Secularist VS Islamophobic Sentiment in France

By: Kaamilah Moola

Woven into the fabric of French politics are values of liberty, and republicanism, which most palpably manifests through France’s practice of “laïcite,” or secularism. A product of French philosophy and history, “laïcité” was signed into law in 1905, advocating for the separation of church and state (Villeminot, 2016). From its inception, laïcite required attitudes of neutrality in terms of faith, ensuring everyone’s freedom to practice their religion (Villeminot, 2016). However, French secularism is evolving to be understood as one that attacks the freedom of religion instead of protecting it. The value of laïcite is rapidly associated with Islamophobic sentiment, as legislation passed in the name of secularism applies more evidently to Muslims.

The 2004 ban of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools and public offices means banning a visible cross and Christian veil, the Islamic hijab and burqa, the Jewish Kippah, and the Sikh Turban. In 2022, a bill was passed extending this law to prohibit the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” by participants in sports events organized by “federations and affiliated associations” (Upadhya, 2022). The law further states that rules for using public swimming pools or artificial bathing areas must respect the neutrality and secularism of public services (Upadhya, 2022). Despite the absence of mentioning the hijab, or the burkini (modest full-body covering swimsuit worn by Muslim women), it is fairly evident that the law was targeted toward these two pieces of religious attire. Is it Islamophobic? Or is it because the hijab is truly too conspicuous of a religious symbol?

Islamophobia can be understood as the dislike of, or prejudice against, Islam or Muslims, especially as a political force (Oxford Languages). Accordingly, why is laïcite, and Islamophobia conflated as associated values within the context of France? The legislation regarding the prohibition of conspicuous religious symbols in official settings is used to target religious visibility. This implies that to be true to your religious beliefs while identifying as French, you must be an invisible Muslim, Sikh, and perhaps, an invisible Christian. There is hesitation as to whether laïcite is fairly enforced, with two binaries being made out, Christianity being on one end of the spectrum and Islam on the other. Given France’s previous association with the Church, cracking down on Christian conspicuous religious symbols seems to be less of a priority than those of an Islamic nature. Iman Abdelali Mamoun expresses, “how is it that in France the [Church] bells ring each hour to demonstrate a Christian presence, and yet Muslims don’t have the right to express their religious conviction [Athan- Islamic call to prayer]? So, let us be thoroughly discrete and stop all these [Church] bells”. The double standard, although somewhat subtle, exists. Therefore, is legislation in the name of laïcite is passed in the name of Islamophobia or not.

President Macron explains that legislation specific to the Islamic faith and in the name of laïcite is passed with a logical reason. Macron asserts that due to his belief that republican values such as free-thinking and free speech are under threat due to “Islamic terrorism,” he believes that “Islam is a religion in crisis.” Granted, terrorism in the name of Islam has been an ongoing global issue that remains contentious. Attacks in France, made by fundamental Islamic groups, were incontestably horrific, entailing the Bataclan attack, the Strasbourg shooting, as well as the killings of Charlie Hebdo and Samuel Paty. However, Macron’s words provoked violent attacks on Muslims that were not revealed and swept under the carpet. Islam, in France, has been painted by French figureheads as a religion of violence and terror that prove antithetical to French republican values. Under this guise, Macron calls for Islamist separatism, the institution where many draw the line as bordering on blatant Islamophobia. Macron fails to differentiate between fundamentalist terrorism and the religion of Islam. Moreover, it should be noted that this level of enforced secularism appeals greatly to the far right and sections of the left. Thus, Macron’s tightening of proposed legislation lends itself to a political dimension when leveraging support.

As a result of Macron’s push for Islamist separatism, Muslims have been somewhat stripped of their right to exercise their citizenship fully. It is fair to question, is it coincidental that because the hijab is conspicuous by nature, the legislation applies more directly to Muslim women? It is a valid response to argue that Macron’s push for Islamist separatism is no coincidence; in the name of ‘liberty’ and ‘integration,’ a free pass is given when infringing on religious rights and policing women’s bodies. In essence, the French political trend of arguably marginalizing Muslims through legislation is not necessarily coincidental under laïcite.

Sources:

Affairs, Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World. n.d. “Islam, Secularism, and the Culture Wars in France.” Berkleycenter.georgetown.edu. Accessed January 25, 2022. https://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/posts/islam-secularism-and-the-culture-wars-in-france.

“France, Secularism and Hijab Paranoia | UpFront (Feature).”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hnYD_ToqrCY.

“France, Islam and Secularism | Start Here.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fQJUaYQN4os.

“France Senate Votes to Ban Wearing of Religious Symbols at Sport Events and Swimming Pools.” Jurist.org. Accessed January 25, 2022.

https://www.jurist.org/news/2022/01/france-senate-votes-to-ban-wearing-of-religious-symbols-at-sport-ev ents-and-swimming-pools/.

“French Connections – Understanding ‘Laicité’: The Ins and Outs of State Secularism.” 2016. France 24. January 21, 2016. Accessed January 25, 2022.

https://www.france24.com/en/20160121-laicite-secularism-france-history-philosophy-government-state-p ublic-schools-religion-extre.

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