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France: Laïcité, New-Laïcité and French Muslims

From religious neutrality of the state and religious freedom to secular fundamentalism: How laicité has been weaponized against French Muslims

Initially published on 29 December 2016

Laïcité went from being a constitutional principle to becoming an ideological weapon used to justify the social death sentence against Muslims in France

I was once invited by the Institute of Race Relations in London to address an audience composed of teachers and students who were standing against the British Government’s Prevent programme. The controversial project was officially intended to act upstream against radicalisation by turning schools into places of surveillance.

My position was to inform the audience on how French public schools - and to some extent private ones - were no longer a safe haven for children and soon-to-be adults. Indeed, I had come to speak about the cases of child abuse by teachers in the wake of the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Several primary school children were either physically assaulted by their teachers or school principals, humiliated in front of their classmates or verbally abused. All of those cases, except for one, were met with complete silence by the French media. This one made headlines and sparked international outrage because the student ended up being dragged to a police station and sued for condoning terrorism. His crime? Refusing to say “Je suis Charlie,” calling “Charlie” an evil man because he “had insulted his prophet” and for saying he was with the terrorists. Not only was he treated like a criminal but was then asked to sign his own deposition…at the age of eight. When he was later asked if he knew what a terrorist is, his answer was, “No, I don’t.”

Such a story did not move the minister of education, Mrs Najat Vallaud Belkacem, who not only refused to condemn the school personnel’s violence against a child but further stated that they had acted according to the procedures in place. This cynical position was confirmed a few weeks later when the international media turned its attention to a new witch hunt against Muslim students.

Using the 2004 ban against the Muslim headscarf in public schools as a pretext, several school principals and teachers began chasing Muslim girls wearing skirts that were deemed too long and hence identified as religious symbols. The case for religious discrimination could not be ignored, but again, the minister of education stuck with her cynicism and cowardice by congratulating the school personnel for “acting with discretion”. This support for such a racist position could only be defended by those who viewed Muslims as second-class citizens and not worthy of human rights, religious freedom or even the least amount of support when government employees cross the line.

In its editorial on 1 May, the New York Times wrote that “French educators and officials need to stop using a purported allegiance to laïcité (a 1905 law proclaiming state religious neutrality) as a pretext for imposing their identity on people of different backgrounds.”

The incapacity of the ruling elites not only in France but also in the West to accept Muslim citizens as their fellow countrymen instead of a suspicious group which - at best - should be kept at bay and at worst treated like an enemy, is a societal challenge that can no longer be minimised.

This is particularly true as the threat of terrorism is becoming the new normal. No country in history managed to face its challenges by being divided and by nurturing dissension.

It is of course easy to point at Muslim citizens’ religion and claim a link between it and radicalisation. Yet the latest attacks in Paris and Brussels showed us that the culprits were far from being devout Muslims, or even had a clue about the teachings of the religion under which name they claimed to act. When the attacks were carried out, they made no distinction between their victims, non-Muslims and Muslims alike.

In the case of France, as is the case in the UK or the US, rather than accepting the complexity of radicalisation about which we do not yet have any empirical study, public office holders keep pushing for a security-based agenda, the stigmatisation of the Muslim minority who is not seen as the first victims of terrorism worldwide but as the main connection with it. That terrorism is the by-product of Western intervention in Iraq, Libya and the proxy war being conducted in Syria and that for France, Daesh-sponsored attacks happened as French bombs were being dropped on Syria, does not matter.

Violating our values

This rhetoric of the “Us versus them” has opened the door for violating the founding principles of Western democracies, human rights, progressive values and for accepting the idea that whatever value we hold dear are just slogans we turn away from in times of crisis.

As famous French philosopher Aimé Césaire wrote in his Discourse on Colonialism: “A civilisation that uses its principles for trickery and deceit is a dying civilisation.” We need to ask ourselves how valuable our values are to us.

Western Muslims, and particularly French Muslims whose country has become the laboratory of Islamophobia just it had been the laboratory of anti-Semitism in the 1930s, are the clear indicator of how well our democracies are doing.

The recent drift toward authoritarian regimes, the rise of fascist discourse in not only US politics but also in most of Europe, the acceptance of regimes of exception like the current state of emergency in France, pre-emptive prosecution in the US or the capacity for the UK government to deport a person or stripping citizenships while people are abroad should worry us; not because they are applied against people we may disagree with but because we leave it to the state to decide alone without any accountability and look away when minorities are being put under increasing pressure. But once you create a precedent, you seldom go back.

In the case of France, a concept keeps steering violent debate about Muslims.

Laïcité is a constitutional principle granting the French state’s religious neutrality and that there is no official religion in France. Proclaimed in 1905, it put a clear separation between the state and the church.

Laïcité was seldom debated until Muslim immigrants who were once invisible sociological subjects reduced to mere statistics became a visible part of French society. First, they no longer accepted unfair treatment in car factories and construction sites and thus went on strike in the early ‘80s. The second time was when their children, the so-called “second generation,” marched against racism, state brutality and for their dignity as full-fledged citizens. A few years later, Laïcité became the subject of heated debates and was used to forbid school access to female Muslim students wearing a headscarf.

Laïcité went from being a constitutional principle to becoming an ideological tool to exclude Muslim visibility from public schools. The battle that began in the late ‘80s is still raging to this day and laïcité is constantly being used to justify the social death sentence of Muslim women.

In 2004, under the Jacques Chirac presidency, the Raffarin government passed a bill that openly violated the concept of Laïcité itself by imposing religious neutrality on individuals using public services, i.e “leave your religion at home”. Very few voices raised concerns that laïcité was being used to breach…laïcité. Basic human rights such as religious freedom were violated and it became acceptable after a whole year was spent demonising veiled Muslim women, and more broadly, open practice of the religion of Islam.

All of a sudden, the few hundred cases of women wearing a headscarf became a threat to French identity, laïcité and even French security. Those women were no longer human beings practicing the religion of their choice but the spearheads of an international Islamist conspiracy which was about to take over the country.

As early as 2003, activists warned that the passing of the law prohibiting the headscarf in schools would open the door for a series of laws violating people’s individual religious freedom. And activist were unfortunately right.

In 2009, then-Minister of Education Luc Chatel sent a ministerial circular prohibiting Muslim mothers from accompanying their children during school field trips. After denying access to veiled Muslim students, laïcité was again used to exclude their mothers.

In 2008, a veiled Muslim woman won her case against her employer at the Cassation Court, the infamous Baby-Loup kindergarten who had sacked her after she had decided to wear a headscarf. The story could have ended there, but the government, going beyond its prerogatives and in complete violation of the “strict” separation of powers between the judiciary and the executive branches, supported various pressure groups like the “Laïcité Republic Committee” which declared “if the law makes a mistake, change the law,” supported by notorious and open Islamophobes like Elizabeth Badinter or Alain Finkelkraut. Even the state’s Higher Council of Integration became part of a national campaign to pressure judges to overthrow the case.

But the most striking example of blatant hypocrisy and cowardice is that none of the mainstream feminist movements came to her rescue as she was battling alone against the government and its heavily subsidised media.

As in most questions dealing with the treatment of Muslims in Western societies, laïcité and legal experts alike who raised concerns were completely ignored and replaced with ideologically motivated individuals.

Laïcité, which was supposed to grant religious freedom, is constantly being used to actually crack down on religious freedom. After banning religious signs (the Muslim headscarf) in public schools, there are now calls to ban it in universities, public transportation and even from public spaces.

The first victims of the twisting of constitutional values and the rule of law are of course Muslims. It did not take long before the subverted use of Laïcité affected other communities like French Jews, who are now leaving the country, not because of rising anti-Semitism of Muslims - like the government and pressure groups claim - but because Laïcité itself has become unbearable.

Even supporters of a “tough” laïcité (laïcité de combat) from the right have seen it backfire against them. After agreeing to use laïcité to target Muslims, they had to ask for a halt on this aggressive form of laïcité after calls emerged to remove nativity scenes from public schools and to even question the legitimacy of Christian calendar-based holidays.

The intellectual dishonesty, although clear, did not move many of the French elite who are still in favour of the marginalisation of their Muslim fellow countrymen.

After January 2015: A police state

In 2015, after the January and November terrorist attacks in Paris, Muslim citizens were again used in order to justify extreme security measures that are turning France into a full-blown police state. No time was lost in order to turn national mourning into political gains. The left as well as the right engaged in a political one-upmanship for who’s going to be tougher against terrorism and Muslim’s supposed direct or indirect responsibility for the attacks. “The enemy within,” as Prime Minister Manuel Valls put it, made it a necessity to instate mass surveillance and for the French people to abandon the idea of privacy or the necessary balance of powers.

That there were Muslims among the victims, that many of the heroes who saved lives there were Muslims and that terrorists targeted people indiscriminately did not matter.

In preparation for the passage of a new bill that will put in place drastic repressive laws and in order to justify mass surveillance and the end of privacy, some call French Muslims the fifth column, the enemy within by others and that they represented a connection with “islamofascism,” a term that nobody managed to clearly define.

The bill on mass surveillance was met with strong opposition by human rights organisations and journalists who saw it as a way of legalising all the excesses of the US Patriot Act. Their opposition was in vain. France was in complete shock after the January attack and nobody from French Parliament, aside from a handful of mavericks, considered the implications of such bill.

Claiming that it was needed to fight terrorism, it gave all the tools for complete violation of people’s privacy: massive indiscriminate recording and storing of people’s phone calls, metadata, web browsing history, online purchases, usage of IMSI catchers and warrantless wiretapping of people’s phones, bypassing of the liberties and detention judges, removal of any oversight on surveillance, among other things. Whatever the NSA did wrong under the Patriot Act is now part of the law in France.

When asked about this drift, PM Manuel Valls answered that, “Security is the first freedom.” The statement is word for word what far-right political figure Jean Marie Le Pen had said in the mid ‘80s.

After the November 2015 attacks, President Francois Hollande declared a state of emergency that was supposed to last two weeks. Rather than using it to ask the question about the state’s failures to protect French people twice within 11 months, the French government engaged in a flight forward and sought more powers to crack down on those who were seen as likely connected to the attacks. Those who paid the price were ordinary Muslim citizens.

Dozens of warrantless raids were carried against Muslim homes, shops and mosques. I was personally engaged in a battle against the government to avoid the further targeting of Muslims but to no avail. For several weeks, Muslims citizens were targeted and humiliated by heavily armed police forces while the government was bragging about acting tough against terrorism.

Muslims did not receive much support as they were being targeted. Despite viral videos and heavy international coverage, the general feeling was that “it was necessary, the government has to do something.” But the government in such situation is expected to do the right thing.

After targeting Muslims, the state turned to opponents of the COP21 Climate Conference. Several environmentalists were pre-emptively raided and put under house arrest without evidence of any wrongdoing - just like their fellow Muslim countrymen weeks prior.

State of emergency

After the state of emergency was proclaimed and then extended for four months, the government has now passed a new criminal procedure code that has drastically increased the powers of the general prosecutor, weakened the liberties and detention judge, and gave prefects much broader judicial powers. Again, this was done under the pretext of fighting terror, and since terror is constantly linked to the presence of Muslims, regardless of the fact that France already has the most drastic anti-terrorism laws and that anti-terror judges and lawyers alike called the reforms “useless and dangerous”. At the same time, the head of the Paris Bar Association declared that “dictatorship could be instated within one week in France”.

Once again, the opinion of experts does not matter to French policymakers. The decade-long construction of a domestic Muslim enemy makes it easy to change the law, violate the constitution and founding values. While the internal and external intelligence agencies, as well the secretariat general for defence and national security, openly criticised the government’s security-only approach to tackling terrorism and called for the government to have an “upstream approach dealing with the social root causes of radicalisation,” the government moved on with its project to not only extend the state of emergency, but to also to change the constitution.

This constitutional reform will include a permanent state of emergency and for the revocation of citizenship for convicted terrorists holding two nationalities.

Stripping people of their citizenship is an old far-right project, and had already been applied under the Vichy government that collaborated with Nazi Germany.

The citizenship-revoking project sparked an outrage from human rights organisations and division from within the government. The reason was that it created two kinds of citizens. For the same crime, the one only holding a French citizenship would not be sanctioned, unlike the one holding two citizenship.

But the idea was not called for against French civil servant Maurice Papon, who in 1998 was convicted of crimes against humanity for his participation in the deportation of more than 1,600 French Jews to concentration camps during World War II.

It was not adopted or called for when far-right terrorist group OAS (Organisation of the Secret Army) tried to overthrow then-President General Charles de Gaulle, or toward other French terrorist groups like the Basque ETA or Corsican FLNC who killed and robbed in the name of a separatist ideology.

But the terrorism landscape changed and this time, French citizens of immigrant background became involved in acts of terror. The idea was brought forward and vehemently defended by Hollande and Valls, who found support from the right, the far right and the centre. The idea was that terrorists were not worthy of being French, and therefore that they should be stripped of their citizenship. Despite the fact that French criminal law already allows for it, the executive team wanted to put it in the constitution.

A few weeks after declaring the state of emergency and as the rights of Muslim citizens were being violated, the government even went further by withdrawing from the European Human Rights Charter, again under the claim that it was necessary to fight terrorism. The birthplace of human rights was officially seeking to violate human rights against its own citizens. What a symbol.

So far, constitutional principles, religious freedom, human rights and equality among citizens have all been officially challenged by various Western governments in order to restrict the rights of Muslim citizens. Either we believe in our principles and the rule of law we acquired after centuries of struggle, or these are just empty shells not worth standing for.

France is by far the Western country where the situation of its Muslim citizens is an indicator on how free the country is, but it is not alone. In the US, the likes of Trump and Ted Cruz no longer hesitate to call for fascist era measures against citizens because of their real or assumed adherence to the Muslim faith. Although extreme and difficult to implement should one them eventually make it to the White House, this kind of rhetoric reduces our values and principles to mere slogans which in turn plays into hands of terrorist groups like Daesh or al-Qaeda in their propaganda: “They are humiliating you, come to us. You will fight for your dignity and for justice.”

A victory against the project

On 30 March, despite the liberated racist rhetoric in France and the publicly assumed Islamophobia, civil society won a major battle against President Francois Hollande and the Valls administration. After four months of mobilisation, public events, online campaigns, rallies and broad coalition building, there is legitimate pride to see the president deliver a speech in which he declared that he is abandoning his constitutional reform project. If terrorists want civil wars in the West and if government are tempted to follow the good old “divide and conquer” doctrine for political gains, this victory should inspire many to resist.

If we allow our principles to be breached and for the law to be manipulated because we dislike someone or some group, then we create a precedent that we end up paying for dearly. Citizens have a huge responsibility not to look the other way while governments demonise fellow citizens so they can implement dangerous measures.

Coming back to my appearance in London, I say today what I said then, that if one wants to know how much freedom he will be left with tomorrow, he should just look at how much freedom Muslims are losing today. The rest lies in our hands.

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