Muslims today know the drill: if a person happens to identify with Islam and is responsible for a major disturbance, news outlets will plaster the word “terrorist” all over headlines. The events of the past week which resulted in the beheading of a teacher in France were no different, and once again Islam is under fire. In addition, French President Emannuel Macron’s comments have led to an escalation of the situation and encouraged western media to ramp up the negative portrayal of Islam.
France has a long history of Islamophobia disguised as secularism. It began with the onset of the secularism policy in 2004 which prohibits the wearing of all conspicuous religious items in all government-operated public spaces, namely schools and workplaces . The policy targeted Muslim women and Sikh men as the largest demographic of people who display a religious symbol. Another example of this is the burkini ban that was put into place in fifteen cities in 2016. Many Muslim women observe some form of modesty in the way they dress, and a burkini is a garment meant to allow water activities while upholding this modesty. During the summer of 2016, there were numerous cases of police officers forcing women to remove items of clothing while they were on the beach. Police issued tickets stating that the women were not wearing “an outfit respecting good morals and secularism” . The mayor of Nice, one of the cities in which the ban was implemented, stated that the measure was “necessary to protect the population”. It is unclear what protection the population needs from a full-sleeved tunic with a hood.
Many politicians who support secularism have been outright Islamophobic with comments that promote the tormenting and insulting of Muslims. For example, Laurent Bouvet, a political science professor appointed to the Council of Elders of Secularism by the education minister recently tweeted a photo saying “I got the masks”, showing bacon slices folded in a mask shape, attempting to mock Muslims and their restraint from pork . A government official mocking the dietary restrictions of a religion promotes stigma surrounding this religion and makes many Muslims feel like the targets of mockery.
France has often taken a collective punishment attitude towards Muslims. French politicians have had a long history of making irresponsible remarks about Islam, especially following individual attacks, which in turn has caused many French citizens to interpret the whole religion negatively. In 2015, the French government displayed their biased views when they instituted a state of emergency in response to the Charlie Hebdo attacks which saw 12 people dead . This gave the police the power to perform arrests and warrantless searches in an attempt to free France from extremist networks. Unfortunately, this led to the targeting of the Muslim community and resulted in the unwarranted arrests of many innocent Muslims based solely on conjecture and prejudice. The police carried out approximately 3 600 warrantless searches and arrests, which resulted in only six cases that lead to terrorism-related criminal investigations . It is noted that society treats crimes committed by people of other or no faith differently in comparison to how they treat Muslim perpetrators. There is no uproar from the general public against other religions as a whole when a follower of that religion commits a religiously-motivated crime. Neither does the government take special action to deal with the threat supposedly posed by members of these religious communities. Each part of an individual’s identity should not be deconstructed and bashed by their own government to the point where other members of their community don’t feel safe simply due to their identity.
In terms of the most recent events, Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher in France had shown his class, which consisted of Muslim students, naked caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. He did so during a lesson on freedom of expression. Paty faced criticism for his actions from parents of students in his class, and he was killed on October 21st by Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old Russian refugee.
In an official statement following the incident, Macron said regarding Samuel Paty; “he was killed because the Islamists want our future. They know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it” . Yes, the person should never have killed or even harmed the teacher. Likewise, no one should fear violence because of their differing views. Muslims in France and around the world have condemned the killing of the teacher, however, Macron portraying the teacher as a hero and Islam as the villain is not the right course of action. Firstly, it is deeply offensive in Islam to visually depict the Prophet, even in a complimentary way, so as not to promote idol worship. The teacher had said for Muslim students to leave the classroom if they felt like the caricatures would offend them which shows that he was aware of the implications of his actions.
Muslims are the biggest minority group in France comprising about nine percent of France’s population . Policies, politicians, media, and individuals have all alienated Muslims and made them feel as though society does not accept them and that they should change themselves in order to completely assimilate. The gradual portrayal of the message that Muslims are the other and that there is no room for Islam in a secular French society has made many of them feel like they can never truly be both Muslim and French.
The Muslims of France in particular have experienced extreme alienation in the wake of the attack. Following Macron’s comments, two European women stabbed two hijab-wearing women under the Eiffel Tower on October 21 shouting racial slurs like “dirty Arabs” and “go back to where you came from” . A few days later, two people severely beat a Jordanian man and his sister after hearing them speaking Arabic . These incidents are some of the most blatant cases of Islamophobia following the attack, but it has also resulted in the closing of mosques, instances of hijabs being ripped off women’s heads, and French media airing more anti-Muslim content . Macron said, “Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world. Our citizens are waiting for us to act. The government has launched dozens of operations against associations, and also individuals who support a plan of radical Islamism, in other words, an ideology to destroy the (French) Republic” . While Macron’s intentions of reducing terrorism may be well-intentioned, his statements, as well as his approach, are causing tensions to rise among the French population and around the world.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the situation in France by first and foremost condemning the actions of the person that behaved unacceptably. He then went on to say that, “In a pluralistic, diverse and respectful society like ours, we must be aware of the impact of our words, of our actions on others, particularly these communities and populations who still experience enormous discrimination. We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet” .
Trudeau’s statement was met with anger from people who felt as though Trudeau had not “absolutely” denounced terrorism . However, what Trudeau said was not an acceptance of the violent actions of some people, but an important reminder that freedom of speech has its limits, and that people should never use it to disgrace and alienate a group of people. Respect is of utmost importance, and when something is found to be legitimately offensive to some people, then the human thing to do would be to apologize and not justify those actions.
While national security is definitely an important factor in the decisions and laws a country and its political leaders make, vilifying Muslims and further marginalizing them is unacceptable. Macron and his government need to realize that the violent actions of a very small group of people should not result in laws that alienate a whole group of innocent people. National security does not justify careless remarks made by a political leader that demonize a group of people who are not blameworthy of the actions of people who happen to be of the same religion. It’s overdue now that Macron and his government show support for the Muslim community, and realize that they are also just as affected by terrorism. Islamophobia should have no place in the laws of any country. It’s about time that the French government stop cowering behind the finger they point at Muslims, and instead, work to actually solve the problem on hand which has absolutely nothing to do with Islam, and everything to do with the person or organization who committed the crime and them alone. Dear French government, Islam does not equal terrorism.