French Muslims on the Frontlines of Islamophobia

A woman protests in Paris, with a sign that says, “The veil covering your eyes is much more dangerous than the veil covering my hair.”

Insults and physical aggression; a climate of fear ignored by, if not created with the full complicity of, law enforcement; Islamophobia: that is the reality in many non-Muslim countries. While sometimes our communities make the conscious choice to embrace diversity rather than fearing it, other times we are not so lucky.

In France, for instance, recent months and weeks have seen a series of verbal and physical attacks on Muslims, especially Muslim women. Given that hijabi sisters are immediately identifiable as Muslim, they are they more likely than men to face harassment, and even physical violence, at the hands of right-wing xenophobes in any country where Muslims find themselves part of the minority. France is no exception. The last 15 days have seen 8 separate anti-Muslim incidents reported to the French Muslim Council.

One recent event included a Turkish woman who, while in the car with her husband, was on the receiving end of the remark that a male passerby didn’t “like it when women wear costumes like that. Go home you dirty Arabs.” Once her husband exited the vehicle to confront the man, the attacker then opened the car door and tried to remove her headscarf. After the incident, the perpetrator sought and received refuge in the offices of a nearby right-leaning political movement. A spontaneous demonstration occurred before the offices until the arrival of the police.

Perhaps even more disturbing are the growing number of incidents involving the complicity of or caused by the French police. For instance, a young woman who, following the racist outburst of a fellow bus passenger, experienced a physical assault by a male observer of the exchange got a cruel surprise when she tried to get help. She called the police during the incident and when they arrived at the scene, they arrested her, the victim, allowing her attacker to go free.

Most recently, a woman walking with her husband and mother while wearing a niqab was asked to undergo an identity check — standard procedure now that France has banned the niqab. Despite complying with the police request, she and her family were verbally accosted and then faced physical abuse from the police themselves. After an exchange that saw the woman violently pushed onto the hood of a police car, she and her husband were both detained with the husband officially put into custody and now facing charges. Civil unrest continues to plague the area where the incident occurred.

Unfortunately, these examples are not isolated incidents but rather appear to be part of a broader trend.

Deep rooted intolerance

Liberté, égalité, fraternité. The official motto of the French government, which translates as liberty, equality, and brotherhood (as in solidarity), emerged following the French Revolution in the late 1700s, and while its principles served as the foundation of the modern human rights agenda, they are not uniformly applied now that France has moved from a homogeneous white European population to a diverse mix of global origins.

That new global mix includes Europe’s largest Muslim population, yet given the legislation of recent years — which not only bans wearing the niqab in public, but also prevents wearing a hijab of any kind in public institutions including schools and government jobs — France is clearly not at ease with its burgeoning minority population. Thus, the recent spike in anti-Muslim crimes throughout the country should come as no surprise as even the government itself tends toward Islamophobic sentiment.

Having spent a year in Paris and many more years studying the language and culture of France, I can safely vouch for the pervasiveness of French racism and xenophobia, yet what I was always most struck by was the French brand of aggressive secularism known as laïcité, which rather than promoting religious freedom and tolerance, tends to ensure that no one has any connection to religion at all as well as to view those who are actively practicing any religion as strange. While even devout Catholics are likely to be at least lightly teased, other “foreign” religious groups face more serious backlash. This sort of “tame” distaste for religion is mainstream, so once you move toward the fringes of the actual right wing, the propensity for verbal and physical assault of Muslims is relatively elevated.

Nonetheless, it is important to note that incidents like those described above do increasingly spark broader outrage within France even among individuals who support the French niqab and hijab laws. That a popular demonstration could spontaneously arise after such an incident is promising, yet tangible change legislation seems unlikely given the work that must first be done to inform the French public about Islam and dispel misinformation fueled bigotry. While typically more overt and aggressive, the French narrative of rising Islamophobia is not so different from other European countries as well as the United States, meaning that high quality, reliable information about Islam is sorely needed to combat astronomically high levels of ignorance about our faith.

Photograph: Alamy via The Guardian