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Cover Story: The hijab controversy

Islamophobia comes to a head in France

Print edition : Mar 11, 2022 T+T-
Supporters of the women soccer team “Les Hijabeuses” with placards that read “Sports for all” and “Liberty, Egality, Fraternity for all” in Lille, France on February 16. This demonstration was part of a protest against the French Senate’s approval of a law that seeks to ban the hijab in competitive sports.

Supporters of the women soccer team “Les Hijabeuses” with placards that read “Sports for all” and “Liberty, Egality, Fraternity for all” in Lille, France on February 16. This demonstration was part of a protest against the French Senate’s approval of a law that seeks to ban the hijab in competitive sports.

France, the first country in Europe to ban the wearing of full veils in public a decade ago, has since seen a deepening of Islamophobia, with the Senate approving a law to ban headscarves in sports, and with Muslim-bashing emerging as a top political agenda in the upcoming presidential election.

The hijab controversy generated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its right-wing political affiliates is similar to the position taken by right-wing political parties in many European countries. For many years now, the right wing in Europe has expended most of its energy on demonising Islam and the Muslim world. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq triggered an influx of refugees into Europe. Muslims, who had been living in the continent for generations, began to demand their rights and a more meaningful role in politics. There was a backlash, leading to the rise of unabashed racism.

A recent opinion poll conducted in Switzerland showed that the majority of its population is against Muslim women wearing the hijab. Hate crimes against Muslims have substantially increased in Germany, Austria and France. A report titled “European Islamophobia Report 2020”, released in December 2021, said that hate crimes against Muslims reached a “tipping point” during the pandemic. Senior political luminaries do not think twice before publicly lampooning Islam and Muslims. In 2018, Boris Johnson (then Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom) wrote in his column in The Daily Telegraph that veiled Muslim women reminded him of “bank robbers” and “letter boxes”. There was a torrent of criticism about his tasteless observations but it did not hurt his political prospects at all.

France was the first country in Europe to ban the wearing of full veils in public places in 2012. The centre-right government of Nicolas Sarkozy, which took the decision, said that the move was necessary to preserve French culture and discourage “separatism”. The law did not mention Islam or women in particular, but stated that the covering of the face in any public place was banned as a “public security measure”. In 2011, the Sarkozy government banned the wearing of the hijab and even turbans in school classrooms. Only one member voted against the law in the national parliament. While this move found favour with the French public, it did not help Sarkozy win re-election. However, the national mood since then has become more extreme on the question of hijab and related issues.

Front runners from the far right and the centre right in this year’s presidential elections in France have made Muslim-bashing their top political agenda, with the “hijab” issue occupying centre stage. All important issues, including bread and butter ones, have been confined to the back burner. The French economy has shrunk by 8.3 per cent in the last year. The poverty rate has more than doubled. The government had mishandled the pandemic outbreak, with COVID casualties in France being among the highest in Europe.

Facing mass discontent and social upheaval, President Emmanuel Macron has veered to the right in the last two years, focussing more on the alleged threat posed to the secular character of the French republic by citizens professing the Islamic faith than on more important economic and political issues. His popularity rating has gone up since then. An “anti-separatism” law was passed in the French parliament in July 2021. The government said that it was intended to strengthen France’s secular system, while critics of the law say that it further marginalises Muslim citizens and restricts religious freedoms.

Intimidation campaign

Since then, the government has launched an intimidation campaign targeting the Muslim community. Even civil society organisations helping the immigrant population have been targeted. Among the organisations dissolved by the Macron government was the “Collective against Islamophobia in France”, which worked to defend victims of Islamophobia within the legal and constitutional framework of French law.

Enes Bayrakli, who co-authored the European Islamophobia Report 2020 (which had Macron on its cover), said that Macron “had become the face of institutional and structural Islamophobia in Europe. His policies are directly targeting, discriminating and criminalising Muslims in France.” Bayrakli said that there were other politicians in Europe who were openly Islamophobic but France was “applying Islamophobic practices at the state level in dealing with its Muslim minorities”.

France closed down more than 17 mosques in the last two years for violating vaguely defined “security laws” or not having proper “safety standards”. The French Council on Islam was forced to adopt a “charter of principles” that commits Muslim religious officials to respect the rules decreed by the French government. The Macron government, after accusing Muslims of harbouring separatist tendencies, now wants them to give a pledge of loyalty to the French state. The “Charter of Principles” states: “From a religious and ethical point of view, Muslims, whether national or foreign residents, are bound to France by a pact. This compels them to respect national cohesion, public order and the laws of the Republic”. This means that the duty to the state far outweighs their religious beliefs.

The charter further states: “No religious conviction can be evoked to evade the obligations of the citizen.” Under the guise of protecting the Republic, President Macron has been accused of seeking to overturn the landmark 1905 French law which guaranteed secularism and the freedom of expression along with the separation of church and state.

Banning hijab in sports

The French Senate recently approved a law which aims to forbid the wearing of headscarves by women footballers. The amendment, approved by the majority of the members, said: “If the wearing of the veil is not explicitly forbidden, we could see the rise of community sports clubs promoting certain religious signs.”

The French Soccer Federation has already banned players from wearing the headscarf during games. The lower house of parliament has not yet okayed the Bill passed by the Senate. The government does not want the Bill to be passed at this juncture as France is hosting the Olympics in three years. Female soccer players from many Muslim countries wear the headscarf on the playing field. Last year, the French Senate approved an amendment which sought to bar girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public places. This amendment is not yet law as the French National Assembly as yet to approve it.

There was an immediate backlash in the social media against the move by the Senate. There were angry tweets such as: “Age to consent to sex in France:15. Age to consent to Hijab:18. It isn’t a law against hijab. It is a law against Islam” and “I thought we already had this covered. Forcing a woman to wear hijab is wrong. Just like forcing her to take it off is wrong”. The French Olympic athlete Ibtihaj Muhammad shared a post that read “Islamophobia is deepening in France”. This is what happens, the post said, “when you normalise anti-Islamic hate speech, bias, discrimination and hate crimes—Islamophobia written into law”.

Around 10 per cent of France’s population, hailing mainly from the former French colonies in North and sub-Saharan Africa, adhere to the Islamic faith. Today, almost the entire French political establishment prefers to view the immigrant population as a looming threat to the concepts on which their state is based. President Macron and his senior Ministers have claimed that “Islamo-Leftism” threatens to corrupt and split French society. The term was first used by the candidate of the far right, Marie Le Pen, in her first presidential campaign in 2012.

‘Islamo-Leftism’

Macron and his Ministers have blamed universities for spreading the so-called ideology of “Islamo-Leftism” in the country. Macron said: “The academic has its share of blame. It has encouraged the ethnicisation of the social question, thinking this was a good line of research. But the result can only be secessionism. This means splitting the Republic in two.” The Minister of National Education, Jean-Michel Blanquer, warned that “Islamo-Leftism is wreaking havoc on society” and denounced what he termed as its adherents’ “intellectual complicity in terrorism”. The Minister for Higher Education and Research, Frederique Vidal, has said that the government will be ordering an investigation into the spread of “Islamo-Leftism” in academia.

Many French historians and researchers are questioning the officially sanctioned history of decolonisation. They want French students and the public to know about institutional racism and the atrocities committed during French colonial rule in Algeria, Haiti and other parts of the world. Because of their endeavours, Leftist and progressive intellectuals have been viciously targeted in the mainstream French media and by right-wing politicians. The aim is to tar the left-wing parties with the Islamist brush.

Jean-Luc Melenchon, the leader of the left-wing “France Unbowed” party, was the only prominent politician to criticise the stigmatisation of Muslims in France and participate in a march against Islamophobia in 2019. Melenchon is also running for the presidency. Many French commentators and intellectuals are accusing the Macron government of preparing the groundwork for a “McCarthyistic” witch-hunt in France, aimed at cleansing leading French institutions of suspected left-wing activists and sympathisers.

French politicians running for the country’s top office have now started talking of the “great displacement”, another racist conspiracy theory, originally promoted more than a decade ago by a French author, Rene Camus, a white supremacist. According to the theory, the white majority in North America and Europe will soon be replaced by immigrants, the majority of whom are Muslims. A version of this theory is popular among Hindutva circles as well.

The great displacement theory

The “great displacement” theory was first embraced by lone wolf terrorists but now the major right-wing parties in France, the United States, Canada and Europe have also been propagating this outrageous theory. Many of Donald Trump’s supporters are also true believers. Mass killings of Muslims in New Zealand and the U.S. were carried out by adherents of this theory.

Valerie Pecresse, the candidate of the mainstream centre-right Republican party and another likely challenger to Macron in the run-off, has also started propagating the theory. She was a senior Minister in the Sarkozy government. In a speech in Paris in the third week of February, she told her supporters to “rise up” in order to prevent the “great replacement” from taking place in France. Pecresse frequently refers to Muslim-dominated areas in the country as “zones of non-France”.

Eric Zemmour, who until recently was the front runner among the host of right wing and centrist candidates vying for the presidency, is the biggest Muslim-baiter of them all. A French citizen of Algerian-Jewish descent and an author of books which have been bestsellers in France, he is a popular alt-right television pundit on Canal TV, the French version of the U.S.’ Fox Television network. He has been sanctioned twice by the French media watchdog for repeatedly fanning racial hatred. He has said that employers have the right to deny jobs to Muslims and Blacks. Many French Muslims have started voting with their feet and leaving the country for more hospitable climes.

In countries such as Turkey, the hijab controversy, which once figured prominently in politics, has now become a non-issue. The founder of modern Turkey, Kemal Ataturk, had banned headscarves for women and the fez cap for men in public places and decreed the wearing of western garb in offices. It was only after the coming to power of the Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2002 that things started to change. During his second term in office, the military, which at the time considered itself as the guardian of Ataturk’s legacy, threatened to stage another coup. One of their major complaints was that the wives of the Turkish President and the Prime Minister insisted on wearing their headscarves during official ceremonies. Two decades later, with the AKP having consolidated its hold on the country, the hijab issue has ceased to be a polarising one.