groups. These solidarities can be built at a grassroots level, but must be operationalized in a general political strategy; a transnational approach to Islamophobia, racism, and the hifalutin justifications for their use as political weapons. National Muslim organizations must plug into local struggles as a convener and booster of large political coalitions. Local organizations can provide the muscle behind those that already occupy positions of influence, whether to hold them accountable or maximize their impact. Through our political engagement, we can establish the compatibility between Islamic and general human ethics which will forever persist at the formal theoretical level.

If we are not involved, we will find ourselves in a familiar role: the scapegoat that takes the blame for the failures of establishment governments. Through the effort involved, we can end the line of lost generations and build the nation promised by shared values of free speech and communal social responsibility.

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