Islamophobia in France; Analysis of Latest Cartoon Incident

Islamophobia in France

The focus of the study is France; however, its slight comparison is also presented with regard to other western countries in order to have a better and holistic picture of Islamophobia. The anti-Muslim threats and sentiments had enhanced many folds in post 2015 attacks by Islamic radicals particularly on the office of Charlie Hebdo in Jan 2015. France’s National Human Rights Commission revealed in 2015 “France alone experienced 429 anti-Muslim threats and attacks, a striking increase of 223% from the previous year”[1]

1.1            Islamophobia: Definition and Scholarly Approaches by Elaborating its Different Aspects

Definition of Islamophobia is not definite and specified among academicians and it has been differed in their circles. Broadly speaking, it is just a fear of religious community practicing Islam; nonetheless, it does not fully explain overall concept behind this phenomenon. Such definition is completely overlooking its social context and few scholars even considered it as a type of racial profiling. This concept can properly be comprehended in context of social discrimination instead of religious context alone particularly in France. The constitution of France in particular and its society in general are emphasizing to uphold French national identity in order to shed all other identities including religious. The newcomers have to comply or embrace French national identity for its cultural homogeneity. This approach of French people compelled them to achieve ‘Assimilationist Republican Model’, which is exclusionary in nature. One of the fundamental pillars of the French constitution is “laïcité” (Secularity in English language), a value to ensure separation of religion from state.[2] However, religious majority of France is Catholicism or the people who are following Catholic Church. This ultimately led to an identity, which is secular but practicing Catholicism as a religion. This ethno-religious identity is consequently fomenting inevitable fears to other religious communities including Muslims or it has been promoted Islamophobia or epistemic racism. It is estimated that around 60% of French society is comprised of Catholic Christians.[3]

The Muslim community organization “CCIF” (Collective Against Islamophobia in France) also given its definition by claiming it as closer definition to the victims of Islamophobia and stated that “measuring the extent of Islamophobia must be done based on the following dual definition of the phenomenon”[4]:

  1. The trivialization and accumulation of discourses and prejudices that demonize Islam and Muslims.
  2. All acts of rejection, discrimination or violence committed against institutions or individuals based on their real or perceived affiliation with the Muslim faith.

Some scholars are considering few contextual factors in provoking of Islamophobia or anti-Muslims sentiments vis-à-vis density of Muslim population, historical burden being a secular nation with regards to any religious community, and intensity of prevalent negative attitudes in a society. Oxford Philosopher and expert on Islamophobia Brian Klug (2012), notes that Islamophobia was originally categorized as a form of religious intolerance.[5] This suggests that discrimination against Muslims is based on its faith practice. Islamophobia should not be reckoned merely as fear of Islam rather an illogical fear of Islam. Bleach attempts a broader definition, claiming “indiscriminate negative attitudes or emotions directed at Islam or Muslims”.[6] The adverse attitude by the French people to Muslim community is also affecting their lives in socio-economic context. Comparatively, there are fewer opportunities for the Muslims of France to have access to public offices or to get jobs in various occupations.

Unnecessary blowing-up of Islamophobia by western media, especially after occurrences of terrorist incidents by Islamist groups also paved way for Jihadi organizations to exploit the situation in their favour. The media plays pivotal role in highlighting or depicting negative sentiments against the Muslims in France. In one of the Pew’s studies a young Parisian architect was quoted that relations with Muslims are not bad but on watching media one can see extremist image of Islam.[7] Negative image of Muslims can even clearly be identified in movies, cartoons, video games, music and novels. Further, anti-Muslim rhetoric is also one of the major causes in promoting Islamophobia among constituents by far right politicians in French society.

Islamophobia is seldom causing terrorist incidents as orchestrated in France instead it highlighted discriminatory attitude being prevailed in French society in connection with Muslims or Islam. However, a link exists between Islamophobia and inclination of youth for Jihadi outfits, particularly Al-Qaeda and ISIS. Scholar Robyn Took stated, “Terrorists gain support for this concept by exploiting western spectacles of violence”.[8] The terrorist attacks by Islamists in France particularly on the office of satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” in Paris on January 07, 2015 has initiated a debate about two important values of any democratic society i.e. freedom of speech versus the freedom of religion. It seems that they are at odds to each other but these two concepts become more complicated when one cannot distinguish between ‘freedom of religion’ and ‘freedom from religion’. Besides, the over-emphasis on the value of freedom of speech in multi-cultural ethnic and multi-religious societies made it a gigantic task to strike a balance between freedom of religion and freedom of religion. In nutshell, the primary value being attacked was “laïcité”, the main feature of French law in 1905, still Charlie Hebdo that is known to attack powerful sources in society, sometimes go an extra mile in mocking various contents including religion. The magazine has a slogan, dumb and nasty, which came from a complaint letter, communicated to the paper in 1960’s.[9] Still there is an international law available regarding racial discrimination titled as “The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination” but its scope cannot directly be extended to religious discrimination.[10] These are 177 signatories to the law and its Article 2 says on the states “To condemn and take steps to eliminate such discrimination”.[11] However, the law directly relating to religious discrimination is prevailing in UK by the name of “Racial and Religious Hatred Act 2006”.[12]  In France, it is one of the paramount challenges for the government to introduce anti-religious discrimination law as “laïcité” is the foremost provision in constitution of France and it remained integral part of French Society since French Revolution of 1789. Consequently, Charlie Hebdo’s mocking of Islam is not only an attack on religion of Islam but also an attack on the very right of freedom of religion. According to general public, the Muslims who are practicing Islam are actually not complying to the basic identities of French Society rather their freedom of religion is contradictory to French values including secularism, Catholic French nationalism and over-emphasized freedom of expression.

It is very unfortunate that Islam has been deliberately commissioned against Muslims in Western countries, particularly; France has utilized it as a tool for prejudice, distrust and cause for verbal attacks sometimes-real attacks on their symbols, worship places and other properties. It initiates hot debates regarding negative depiction of Islam and Muslims as a community. Many people who are oblivious about true image of Islam considering it as inferior, contradictory to modern values of the society and even alleged that it invites violence. As a result, many common individuals in such western societies describe Muslims as “uncivilized” and “irrational”.[13] The Runnymede Trust in its findings also indicated towards this prejudicial view of Islam and stated “Islamophobic assumptions are based on Islam as single monolithic system, without internal development, diversity and dialogue”.[14] The opposite of the word Islamophobia is Islamophilia which is also not translating the real image of Islam or the true believers of Islam. The Muslim scholar Mohammad Tamdggidi denounces that both “Islamophobia and Islamophilia are two sides of the West’s orientalist attitude towards Islam”.[15] He is of the view that both the terms are false and manipulated the very reality of Islam. Some academicians are of the view that prejudices exist in the west and in France both against Islam as a religion and Muslims as a community. Fernando Bravo while analyzing the history of Islamophobia explains that it is “a hostile attitude towards Islam and Muslims based on an image that depicts Islam as the enemy”.[16] In 2013, a survey was conducted in France that 74% of the people are considering Islam as intolerant and contrary to the values of French society.[17] Due to this discriminatory attitude towards Islam by huge majority of French people, both verbal and physical attacks have been taking place on veiled women, mosques and shops selling Halal food.

1.2            Islamophobia in France: An Historical Perspective

The French society, which is currently giving an extraordinary credence to secularism, emerged when violent conflicts had been observed by it in the past few centuries, especially between 1562 and 1598. Specifically, the prominent “French Wars of Religion” had immensely claimed the lives of millions of civilians.[18] Those disastrous wars took into folds various European states including England, Scotland, Spain, Duchy of Savoy and France besides many more people have died as a result of the French Revolution in 1789. Due to that burden of history, the French society has been struggling to strike a balance between the legacy of religious warfare and civil warfare. Subsequently, an attempt was made to bridge a gap between the legacy of religious warfare and laïcité. The idea of laïcité was “borrowed from the philosophy of Lumieres, a movement influenced by ant-clerical thinkers like Michel de Montaigne and Michel De I Hospital”.[19] Moreover, the anti-establishment agitations have contributed to restrict the temporal powers of Catholic Church and has played pivotal role in secularizing the French society like the case of 1871 Paris Commune. [20]

Moreover, the French government tabled a law in 1905 in order to “ensure freedom of conscience and guarantee freedom of worship limited only by […] the interest of public order”.[21] In that law it was also stated that the Republic would “neither acknowledge, nor pay for, nor subsidize any religious community”.[22] On the adoption of that law, the French State had intentionally used the word freedom of conscience instead freedom of religion paying way for its proscription in any kind of public survey. In order to ensure France as secular state additional laws were adopted which further limited the freedom given by 1905 law. For instance, neither the public monuments are allowed to include symbols indicating towards any religious identity nor the school teachers can wear religious garb and dresses as symbol in work places.

France unlike its European neighbors is considering religion as a secondary trait for its identity and according to Pew Research Center that approximately one-third of the population in France are atheists or the people who are having no affiliation with any religion which is the seventh largest percentage of any country in Europe.[23] In 2015, the mentioned center has predicted that by 2050 more than 44% of the population would be unaffiliated with any religion.[24]

 1.3            Striking a Balance between Laïcité and Freedom of Religion:

 It becomes a challenge for France to have a balance between its core and revered value laïcité and freedom of religion as she is committed member of OSCE (Organization of Security for Cooperation of Europe) as well. Laïcité or Secularism became integral part of French constitution in order to give fair chance for fruitful dialogue between and within different religious and non-religious communities. Instead, it is currently moving for closed secularism model attempting to exclude religion from public life. For example, in 2010 a law was adopted “prohibiting the concealment of one’s face applies to all areas of society, regardless of state involvement”.[25] Similarly, in early 2019, the French politicians have been referring laïcité to suspend selling of Hijab by “Decathlon, a privately owned French sporting goods company.” However, the country’s supreme Appellate Court (The French Court of Cassation) termed all such laws as illegal and asserted, “The constitutional obligation of laïcité is not applicable to private-sectors employees who are not in charge of a public service”.[26] Likewise, the French Council of State (Main advisory body for the government) has been continuously warned the government to use laïcité as a tool against freedom of religion particularly in the areas where the state was not directly involved.[27] The Council for instance once ruled that a town could not restrict access of people to beaches based on their clothes indicating to a certain religion.[28]

Initially, the value of laïcité was not a phenomenon to exclude religion or freedom of religious practices from one’s life or from the French society; rather it was intended to separate religion from the affairs of State. Hence, it should not be a tool in the hands of state to blackmail or restrict religious minorities from practices of their religion or to shed religion as a trait of their identity. Such restrictions on the grounds of laïcité would rather prove to instigate extremism among the young strata of French Muslim community.

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