French Muslims face escalated Islamophobic regulations as the President Emmanuel Macron, cracks down on so-called “radical Islamism,” reminding Muslims in France of anti-Semitism during WWII, experts said.
Over 15 professors, activists, and researchers discussed the historical, political, and cultural backgrounds of anti-Muslim racism in France at a two-day-conference held on December 12 and 13 by a nonprofit organization, Islamophobia Research and Documentation Project.
Earlier this year, Macron has announced his plans to tackle what he calls “Islamist separatism,” which would affect 5.7 million French Muslims − the largest Muslim community in Europe.
He revealed details of the anti-separatism bill in October to combat so-called radical Islamism by outlawing a wide range of activities such as the abuse of homeschooling and online hate speech. The bill was presented to the cabinet last week.
Throughout the year, France had several incidents that the government has considered as terrorist attacks.
Two people were seriously injured in a knife attack in Paris in late September.
An 18-year-old Muslim beheaded a middle school teacher in a suburb of the French capital on October 22.
Within a week, another knife attack took place at the Notre-Dame basilica in Nice, killing three people.
Following these attacks, the government launched a crackdown against Muslim organizations, leading several mosques, Muslim associations, and schools, forcing them to close.
Although the French value of secularism called laïcité separates religion and the state by law, the government claims “radical Islamism” undermines the principle.
“Today, it is difficult for Muslims to demonstrate on the street because they are very frightened by the political situation,” said Houria Bouteldja, French political activist, author and community organizer.
Bouteldja, who was involved in organizing a recent protest against an anti-separatism bill in Paris, said over 10,000 people who participated were mainly non-Muslims because French Muslims are reluctant to voice opinions in fear of arrest.
“French government is not struggling against terrorism. It doesn’t give a damn,” said François Burgat, political scientist, Arabist and senior research fellow at the French National Centre for Scientific Research.
“It is instrumentalizing the fear of terrorism to make electorate profits,” he said, adding that Macron has given contradicting messages about “Islamist separatism” as he seeks re-election in 2022 and tries to get new voters by leaning to the right.
Burgat, who is not Muslim, said that he had not been criminalized for speaking against the French government and media, but French Muslims would face different consequences.
“If your first name is ‘Muhammad’ [and] if you say what François says, you will be from now on criminalized. It is considered as an indicator that you are on a conveyer belt which ends to terrorism,” he said. “The unique Muslim considered as compatible with the French Republic is a Muslim who is no longer Muslim.”
Repression of free speech accusing Muslim organizations and activists of terrorism is based on the dominant, distorted view that perceives religion as the leading factor behind radicalization and terrorism, said Nadia Fadil, associate professor at the Interculturalism, Migration and Minorities Research Centre at KU Leuven.
Last month, the government dissolved the Muslim human rights group, Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France, and closed its website and social media accounts. The group’s primary role was to provide legal advice for French Muslims in discrimination cases.
“[CCIF] must be seen as sharing, cautioning and contributing to the propaganda [and] ideas associating hate, violence or discrimination or producing a breeding ground for violent actions and amongst its sympathizers,” Fadil translated the official statement.
Some historians have made a comparison of Macron’s anti-separatism bill to the deportation of Jewish people during WWII, which started with targeting Jewish humanitarian organizations and anti-Semitism movements, Bouteldja said.
“This parallel is as eloquent as it is frightening,” she said.
Much like in the 1930s, when anti-Semitism was on the rise, the world is in an economic depression, which motivates the government to accelerate racism, said Ramón Grosfoguel, an associate professor who teaches Chicano/Latino studies and ethnic studies at UC Berkeley.
He said not only French but also other governments try to handle the frustration of the working class by encouraging racism, so that they would blame minorities for a stagnant economy instead of their government, he said.
“Trump [administration] were making the target for the white working-class who lost their homes, who are in very bad situations. They made [the working class] believe that their main enemy is Latino crossing the border, or Muslims or Blacks,” Grosfoguel said.
Bouteldja agreed the pandemic and current political climate reinforce the hostility.
Macron has been committed to tackling so-called radical Islamism and reignited Islamophobia, but European Muslims have suffered from a long history of white supremacy rooted in colonialism, said Françoise Vergès, political scientist and author who has published on postcolonial theory and slavery.
“We do have this relentless, everyday Islamophobia in our education,” she said. She argues that history classes and textbooks often present Muslims and Arabs as anti-Europe and anti-France.
The idea of “white France” has existed before, but several attacks and a crackdown on separatism encouraged public discourse, said Vergès.
“Even though France portrays itself as an anti-racial or nonracial society, it’s very clear if you talk to French Muslims, if you talk to ethnic minorities in France, that’s very not much a case,” said Jean Beaman, associate professor of sociology at the University of California.
The second-generation immigrants in France identify themselves as French but still face racism because of their African origins and foreign-sounding names, said Beaman, who has published on ethnic graphic examination of children of African immigrants in France.
“We need to start to challenge French exceptionalism, regarding race and ethnicity differences,” she said.