In 2005, the chorus of the French rapper A.L.I.’s song ‘Tolérance zéro’ started like this: ‘je suis ni intégré, ni intégriste, je reste juste intègre’. With the evident loss of the play on words, this would translate as ‘I am neither integrated, nor am I a fundamentalist, I just remain myself’. A.L.I. stands for Afrique, Loi suprême, Islam (Africa, Supreme law, Islam). He is a practising Muslim – his beard and the salient prostration mark on his forehead make him a ‘visible’ one, at that. The lament contained in his verse is his and his French co-religionaries’ cross to bear: how to be a practising Muslim in France without having to justify oneself?
In his long-promised speech on the fight against separatism delivered on October 2, French President Emmanuel Macron left little room for interpretation; it is ‘Islamist separatism’ that he and his government intend to fight with a law to come, probably next year. At least, the 2004 law on the wearing of conspicuous religious signs in schools and that of 2011 banning the wearing of face covering from the entire public space, although they fooled no one, had the pretence of neutrality: the former would ban kippahs, large crosses and turbans just as much as it would the hijab; as for the latter it was, according to the official version, a matter of national security – one had to be identifiable at all times in public.
In the weeks and months that preceded Macron’s speech, members of his government and journalists had left no doubt about the meaning of separatism in France in 2020. For instance, in an interview for French radio on September 10, deputy Minister of the Interior Marlène Schiappa, taunted by a journalist asking her whether separatism referred to Corsicans or Islamists, exhorted her interviewer to leave the good people of Corsica alone. Yet in recent history, it is from this beautiful Mediterranean island that proven threats of separatism from the French Republic have come, and by that I mean the armed resistance against mainland France, including the killings of politicians and claims of independence.
So why is this the moment chosen by the French government for separatism to come with the epithet ‘Islamist’ attached to it? Have French Muslims suddenly expressed secessionist motivations? Is Macron giving weight to the ‘Islamist fifth column’ trope? Are Muslims being excluded from the nation state all of sudden?
None of the above. In fact, this semantic turn of events is but the result of an institutionalized representation of Islam that has ostracized practising Muslims for twenty years, the unsurprising development of a well-oiled narrative that excludes them for merely practising their religion.
Twenty years of it
This representation, at the hands of the mainstream media, commentators and policy makers, can be articulated around 4 to 6 national and global events that have involved Muslims since the beginning of the twenty-first century: 9/11 and the subsequent ‘War on Terror’, the 2004 ban on religious signs in schools shortly followed by the 2005 riots in the French suburbs or banlieues, the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, and the 2015 Paris attacks.
French attempts at making sense of the barbarity of 9/11 seldom led to the disparagement of religions altogether; there has not been a French Martin Amis or a French Christopher Hitchens. Instead, France’s very own Bernard-Henri Lévy maintained the existence of ‘two Islams’: a barbaric one that justifies its evil in the name of a God whose omnipresence drives believers crazy; and a good one or Islam des Lumières (Enlightened Islam), reduced to a fossilized cultural heritage and rejecting any sort of visible and organized religion in the same way the French Enlightenment did.
Such representation of Islam, focusing on assimilation to the French norm of laïcité (secularism), was very much present in the debates that led to the 2004 law on conspicuous religious signs in schools. It was then supported by many a testimony from commentators from Muslim-majority countries claiming to have ‘found refuge’ in French republicanism.
These liberal Muslims would from then on be regarded as ‘model minorities’, their insight called upon whenever the question of Islam arises – which is often in France – and their legitimacy never questioned. Meanwhile, Muslims opposing the law were being accused of communautarisme, in other word of a double allegiance to Islam and the French republic threatening the supremacy of the latter, if not of rejecting French republican values altogether. On the rare occasions when the headscarf was not depicted as a tool of oppression against girls and women, it was presented as a political tool through which Muslims claim their right to difference in the very bastion of French egalitarianism – state-funded schools.
The banlieues and the Arab spring
As a demographic group, French Muslims tend to live in banlieues, the impoverished suburbs of France’s main cities. These banlieues were then dubbed ‘the lost territories of the Republic’, as per a study that was instrumental in the passing of the 2004 law and quoted by then President Chirac himself.
The 2005 riots in the French suburbs proved the 2004 law inefficient in helping the Republic regain control of its lost territories. As a matter of fact, when then Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy received delegates from the freshly constituted French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) – whose creation he had himself advocated – to exhort rioters to put an end to their revolt, he gave credit to the belief that French Muslims are communautaristes who do not follow the law of the land any more but the law of Islam instead. This led such institutionalized voices as intellectual Alain Finkielkraut to reminisce about France’s colonial civilizing mission in an infamous interview with Israeli news website Haaretz.
This colonial mindset is also very present in the work of Gilles Kepel, France’s leading expert on Islam, whose account of peregrinations through North Africa and the Middle East between 2011 and 2013 in Passion arabe seems marred by the sight of headscarves, the absence of readily-available pork and alcohol, and even the sound of the Islamic call to prayer. Thus, Kepel confirmed the worries expressed across the French media and political sphere when, in the wake of the Arab uprisings of 2010-2011, representatives of various forms of political Islam were democratically elected to fill the power vacuums dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak had left behind them.
The French take on the Arab uprisings also revealed that France’s problem with Islam is not merely societal; it cannot be encapsulated in the antagonism between assimilation to the secular credo of the Republic and communautarisme. It is an ideological problem insofar as the French representation of Islam does not consider Islam and its practice as a legitimate model of society even when chosen by a Muslim-majority electorate.
As an acclaimed expert on the topic of Islamist terrorism, Gilles Kepel defines it as the ideological practice of Islam by extremist believers. Whereas academics have diverged on this perspective, the French government and media alike have clearly embraced it, in particular since 2015. Indeed, after the terrorists responsible for the Charlie Hebdo attacks were presented by the French media as unremarkable banlieue thugs unlikely to indulge in religious zeal, who suddenly went on a rampage in the name of Islam, questions were asked as to how much of their criminal behaviour could be imputed to a sudden change in their religious beliefs and practices. And following the attacks, the French government launched the website www.stop-djihadisme.gov.fr, on which it asked the general public to report individuals showing signs of radicalization, including the self-imposition of Islamic restrictions.
This last point raises a question asked by sociologist Marwan Mohammed in a recent debate panel on French television prior to Macron’s speech, when his interlocutor mentioned the refusal to shake hands with the opposite gender as a sign of Muslim separatism: is religious orthodoxy what the French government is targeting with its forthcoming law against Islamist separatism?
We could add: to what lengths is the French government, with the complicity of the mainstream media, willing to go to represent this orthodoxy as nothing short of lunacy? In the months that preceded Macron’s speech, members of his government and journalists alike seemed to step up their reporting of a number of anecdotes a cynical person – or maybe a reasonable one? – would swiftly discard as fake news: from the Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer claiming that Muslim schoolchildren refuse to sit on red chairs because that colour is forbidden by their religion; to Marlène Schiappa – again – misquoting a French imam and accusing him of advocating the stoning of women wearing perfume; to a journalist explaining that Muslim boys refuse to sit next to girls in schools if they have their period and are therefore Islamically impure.
In the introduction of The Muslims are Coming!, Arun Kundnani briefly analyses the 1966 American film The Russians are Coming! He explains how the film parodies the ‘phantasmagoric anti-communism of the early cold war’ and its excessive paranoia, whilst promoting a more liberal view that accepts Russians as long as they are depoliticised.
Similarly, Kundnani argues, the current liberal stance in the US and the UK is that resenting Muslims per se is irrational and that Muslims are acceptable if depoliticised. As for the institutionalized French representation of Islam discussed in this article, it has over the last twenty years combined both the liberal and the conservative attitudes towards Islam highlighted by Arun Kundnani: accepting Muslims if depoliticised – e.g. by removing their ‘political headscarves’ and not voting for overtly Muslim parties – and succumbing to irrational Islamophobia.
Over 30 years ago already, Edward Said wrote in an analyses of the representation of Islam by the western media as an ‘us against them’ narrative, that ‘so far as “they” are concerned “we” are what we are, plus what they have experienced and known of us’. The majority of practising French Muslims, as we said earlier, are neither integrated – they live in the lost territories of the Republic – nor fundamentalists – thank God! – they just want to remain themselves – and practise their religion without having to justify themselves. But if what they have experienced in the French republic is as I have described, could we even blame them, or dare to be surprised should some err towards separatism?