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Rabat — In France, the Muslim community is concerned about the rise of Islamophobia. In the light of rising populism and an agitated international community, Muslims around the world are facing new waves of Islamophobic behaviors, both institutional and societal.
In his latest report to the UN Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Ahmed Shaheed, observes that hatred regarding Muslims worsened to “Epidemic proportions following the 9/11 terrorist attacks and other horrific acts of terrorism purportedly carried out in the name oo Islam.”
According to the report, European surveys conducted in 2018/2019 reveal that almost 4 in 10 people express “unfavorable views about Muslims.”
In the case of France, Islamophobia has not yet been the focus of systemic sociological and anthropological inquiries. Yet, daily events reveal that rage and suspicion against the Muslim community are on the rise. In February 2019 for instance, the release of a “Sports Hijab” by the Decathlon brand caused controversy, resulting in its withdrawal from the market.
The continuous debate on the question of liberties, racism, and Islamic principles on French national news media stimulates social discussion around the conformity of the Islamic practices with the values of the Republic.
With recent acts of vandalism taking part against Muslims inside the French community, including the discretion and the attack of mosques and their frequenters, Muslims are fearing further fragmentation in France. Two days before Ramadan, vandals sprayed Islamophobic slogans on the walls of a mosque in western France, diffusing offensive phrases such as “immigration kills.”
France’s anti-separatism bill
On February 16, MPs approved the “anti-separatism” bill that French President Emmanuel Macron had put forth, restoring criticism against such governmental efforts. Much of the Muslim community sees the bill, supposedly aiming to strengthen the principles of the Republic and fight against Islamic radicalism, as an astigmatic institutional mechanism against the community. Prior to the vote on February 16, hundreds of imams, civil society leaders, and Islamic sciences teachers signed an open letter to denounce the bill that they judged as discriminatory and trampling on religious liberties.
Prime Minister Jean Castex stressed that “this legislation is not legislation against religions, nor the Muslim religion in particular. It is a law of emancipation in the face of religious fanaticism.” However, protesters took to the streets in the capital Paris on February 14, claiming that the bill stigmatizes a community of more than 3 million members, the largest in Europe. The bill has also resulted in large-scale reactions from the international community, including from Pakistani President Arif Alvi who described the legislation as a “dangerous measure,” calling French officials not to “entrench these attitudes into laws.”
How news media is driving Islamophobia
These dynamics recall once again the representations of Muslims in Western media, evoking the standpoint of several academics who argue that news media contribute to the increase of hate speech and discrimination against Muslims. Media studies on Islam expose negative representations of the Muslim community in Western media. Political analysts such as the French Thomas Deltombe argue that there exists “an imaginary conception of an essentialized Islam,” which leads to controversial understandings of Islamic principles. An imaginary conception seeks to disclose religious roots for political, social, cultural, and psychological phenomena.
Institutionalized Islamophobia through news media refers to the pejorative coverage of the Muslim community in a hostile, unverified, and misleading way. This stream of news media is seemingly producing a media-based representation of Islam and Muslims, without a strong critical-normative basis. These images sew stereotyped narratives, dividing communities within the same space.
Muslims’ identity in today’s France
Discussion is also arising around the question of political identity in Europe, specifically in France. The “anti-separatism” bill has given many Muslims the impression of having to choose between two conflicting identities, one being French and the other being Muslim, one being national and the other being religious.
Based on the definition of British historical sociologist Anthony Smith, national identity is “the maintenance and continuous reproduction of the pattern of values, symbols, memories, myths and traditions that compose the distinctive heritage of nations and the identification of individuals with that heritage and those values, symbols, memories, myths and traditions.”
Political institutions cannot invent national identities, as they are more related to feelings. In other words, national identities reflect a set of feelings such as belonging and identity that can be illustrated in the form of an opinion in specific situations.
In that sense, the French Muslim community, which has historically developed a strong national feeling towards the French territory, especially with France-born generations, feels excluded from their national identity. The targeting of the religious aspect of the Muslim community’s general identity is perceived as an exclusion mechanism that creates two parallel hierarchical societies.
Experts and UN officials call in this perspective to fight against the one-sided portrayal of Muslims, encouraging the public to view news and data with a critical lens.