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For the Muslims: Islamophobia in France

Edwy Plenel29 June 2016

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In For the Muslims, Edwy Plenel (founder of Mediapart) takes on the alarming growth of Islamophobia in France in all the discourses that constitute it: from the vicious and undisguised xenophobia of the Front National to the high-minded fundamentalists of laïcité. We present an excerpt from the book below.   

(The FN marching in Paris, 2015)

"There is a problem with Islam in France…" It was hearing for the nth time this refrain which, unchallenged, sets France at war against a religion, acclimatizing it to prejudice, accustoming it to indifference — in short, habituating it to the worst, that decided me to write this book. Faced with the growing acceptability of a discourse similar to that which, before the European catastrophe, maintained the existence of a "Jewish problem" in France, I wanted to respond by resolutely taking the side of our compatriots of Muslim origin, culture or faith, against those who make them into scapegoats for our disquiets and uncertainties.

My particular concern is with those in high places, as xenophobic passions are never generated spontaneously, but always aroused and maintained by more basic defeats, defeats of thinking. People who, given their own social comfort, have no excuse for their blindness such as their condition or their environment, their misery or their distress, however, unpardonable this ultimately may be. People who should enlighten, educate and elevate, and not stupefy, excite or enervate. People who claim to know, who assure us that they reflect upon matters, who want to rule; yet whom the present time, with its challenges and uncertainties, has rendered ignorant, stupid and dangerous. For want of knowledge, thought, and ability, they have nothing else to propose than a mortifying passion concealed beneath obsessive Islamophobia: the sorry passion for inequality, hierarchy and discrimination. A destructive passion which, at the end of the day, will not spare anyone in its ineluctable mission to sort, separate and select among our common humanity. A regressive and destructive passion that undermines and ruins the hope of emancipation, whose motor has always been the equality of rights.

It took the European catastrophe of two world wars and their crimes against humanity for the French Constitution — initially that of the Fourth Republic, maintained by its successor — to inscribe in the first article of its preamble: "In the wake of the victory achieved by free peoples over regimes that sought to enslave and degrade the human person, the French people proclaim once more that every human being, without distinction of race, religion or belief, possesses inalienable and sacred rights." It is this promise, this wisdom painfully acquired, that is today endangered by the habituation to hatred, discrimination, exclusion, rejection, violence, etc., that has established itself in France with the ever greater acceptance of anti-Muslim discourses and actions.

In 2013, the National Consultative Commission on Human Rights (CNCDH) referred in its annual report on racism, anti-Semitism and xenophobia to an "upsurge of violence." And, in this upsurge, the rise of anti-Muslim intolerance and polarization against Islam was the most constant and well-established aspect. "If our epoch is compared with the pre-war period, it could be said that today the Muslim, closely followed by the North African, has replaced the Jew in the representations and construction of a scapegoat," commented the sociologists and political scientists whose views were solicited by the Commission.

A year later, in 2014, the same CNCDH raised the level of its warning, observing resurgence in France of a "brutal, biology-inflected racism that scapegoats the foreigner," accompanied by a sharp rise in anti-Muslim incidents. It is no coincidence that the steady fall in the global index of tolerance measured by this Commission, of twelve points in the course of four years, began in 2009, the year of the supposed debate on national identity, a consecration of two years of Sarkozy’s miseducation. Racism and xenophobia are not generated spontaneously; they are the product of a policy that yields to them. "The way in which we speak about immigrants and minorities, along with alacrity in defending them and coming down hard on xenophobic statements, are essential in preventing individuals from (re)lapsing into prejudice," stressed this annual report for 2014, expressing alarm above all at the trivialization of Islamophobia under cover of a supposed struggle for "secularism." The CNCDH went on to observe:

Racism has undergone a profound change of paradigm in the postcolonial period, with a slippage from biological racism to cultural racism. Hiding in this new guise, the term ‘Islamophobia’ has been used by political groups to mobilize a wider electorate and demand the right to express its hatred of Muslims and the Islamic religion. Still more disturbing, a certain radical fringe is taking the step from speech to action. According to them, Islamophobia is a matter of freedom of opinion and expression, and on these grounds the expressions of hatred it may inspire, whether towards the Islamic religion or its believers, do not fall under the scope of the criminal code. Following this dangerous line of argument, aggression against a veiled woman is simply a political act against a practice seen as a form of oppression of women.

Setting itself against this vicious tendency, the CNCDH sought therefore to "name what we denounce and wish to combat." Islamophobia, in other words the phenomenon that targets Islam and Muslims and is expressed "by way of negative opinions and prejudices, often giving rise to rejection, exclusion and discrimination, insulting or defamatory expressions, incitement to hatred, damage to property with a symbolic value, and sometimes even aggression."

It is necessary therefore to raise one’s voice since these institutional warnings failed to prevent the propagation of anti-Muslim prejudice on the airwaves of Radio France or from the armchairs of the Académie Française. To raise one’s voice, in defence not only of Muslims but of all other minorities that this habituation to hatred of the Other places in danger, exposes and renders vulnerable. The anti-Semitic crimes, aggression against black people and anti-Roma violence that in recent years have attested to a deadly intolerance cannot be disassociated from a growing tolerance of everyday speech and mundane acts of discrimination and exclusion towards French Muslims.

Racism is like a monstrous set of Russian dolls, a Pandora’s Box that, once opened, spares no target. And it is by the routine targeting of Muslims, in the guise of a rejection of their religion, that it has once more found a home and become acceptable. Tolerable, respectable and socially within the pale. The extension of the domain of hatred that we are stunned witnesses of today springs from this decorous spread of anti-Muslim racism to occupy the place left vacant by the unacceptability of anti-Semitism — an appreciable victory despite being so belatedly won.

Since the end of the last decade, argues the researcher and historian Valérie Igounet, author of Histoire du négationnisme en France, a standard work on the far right, "the enemy of the National Front is no longer the Jew but the French Muslim." "The Islamophobic marker," she went on to explain in an interview with Mediapart, "has replaced that of anti-Semitism. The message is recontextualized and can be conveyed in a few words: the Islamist danger is opposed to the secular values that are championed by our country and are the foundation of the French Republic. It is also a way of getting round anti-racist legislation: to speak of Islam is a way of speaking of immigration without risking legal sanction." The trap is a crude one, but sadly it works. The far right has in no way modified its stock-in-trade which consists in fuelling fears and hatreds, in designating scapegoats. But it has changed its target, with the intuition that, in the confusion of the time and the disturbance of minds, a xenophobic movement can obtain respectability if it takes its distance from anti-Semitism. That was "the thing to get rid of," as Louis Aliot, vice-president of the National Front, explained to Igounet. Pulling no punches, he explained that "de-demonizing only concerns anti-Semitism." "When passing out leaflets in the street, I saw that neither immigration nor Islam was a glass ceiling. Other people are worse than we are on those topics. It is only anti-Semitism that prevents people from voting for us. The moment you get rid of that ideological catch, you free up the rest."

The "rest," then, all the rest that we allow to be said and done, abandoning its targets to silence, indifference, and invisibility. Time is short, and we cannot say that we had not been forewarned. Our country has today become a European exception, with a far right ensconced at the centre of public debate to the point of preparing itself for the conquest of power, an "official" right in moral decomposition, beset by ideological disarray and financial corruption, and a left crushed to pulp, more of a minority than ever, more divided than ever, and in still greater disarray. Elsewhere in Europe, particularly in Greece, Spain, and Italy, the financial, economic, social, ecological, European, etc., crisis has unleashed a variety of new alternatives, giving strength to the confrontation between rediscovered progress and stoked-up fear that is both necessary and inevitable. France, however, has an empty space there, facilitating an unexpected return of the inegalitarian ideologies which, protected by identitarian retrenchment, ravaged our continent last century.

For the first time since their defeat in 1945, which compelled the French right to convert to the Republic, now constitutionally proclaimed "democratic and social," they have now firmly emerged from being a marginal minority and can impose on all the rest of the political field the hegemony of their old rhetoric: identity against equality. The frozen order of the one against the creative movement of the other. An identity of closure and exclusion against an equality of openness and relationship; the exacerbation of the national against the fraternity of the social; the hierarchy of origins, appearance and belonging, belief and culture, against the perspective of rights and possibilities for all, which has constantly to be renewed and won.

Under the pretext of protection from the foreigner, an outside threat that inevitably takes the face of the enemy within (yesterday the Jew, today the Muslim or, as equivalent, the Arab), this ideology of supposedly national preference proposes the poisonous solution of wholesale rejection, including rejection of France as it now exists and lives. In reality, it is simply an alibi to perpetrate and reinforce domination: while the oppressed make war in the name of their origins, the oppressors can quietly get on with their business, i.e., business. Their private business, to the detriment of public spirit; the mad race to accumulate, which as always leads to inequalities that are genuinely intolerable.

If this sombre rise is fed by the crisis of confidence in a shamefaced Europe that has lost popular legitimacy by identifying with economic competition, it is no less an internal, French story, which began just thirty years ago in 1984, when the National Front made its first significant electoral breakthrough. At that time, the European Union did not yet exist while the Soviet Union still did; the European Economic Community had only ten member states (including Greece but neither Spain nor Portugal), and Germany did not even dare to dream of reunification. Ever since that time, with few interruptions, the advance of a far-right faithful to its past owes nothing to fate and everything to the politicians who lent a helping hand in so many ways: the opportunistic failures of the so-called "government" parties, whether right or left, that acknowledged the far right’s "genuine issues" around security and xenophobia in order to offer their own, "better" responses, which at the end of the day only serves to legitimize the priorities of the National Front. Champions in the main of a politics of fear and, for the most obtuse among them, a war of civilizations whose perils are compounded by the weight of a colonial past that has never really been closed, these sorcerer’s apprentices endanger our common future.

Our own fate, that of every single one of us, depends on the fate meted out to the Muslims of France, inasmuch as this holds the key to our relationship to the world and to others, whether we loosen or exacerbate its tensions, appease them by reason or inflame them by insisting on a supposed Muslim question. The outcome depends, ultimately, on whether we consider (and accept and respect) our Muslim compatriots in all their diversity, or whether we essentialize them en bloc, amassing everything that derives somehow from Islam into an indistinct menace that legitimates their exclusion or effacement. Far from protecting us, this reduction of French Muslims to a religion itself reduced to terrorism and fundamentalism is a gift to religious radicalization, in a game of mirrors in which xenophobic essentialization justifies identitarian essentialization.

This is the warning I want people to heed, on behalf of Muslims and of the human diversity that this word covers. In defence of all those women and men whom even here in France the prevailing wisdom assimilates to a religion, itself identified with an obscurantist fundamentalism — just as yesterday other human beings were essentialized, caricatured and slandered — in an ideological mélange of ignorance and distrust that paves the way to persecution. The stake here is not simply solidarity, but fidelity. To our history, to our memory, to our heritage. In defence of the Muslims, therefore, as our predecessors wrote in defence of the Jews, the blacks or the Roma, but also in defence of minorities and the oppressed. In defence, quite simply, of France.

For the Muslims is out now.

Filed under: france, islamophobia