France: Fighting Muslims or Islamist separatism?

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France: Fighting Muslims or Islamist separatism?

In its bid to fight ‘Islamist separatism’, France is moving a bill to ‘strengthen’ its republican values. Critics argue that this bill is not fighting extremism but targeting Muslims. The bill, critics argue further, is also an attack on France’s laïcité.

The ban
On 7 April 2021, the French Senate approved the proposal to ban Muslim prayer at universities across the country.[1]This ban is part of a larger bill, ‘Strengthening Republican Values’, introduced by President Emmanuel Macron to fight “Islamist separatism.”[2] Beyond the banning of prayer in universities, the bill will allow the government to intervene in the administration of mosques, prevent Muslim families from giving their children a home education, prohibit patients from choosing doctors based on gender for religious or other reasons, and ban girls under the age of 18 from wearing a hijab in public spaces.[3] Although Left Party senators and Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer criticised the bill for targeting Muslims, it was accepted with the help of right-wing senators’ votes.[4] The legislative process, however, is not over. The bill has to go to the French National Assembly before it becomes law.

The reason
France announced the bill after the gruesome murder of the French teacher Samuel Paty in October 2020 by an 18-year-old Muslim student.[5] Even though the bill did not directly mention either Islam or Islamism, it was announced as part of the French fight against Islamist separatism. The bill, according to Prime Minister Jean Castex, was “not a text against religions or against the Muslim religion in particular.” It was “a bill of freedom, a bill of protection, a bill of emancipation from Islamist fundamentalism.”[6] A key target of the bill were Muslims living in “banlieues,” working-class suburbs. “We have created our own form of separatism,” Macron declared while referring to France’s “banlieues.”[7] Many experts and critics, and even right-wing French mayors,[8] have accused the French president of attempting to pander to right-wing voters and the French media. Indeed, Macron’s language of “Islamist separatism” is eerily similar to Marine Le Pen’s far-right cry against “Islamist globalisation.”[9]

The missing link
The key concern of experts and critics alike has been whether there are any direct links between religious extremism and the everyday religious life of Muslims. The Socialist Party Senator Didier Marie, for example, said that the bill is “dangerous” for assuming a link between “the veil, political Islam, radicalism, separatism, and even terrorism,”[10] while French legal scholar and commentator Rim-Sarah Alouane said this bill was not addressing a counter-extremism bill but one that controlled Muslims: “How can you explain to me with a straight face that this [bill] will help fight terrorism and radicalization? The government and lawmakers are using the [national security] argument to target and restrict civil liberties, and to reshape state-religion relations.”[11]

Human rights organisations like Amnesty International agree with Alouane, calling the bill a “serious attack on rights and freedoms in France.” Amnesty International’s Europe researcher Marco Perolini argued that “time and again, we have seen the French authorities use the vague and ill-defined concept of ‘radicalization’ or ‘radical Islam’ to justify the imposition of measures without valid grounds, which risks leading to discrimination in its application against Muslims and other minority groups.”[12]

Weaponisation of laïcité?
France’s fight against Islamist separatism at first sight appears understandable, given how it has been regularly subjected to brazen religious extremism. But if critics are to be heard, drawing a link between ordinary Muslims in France and religious extremism is not only false but also dangerous.

Moreover, critics such as Alouane argue that it is not only dangerous to French Muslims but also to French secularism itself. She argues that this bill to strengthen republican values is actually weakening them. The bill, she explains, violates the core of laïcité: the division between private religious life and public secular life.[13] For example, Muslim parents targetted by the bill are not civil servants and as a consequence, religious neutrality can be not imposed upon them.[14]That’s “laïcité 101 for you,” Alouane says while adding that the bill amounts to “weaponization of laïcité.”[15] France, she explains, is using laïcité to limit the visibility of religion in public, particularly Islam. The more Muslims participate in the civic and social life of France, the more the country’s political establishment sees them as a threat. “Sadly, for many in our political elite (across the political spectrum), a good Muslim is an invisible Muslim,” Alouane concludes.[16]

Muhammad Faisal Khalil

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[1] French Senate OKs proposal to ban prayers at universities

[2] French Senate adds ban on prayers at universities to anti-Muslim law

[3] French Senate approves amendment to ban prayers at university corridors

[4] French Senate adds ban on prayers at universities to anti-Muslim law

[5] French Senate adds ban on prayers at universities to anti-Muslim law

[6] French Senate adds ban on prayers at universities to anti-Muslim law

[7] Bill aims to tackle rising extremism in France. Some say it’s an infringement of rights.

[8] «Séparatisme»: à droite, des élus locaux défendent une vision «apaisée» de la laïcité

[9] Why France Is Banning Muslim Prayer on the Country’s Streets

[10] French ministry bashes religious symbols proposals

[11] Rim-Sarah Alouane

[12] News France: ‘Republican values’ law risks discrimination

[13] The Weaponization of Laïcité

[14] Rim-Sarah Alouane

[15] Rim-Sarah Alouane — The Weaponization of Laïcité

[16] Rim-Sarah Alouane