Secularism, Separatism, and Silencing: How Islamophobia is Codified in the Name of ‘Laïcité’

The French word, ‘laïcité’, represents the constitutional principle of secularism in France. The model of separating religion from public life has long been a contentious issue in the country, stemming back to the 1905 law codifying the Separation of Churches and the State. Founded on the principle of establishing a distinctly French culture, France historically attempted to free itself from the principles of the Catholic Church. [1] However, now that France has become a country populated by millions of Muslim immigrants, the efforts have shifted towards the suppression of Islamic practices.

In late March, French President Emmanuel Macron introduced an ‘anti-separatism bill’ to the French Senate. The bill contains a number of discriminatory amendments, including a ban of hijabs in public places for anyone under 18 years old, a call for Islamic institutions to pledge their allegiance to the French state, a ban on statements that condemn the French state as racist, and the criminalization of parents wearing religious symbols at school events with their children. The amendment to ban the wearing of hijabs by anyone under 18 in public spaces has been passed by the Senate, but the bill has yet to be approved by France’s lower governing house, the National Assembly, a step necessary to its passage into law. The severe consequences of the bill’s consummation through the lens of France’s contentious and longstanding relationship with religious silencing have sparked backlash throughout France and abroad. These efforts are thinly veiled attempts to suppress France’s 5.4 million Muslims in the name of secularism.

In 2010, the Sarkozy government successfully banned the niqab and any face coverings in public, successfully take advantage of the threat of growing radicalism. Seventy-three mosques and Islamic private schools have been closed since January 2021 on the grounds of “extremism.” Recent terror attacks, such as the Charlie Hebdo shooting in 2015 and the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in 2020, have enabled conservative parliament members to target Muslims under the guise of counterterrorism. While the ‘anti-separatism’ bill does not explicitly mention hijabs, it directly targets Muslims because of the more common outward display of Islamic piety, specifically the veil. Additionally, it is not coincidental that the strengthening of French secular law has grown at the same rate as the Muslim population in France. This pattern suggests a rejection of French Muslims by the predominantly white and Christian French government. Leaders such as President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey and Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan have spoken about the divisive legislation, calling for President Macron to stop the association between Islam and terrorism, decrying it as harmful and false. [2] Millions of Muslim women around the world have flocked to social media to express their contempt, utilizing #HandsOffMyHijab. Twitter user @RockThrowA wrote: “Age to consent to sex in France: 15 Age to consent to hijab: 18 Let that sink in. It isn’t a law against the hijab. It’s a law against Islam. #Handsoffmyhijab #FranceHijabBan.” [3]

While the amendments are unlikely to pass in both Houses, their mere proposal underscores the larger issue of growing Islamophobia in France. Legislators are calculated in their efforts for political gain and attempt to win back far-right voters by appealing to anti-separatist issues. [4] The consequences of such political perversion are tremendously destructive. Enabling the odious far-right rhetoric of groups such as Group Union Défense and Les Identitaires empowers and condones violence and discrimination against Muslims. [5] The proposed amendments to the ‘anti-separatism’ bill would give French police the right to interrogate and potentially arrest virtually anyone wearing clothing or accessories they deem inappropriate, qualified by the capacious language of the bill. France would likely enforce the law by expanding upon the massive policing apparatus that currently exists in Black and brown communities. This blatant attempt to target and oppress Muslims is an assault on the very values right-wing French leaders such as Marine Le Pen claim to uphold: liberty, equality, and fraternity.

While France attempts to reckon with why the nation has become a target for Islamic radicalism, it must recognize the importance of reconciliation and understanding. A country that claims civil liberty as one of its core values has a responsibility to represent all of its citizens, including its near six million Muslims. France is being hypocritical to its laws of freedom of speech, thought, and religion by actively punishing Muslims on the basis of their religious identification. The loss of freedom for Muslims is a loss for all French citizens; it is naïve to think that the French government, once enabled to commit such egregious acts of stigmatization, will stop at the Islamic faith. It is likely that other groups who do not fit into the Republic’s narrow vision of France will soon face the same subjugation.


Works Cited

[1] Micheal Barbaro and Constant Méheut, eds., French, Islam and ‘Laïcité’, February 12, 2021.

[2] Steven Erlanger, “Muslim Countries Denounce French Response to Killing of Teacher, Urge Boycott,” The New York Times (The New York Times, October 27, 2020), https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/27/world/europe/French-Muslims-Turkey-crackdown.html.

[3] Peter Yeung, “’French Muslims Will Suffer’ under Separatism Rules, Critics Say,” Politics News | Al Jazeera (Al Jazeera, February 12, 2021), https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/11/french-muslims-will-suffer-under-separatism-bill-critics-say.

[4] Eleanor Beardsley, “French Senate Voted To Ban The Hijab For Minors In A Plea By The Conservative Right,” NPR (NPR, April 8, 2021), https://www.npr.org/2021/04/08/985475584/french-senate-voted-to-ban-the-hijab-for-minors-in-a-plea-by-the-conservative-ri.

[5] Myriam Francois and We Need To Talk About Whiteness, “What France’s Treatment of Its Muslim Citizens Reveals,” Time (Time, December 8, 2020), https://time.com/5918657/frances-muslim-citizens-republican-values/.


Bibliography

Al Jazeera. “’Law against Islam’: French Vote in Favour of Hijab Ban Condemned.” Politics News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, April 9, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/4/9/a-law-against-islam.

Barbaro, Micheal, and Constant Méheut, eds. French, Islam and ‘Laïcité’, The New York Times, February 12, 2021.

Beardsley, Eleanor. “French Senate Voted To Ban The Hijab For Minors In A Plea By The Conservative Right.” NPR. NPR, April 8, 2021. https://www.npr.org/2021/04/08/985475584/french-senate-voted-to-ban-the-hijab-for-minors-in-a-plea-by-the-conservative-ri.

Erlanger, Steven. “Muslim Countries Denounce French Response to Killing of Teacher, Urge Boycott.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 27, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/27/world/europe/French-Muslims-Turkey-crackdown.html.

Francois, Myriam, and We Need To Talk About Whiteness. “What France’s Treatment of Its Muslim Citizens Reveals.” Time. Time, December 8, 2020. https://time.com/5918657/frances-muslim-citizens-republican-values/.

“French Senate Amends Anti-Separatism Law to Ban Hijab for Youth under 18.” World Socialist Web Site. Accessed April 16, 2021. https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2021/04/07/veil-a07.html.

Yeung, Peter. “’French Muslims Will Suffer’ under Separatism Rules, Critics Say.” Politics News | Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera, February 12, 2021. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/2/11/french-muslims-will-suffer-under-separatism-bill-critics-say.