Equality, Tolerance, Fraternity, and Islamophobia: Selling Racism in France

By Khalid Baig
Posted: 20 Zul-Hijjah 1424, 11 February 2004

Imagine the French president snatching the headscarf from a little Muslim girl then declaring that he was fighting aggression. Imagine a lineup of reporters and commentators nodding their heads in agreement and applauding the assault. Then imagine him making the pronouncement that he was doing it to uphold religious freedom and protect women’s rights. Not to mention national security, the French Republic, secularism, liberalism, and the entire Western civilization. (Poor Muslim girl! Did she ever know that her hijab could destroy all of these?)

Welcome to another episode of the clash of civilizations. Here is another crusade, another “just war” based on principles. The most important--in fact the most sacred, noble, and inviolable--of these principles is, of course, secularism and the doctrine of separation of church and state. An AFP report about Muslim protest at the beginning of the recent campaign stated: “The decision, intended to reflect France's strict separation of religion and state, has set off a storm of protest by Muslim leaders around the world.” (Emphasis added). A month later reporting on the vote in the French parliament, the New York Times (February 10, 2004) added: "The issue goes to the heart of France's self-image as a secular state that keeps faith out of state schools and services to ensure no religion dominates or suffers discrimination." In the same paper Elaine Sciolino informed the readers that “France Has a State Religion: Secularism.” (February 8, 2004). The USA Today assured its readers, "The French protect their secular tradition so fiercely because their ancestors suffered through religious conflicts, mainly between Protestants and Catholics." (February 4, 2004). This line, endlessly repeated by all mainstream agencies and media outlets, provides a justification and makes the oppressive anti-Islamic stand look more principled.

Many Faces of Secularism:

French secularism means widely different things at different times and in different circumstances.

Secularism is a fascinating subject, not the least because of the richness of its meaning. For it means widely different things at different times and in different circumstances. Upon a cursory examination of French record on the subject, three flavors stand out: extra sweet, regular and bitter. In the extra sweet version it means support of church by state. In the regular version it means separation, i.e. mutual non-interference, of church and state. And in the bitter version it means the suppression of religion by state. For obvious marketing reasons, not all versions are at display at the same time, so as not to confuse the consumers. But they are there and it is interesting to look at them up close.

For a glimpse of Secularism-Extra Sweet, we can turn to Afghanistan of some years ago. In August 2001, the then Taliban government arrested some missionaries in Afghanistan who were working in the guise of relief workers. Among their “relief supplies” were thousands of CDs, videos, audiotapes, and bibles in local languages. They knew they were violating the law, which prohibited exploiting the sufferings of the people and evangelizing in the name of aid work. That is why upon their arrest they claimed that the literature was for their own personal use; they must have had plans to learn Farsi and Dari languages so they could understand Christianity better. But the Taliban were not buying that. Rather they planned trial in a court of law.

Among the governments that rushed to the aid of these missionaries (called “aid workers” by the media machine that knows the power of consensus lying) was the “fiercely and rigidly secular” French government. France expressed its deep concern over difficulties of “aid workers” in Afghanistan and called on the Taliban to stop hindering the actions of the agencies and humanitarian NGOs (September 7, 2001). "The trial in Kabul of several Afghan and foreign members of the NGO Shelter Now International (SNI) reflects the increasingly difficult climate in which the NGOs are forced to work in Afghanistan," a statement by the French Embassy in Islamabad quoted French Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying. The missionary nature of their work, which had been hidden by the media while they were in custody, was revealed once they were out. Two of them went on a yearlong speaking tour, "hoping to encourage others to go into missionary work."

What makes it even more fascinating (and extra-extra sweet) is the fact that there were no French citizens among the arrested missionaries!

For Secularism-Regular we can look at the France of the past century since 1905. After a power tussle, both church and state decided on peaceful co-existence. The church and state have defined boundaries and they generally remain within them. It is a case of live and let live. That is why the Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses were not discovered to be violating “secular principles” and “fiercely guarded secular traditions” (labels used by the propaganda machine to justify Secularism-Bitter we are witnessing now) until hijab appeared on the scene. (It should be noted that crosses and skullcaps have been included purely as a window dressing to create the illusion that the rule is causing equal misery to all three religions. The crosses are not even a religious obligation; the hijab is. Witness the non-protest by French Jews and Christians against the hardships supposedly imposed on them.)

Catholic schools are subsidized by the "secular" French government

Somewhere between Secularism-Sweet and Secularism-Regular lies the relationship between the French government and the Catholic schools. Nearly 20% of French students go to Catholic schools. So many can go there because they are affordable. And they are affordable because they are highly subsidized by the “fiercely secular” French government! Of course such inconvenient facts were carefully left out from the media coverage so as not to spoil a good story!

The Secularism-Bitter has been reserved to fix the problem of the undeserving “infidels” who refuse to learn how to behave as good colonial subjects. When French were a minority in Muslim Algeria they imposed their culture on the majority. When Muslims became a minority in France the same French are not willing to give the minority even the right to follow their religion. So they have concocted this special brew of Secularism-Bitter which says that it is okay to be a Muslim in France but it is not okay to pray five times a day, observe fasts in Ramadan, insist on halal food, wear hijab if you are a female or a beard if you are a male, or take any other of your religious obligations seriously and sincerely. A report by a government body, The Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques (INED), declared assimilation of Muslims as a desirable goal then effectively defined an assimilated Muslim as one who did not pray regularly, did not fast, and made fewer visits to the country of origin. The policy has been in effect for decades. Each year the French government refuses about one-third of the applicants for naturalization, and some of those refusals are of candidates who meet the formal conditions for naturalization, but fail the “assimilation test” as defined here.

Secularism-Bitter flourishes in the other less-known France. The world knows of the France of Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood. But there is another France too, that of Islamophobia and hate. Among its many bitter fruits have been the banning of Islamic publications, arbitrary arrests of Muslim leaders (especially during the time of Charles Pasqua, former interior minister), roadside identity checks for Muslims, restrictions on halal slaughter, and creative prohibitions on mosque building. For the 6 million French Muslims, for example, there are only five purpose built mosques.

Banning Hijab in Egypt

Actually this Secularism-Bitter, reserved for the Muslims, knows no boundaries. To catch a glimpse of it we can visit Egypt. The place is Champollion School in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. The school is run by a French NGO following a cultural agreement between Egypt and France in 1968. In October 2000, when 12-years-old Azzah Muhammad Zaki decided to wear hijab to this school, she was not allowed to enter. When her family questioned the decision, she and her three brothers were expelled. In the ensuing crisis, the French Consulate in Alexandria first denied that it had any relation with the school’s administration or anything to do with its curriculum. But when the family brought a lawsuit against the school, the consulate submitted a plea to intervene with the court on behalf of the school and the parents association. Further, sensing that their action was not defensible, it asked the court to consider two school officials as ‘diplomats’ who could not be tried under Egyptian law. Too bad, Chief Judge Husain Al-Gabri rejected this saying that the international law did not grant diplomatic immunity to bureaucrats and awarded 600,000 Egyptian pounds (US$160,000) to the family.

Probably this was another case of the French government taking a “principled” stand, trying to help “national cohesion” and integration in Egypt!

Democratic Islamophobia

The media accounts have repeatedly reminded us that about 70% of the French public is in favor of the hijab ban and other anti-Islamic steps now being legislated. This is used as a legitimizing statement so the readers can rest assured that it must be both right and good.

What has been left out is the fact that both the French government and its media have worked long and hard on generating this Islamophobia. It “is not a recent phenomenon but was already clearly established as early as the First World War,” says Neil MacMaster in Islamophobia in France and the “Algerian Problem”. European colonial elites in Algeria and their supporters in France ran a well-organized lobby towards this goal. “A highly racialized stereotype of Algerians as criminals, primitive savages, rapists, transmitters of venereal disease and tuberculosis, was widely diffused through the press.” To this day the French media routinely carries inflammatory anti-Islamic articles, headlines, and pictures. Hijab has been a major target of this long and vicious media campaign.

A highly racialized stereotype of Algerians as criminals, primitive savages, rapists, transmitters of venereal disease and tuberculosis, was widely diffused through the press.

The French had gone to Algeria for good, or so they thought, declaring it a department of France. So the Algerian War of independence (1954-1962) was traumatic and France is still bitter over its defeat. France sowed the seeds of large-scale immigration from Algeria by systematic uprooting of over three million peasants and sabotage of Algerian economic infrastructure in 1961-1962. This immigration was needed at that time because France badly needed manpower for rebuilding the country after the Second World War.

In the 1970s and 1980s these immigrants began to bring their families and slowly started to settle in the new land. Naturally, they began to demand basic rights to create an Islamic space to live in (mosques, schools, cemeteries, halal food, time and space for prayers, etc.). As they did, the campaign of demonization increased in scope and intensity.

Islamic Threat

The increased visibility of Muslims was used by the extremists to generate fear. Muslims were not only bad people to be hated, they were also dangerous people to be feared because they were there to takeover the country. The Machiavellian propaganda campaign is showcased by one example. In 1981-1982 an anonymous forged letter was widely circulated in Dreux where the extremist National Front would score a decisive electoral victory a year later. The forged letter was supposedly written by an Algerian to a friend in Algeria. It said:

“My Dear Mustapha. By the grace of the all-powerful Allah we have become lords and masters of Paris…Come quickly, we expect you in large numbers, since Mitterand has promised that we shall soon get the right to vote. We kicked the French out of Algeria; why shouldn’t we do the same here?”

Others have been invoking the same fear more openly. Writing in the Weekly Standard, Christopher Caldwell said: "The problem is finding a way to deal with Islam while it is still … the second religion of France, and before it becomes, more simply, the religion of France."

Human Rights and Conventions

Another very important aspect of the hijab ban is that it violates the French constitution as well as a number of international treaties to which France is a signatory. Yet no media report bothered to even mention it.

Article 1 of the French constitution still says (The constitution was last modified on 17 March 2003): “France shall be an indivisible, secular, democratic and social Republic. It shall ensure the equality of all citizens before the law, without distinction of origin, race or religion. It shall respect all beliefs.”

For the 6 million French Muslims there are only five purpose built mosques and not a single Muslim member of parliament.

And Principle VII of the Helsinki Accords, of which all European countries are signatories, states: "The participating States will respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief…They will promote and encourage the effective exercise of civil, political, economic, social, cultural and other rights and freedoms all of which derive from the inherent dignity of the human person and are essential for his free and full development…the participating States will recognize and respect the freedom of the individual to profess and practice, alone or in community with others, religion or belief acting in accordance with the dictates of his own conscience."

Nice words. But French Muslims have heard other nice words like democracy, tolerance and civil rights before. As for democracy, for the 6 million Muslims in France, there is not a single Muslim member of parliament. And now the bans on hijab, on opting out of obscene sex classes, and on refusing treatment from a doctor of the opposite sex, are the latest in a series of concerted efforts by successive governments to dispense “tolerance” and “civil rights” to Muslims in France.

Of course we can count on the media machine to act as the cheerleaders as France moves down the path of (in)equality, (in)tolerance, and Islamophobia.