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