France will make history on Sunday by electing a president that for the first time since 1958 is not from the two main parties. Much of the campaign has centred on the place of Muslims in French society. One French activist and writer tells us why.

French activist Marwan Muhammad is at the forefront of the fight against rising Islamophobia in France.
French activist Marwan Muhammad is at the forefront of the fight against rising Islamophobia in France. (TRT World and Agencies)

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Leaving a lucrative job in investment banking for arduous social advocacy work isn't a common career path. But Marwan Muhammad, who did just that, is fighting an uncommon fight, even by the standards of today's unpredictable world.

As director of the Centre Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), he says the "crisis" of French national identity, often blamed on Muslims and Islam, has been manufactured by politicians on the right and left to distract from dealing with France's serious socio-economic problems.

Unemployment in France currently stands at ten percent, one of the highest rates amongst the 28 EU states. A quarter of students are dropping out of, or failing, high school. National debt is nearly 100 percent of the country's GDP.

Yet for the previous 24 months, the media and politicians have focused far more attention on what Muslim women wear on beaches (when armed police aren't forcing their removal), and what Muslim pupils should – or should not – eat in school canteens.

Muhammad spoke to TRT World during a recent trip to Turkey, where he was giving workshops on how to counter Islamophobia in Western Europe. He believes that such training will continue to be necessary, regardless of who wins the French election.

How long has Islamophobia been a problem in France?

MM: The starting point of modern Islamophobia in France goes back to the early 1980s. From that moment on there was an initial drive to construct a "Muslim problem." There were a number of specific incidents. There were a number of strikes in car factories. Among the workers, among the unions, many people were of Muslim faith: Turks, Arabs and people of African descent.

Two particular politicians, Gaston Defferre and Pierre Mauroy, from the governing Socialist party at the time, thought it would play in their favour to frame these strikes as [being] motivated by ethnic and religious demands, rather than socio-economic requests from the workers. It was the first instance of political expression of Islamophobia, where politicians found there was a premium associated with stigmatising Muslims on that basis. Since then, it hasn't stopped.

These strikes did have a religious element though. Some of the workers were Muslims asking for prayer rooms, which they did get. So the religious component wasn't completely fabricated by the politicians.

MM: When the strikes started, there were a number of requests on the side of the unions. Among the many requests there was one for workers to have a prayer space. Initially the government was supportive of the unions and the strikes.

But in 1983 the government decided to pursue liberal market options as Europe faced greater privatisation of industry. They had decided to dump thousands of factory workers. They knew this would be extremely unpopular so they thought, if we antagonise the workers by shifting what was initially a social request to a religious request by appealing to their religious alterity, we will make a problem out of them and it will be easier for us to justify the turn to liberal economics which would lead to the dumping of thousands of workers.

Why would stigmatising Muslims specifically have been advantageous?

MM: The Iranian revolution had recently happened and the Afghan war with the Soviets was taking place. Muslims were being portrayed in the media in a militant and negative way, and the politicians found they could stigmatise the workers by associating them with this – the same way today Muslims are associated with terrorism mainly in Syria and Iraq.

If they are able to associate the local Muslim minority in France with terrorism, they can problematise them. That's where the incentive comes from.

Does France's historical colonisation of several Muslim countries relate in any way to present day Islamophobia?

MM: Yes. The very word itself was created during French colonisation in 1910 by two colonial administrators working in western Africa. They defined Islamophobia as the specific treatment of Muslim minorities there based on their religion. Their names were Marty and Delafosse.

The colonial history has an impact on the way Muslims are perceived by the majority population in France, because we've never really got past it. France relates to its own Muslims by the way it looks back on its former colonies because most Muslims living in France – about 70 percent of them – come from North Africa.

So you still have continuity in the way minorities are dealt with and you still have the two instincts of colonial ideology. The first instinct was to dominate: French people over the colonial population – a racial, political and ideological domination. You still find it in the far-right.

The other instinct is to "civilise." In the colonial era there was the idea that the French needed to go and "help" the Arabs and Africans become more civilised. What you see in left-wing Islamophobia in France, by Manuel Valls for example, he says we need to help these "poor Muslims" become like us, help them access "modernity" – as people of his ideology would define modernity.

France's secular constitution is often used to advocate what many view as Islamophobic policies. Is it being manipulated?

MM: Laicite, as it is defined in the French legislation, was established in 1905. It mainly consisted of two things. One, state and church separation – religious authorities have no say in political matters and political powers have no say in religious matters.

Second, freedom of religion: the republic guarantees free exercise of religion. It recognises there are different religions and that the government is responsible for the protection of this freedom. In the legal definition of laicite, there is no specific targeting of Muslims and there is certainly no element of religious censorship.

But, since the early 2000s, there has been the use of what we can call neo-laicite: a new political and ideological usage of laicite with the aim of censoring religion, and a specific focus on Islam. They modified the law in 2004 with the headscarf ban. Because they didn't want to sound too discriminatory, they said this is not against Islam, and it's not against Muslim women, it's on conspicuous displays of religious symbols in the public sphere.

These excuses fooled no one. Muslim women wearing the headscarf were at the centre of the debate and it was the headscarf that they used to trigger this whole discussion. This is not laicite. This is an ideological use of laicite in order to stigmatise Muslims.

You've spoken about politicians of the past, but why is it advantageous to politicians today in France to be Islamophobic?

MM: Imagine if you could legitimise any political agenda by saying, "if we don't do this, Muslims will take over." That's how France has been able to maintain its state of emergency.

What agenda do politicians have that Islamophobia lends itself to?

MM: It's a massive distraction from the real issues. If they can agitate Islamophobia, they don't have to explain unemployment. If they say Muslims are the problem, they don't have to justify their security failures in the fight against terrorism.

There are other problems, like a failure of the education system and institutional racism. In 2017, we are still policing people based on their ethnicity; based on their religion.

This affects Roma people, blacks, Muslims, Arabs. Instead of addressing the problem, we say the people suffering are the problem. This allows politicians to get away with not taking any responsibility for their economic and social failures.

Is there anything unique about Islamophobia in France compared to other European countries?

MM: Yes. We have not just right-wing Islamophobia, but also from the left-wing. We have a form of Islamophobia being built on issues of feminism, freedom of expression, scepticism of religion, in order to problematise Muslims.

For example, in the women's rights movement, instead of conceiving of women's rights as the right for every woman to define her own way of participating in society they will say the headscarf, in and of itself, is a sign of submission and of patriarchy and therefore women who wear it have to choose between working and practising their religion. Therefore, those on the left who take this view punish women for the very oppression that they say they are the target of.

If Macron wins might he not also use Islamophobia to his advantage, like previous politicians?

MM: First, there is still the real danger that Le Pen will win. As a statistician, I know the turnout rate at the voting booths is not guaranteed and has an asymmetrical effect. If 90 percent of Le Pen supporters vote and only 60 to 70 percent of Macron voters turn up, she wins.

But if Macron is elected, we'll give him no blank cheque. Jacques Chirac was elected in 2002, beating the far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen. A year later he passed a law banning the headscarf. Hollande was elected ahead of Sarkozy, who ran an anti-Muslim campaign. Two years later he was stigmatising Muslims also. Of course we should vote to block the far-right, but all voters who choose Macron are not ideologically aligned with him; he is the lesser of two evils. And even then we can't guarantee under him there will not be any new anti-Muslim laws.

What does the future hold for French Islamophobia?

MM: The numbers for interpersonal violence and discrimination are decreasing. The numbers for security measures, such as house arrests and raids, unduly taken against Muslims are still very high. CCIF's work shows most of them are unjustified. We've handled 427 cases during the state of emergency: 297 raids on homes, 100 house arrests, and the rest of the cases have been passport blockings.

They are unjustified because, first, when police are conducting a raid on a home, they should verify first if there is a genuine threat posed by the individual. We have found after investigation, in these cases, they are totally innocent. There was nothing to justify the arrests. Some have been put under surveillance simply for visiting mosques.

Out of these 427 cases, we took 74 percent to court successfully. The others are pending. Every time we take a case to court we show the people are innocent, except for being practising Muslims.

Individual Islamophobia is decreasing. Institutional Islamophobia is on the rise. This will grow as the security agenda grows.

We should continue to take legal action against Islamophobia. We took municipalitiesto court last year over the burkini banand defeated it. Immediately it has an impact and things cool down politically.

Source: TRT World