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France’s Struggle with Secularism and Islam Continues

By banning foreign imams from teaching in France, the normalisation of anti-Muslim sentiment continues in a country which prides itself on freedom, equality, and fraternity.

A woman wearing a burkini takes a dip in the south of France in August 2016, before the item of clothing was banned
France’s Struggle with Secularism and Islam Continues

By banning foreign imams from teaching in France, the normalisation of anti-Muslim sentiment continues in a country which prides itself on freedom, equality, and fraternity.

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French President Emmanuel Macron announced on Tuesday that he would crack down on what he calls “Islamist separatism” and would be banning foreign imams from teaching Islamic classes in the country. 

“Political Islam has no place in France” stated Macron, who went on to mention how he felt that “Islam is facing a crisis”. 

This latest announcement comes less than a month before France’s mayoral elections and appears to appeal to far-right voters and appease the President of the National Rally, Marine Le Penne. But, frustratingly, it is ordinary Muslim people in France who have to bear the brunt of such rhetoric, which only serves to heighten fears and divisions and make many Muslims in the country feel that they are being deliberately targeted due to their faith. 

“It is hard being a Muslim woman in France and having to face scrutiny for our every move,” Aisha Khan, a mother-of-two who lives in Seine-Saint-Denis in France, told Byline Times. “I wear the headscarf and fear that this Government will further increase anti-Muslim hate. They see us as the ‘other’ and not included in society and this is totally unfair. The real concern I have is that freedom to practice our religion in peace will be disturbed and I worry about the future of my children.” 

Aisha is not alone in her concerns. Other French Muslim women Byline Times spoke to expressed concerns that looking visibly like a Muslim woman was creating hate towards them – feelings being encouraged by the notion that Muslims are leading a life that contravene France’s secular values. 

Sadly, the anti-Muslim hate has compelled one woman to remove her hijab – not out of choice, but out of fear for her safety. “I felt overwhelmed by the hateful comments from other parents at the school and in public,” she said. “As a single mum, I didn’t know how I would get a job as I have to compromise my head covering in order to get ahead but I also need money to survive.

“Muslim women should not have to be put in this situation but it’s those in power who are doing this to us. We just want to live in harmony with everyone and be accepted as we are. They have even closed numerous mosques in the country under ‘anti-terror’ laws. It’s just a horrible feeling to feel you are being looked upon as bad people when actually Islam promotes peaceful coexistence.” 

The Memory of Fear

France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at around six million or 8% of the country, but it still struggles with what it means to be a secular state whilst allowing for religious freedom.

Islamophobia has been rife in France. In April 2011, it became the first country in Europe to officially ban the niqab – a veil covering all of the face apart from a woman’s eyes. Numerous other incidents have occurred over the years, including when a Muslim mother was recently asked to remove her hijab – a veil which covers the head and chest – by a far-right politician during a school trip with her son to a regional council headquarters. The humiliation caused outrage and called into question why she was asked to remove it when Muslim women who wear headscarves are not barred from volunteering to help on school trips.

Laura Challab, a young Muslim mother from Paris, told Byline Times that “it is very difficult for Muslim women in France, especially when it comes to employment and wearing the hijab”.

“As a Muslim woman, we question our place and life in France,” she said. “In France we do not even have the right to go to a swimming pool wearing a burkini because it is not allowed. This means that I cannot even take my kids to go swimming. Every part of our life is made difficult from finding a job to going out in public. Despite all these challenges, I am an optimistic person and hope for a better future.”

As a Muslim woman myself, I was contacted by a woman in France who had read one of my articles on Islamophobia. She questioned why I wore a headscarf and asked: “Why do Muslim women want to be different and cause separatism? Why do you have to wear the headscarf? Why can’t you just remove it and this will solve the problem?”

The truth is that Muslim women don’t deliberately go out of their way to be “different” and the wearing of the headscarf is more than a piece of cloth on the head – it symbolises devotion to God. For me, wearing it is in adherence to my faith, in the same way that Christian nuns and Sikhs cover their hair out of devotion to God and many find it an honour to do so. However, this freedom to practice faith is scrutinised under the guise of secularism, particularly in countries such as France. 

Whilst I tried to open a dialogue with the French woman, it soon became apparent that she just didn’t want to listen to what I had to say and could not see the issue from another perspective. This ignorance and unwillingness to accept other people’s beliefs and identity and promote religious tolerance is what really separates society. We could all coexist peacefully by respecting one another’s choices and celebrating our differences, instead of trying to make everyone feel they have to be the same.

A few years ago, I was the victim of Islamophobia in the UK whilst out with my children. It is a moment in my life that will stick with me forever. A man verbally abused me, calling me a terrorist and telling me to go back home, whilst aggressively throwing his fist around in the air to intimidate me. Luckily, a stranger intervened for which I was so grateful – but I will never forget the fear on my three-year-old’s face. It is sad that we live in a world where those in power use rhetoric that perpetuates hate and causes distrust towards minorities.

Any form of hate directed at a person because of their faith, the colour of their skin, gender or any other reason is simply unacceptable. France’s real problem is not separatism, but the rising tide of Islamophobia that those in power such as Macron continue to play out.

As decisions are made to ban religious symbols in public, stop imams from coming to the country to teach, or to prevent Muslim women from wearing a modest swimsuit dubbed the “burkini”, we cannot allow ignorance to prevail over religious tolerance and kindness. 

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