Who Gets to Wear a Headscarf? The Complicated History Behind France’s Latest Hijab Controversy

Of note:

The head of French President Emmanuel Macron’s political party withdrew support late last week for one of the party’s own candidates, Sarah Zemmahi, after she wore a headscarf in a campaign poster.

Stanislas Guerini, one of the co-founders of Macron’s centrist Republic on the Move party (LREM), took to Twitter to critique Zemmahi, an engineer who is running for her local council, for wearing her hijab, a religious head covering worn by some Muslim women, in a promotional image.

“Wearing ostentatious religious symbols on a campaign document is not compatible with the values of LREM,” Guerini wrote, after a prominent far-right politician shared the photo. “Either these candidates change their photo, or LREM will withdraw its support.”

While Zemmahi has not yet responded to Guerini’s statements, he received pushback from others in the party. LREM lawmaker Naima Moutchou defended Zemmahi on Twitter, calling Guerini’s criticism “discrimination,” while fellow LREM politician Caroline Janvier called out Guerini’s response in a scathing tweet.

“Undignified. Running after (far-right) votes will only allow their ideas to prevail. Enough is enough,” she wrote.

The conflict over one woman’s choice to cover her head comes in the wake of controversy surrounding an amendment passed by the French Senate last month that would ban girls under 18 from wearing the hijab in public. As part of a proposed “anti-separatism” bill, it was presented alongside amendments that would also prevent mothers from wearing hijabs on their children’s school trips and would ban the “burkini,” a full-body swimsuit.

While some French politicians have defended the amendment as a reinforcement of the country’s adherence to secularism, others have slammed it as yet another instance of part of an ugly strain of Islamophobia in the nation, which is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe—a population that has experienced increased discrimination in recent years, in the wake of terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in recent years and the rise of far-right politics. One 2019 report found that 44.6% of the country considered Muslims a threat to French national identity, while a government survey from the same year listed that 42% of Muslims (other studies put the figure at 58%) reported experiencing discrimination due to their religion, a number that increased to 60% for women who wore a headscarf.

But understanding why the hijab is the site of so much controversy in France also requires understanding the deep history behind the debate.

While the proposed legislation still needs to be approved by the lower house of French Parliament before it can become a law, it’s already drawn significant backlash from many Muslim women around the world, who see the law as not only xenophobic and discriminatory, but an attack on their agency—a sentiment that has grown over the years as French politicians have argued that laws restricting religious symbolism are in service of women’s empowerment and public safety.On social media, the hashtag #HandsOffMyHijab has become a rallying cry to protest the amendment, started by Somali-Norwegian model Rawdah Mohamed, who used the phrase in a now-viral Instagram post to call out the potential ban. It’s since garnered support from the likes of U.S. congresswoman Ilhan Omar and Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.

“How can you have a discussion about my identity, and not include me?” Mohamed told TIME. “I don’t think politicians are the ones who are supposed to define what it means to be a Muslim woman.”

France’s history with headscarves

Scholars trace France’s focus on Muslim head coverings and the women who wear them back to the country’s imperial past in North Africa and the Middle East—particularly in Algeria.

“Banning the hijab is about colonialism,” Alia Al-Saji, an associate professor of philosophy at McGill University, tells TIME. “French colonization of Muslim countries was often about controlling and managing populations that were of diverse religions… The hijab is a way of clearly showing that you are Muslim, which is colonially constructed as being opposed to colonialism. But it’s also a site of potential resistance.”

French colonization in Algeria began with an invasion in 1830 and was characterized by violent genocide, settler colonialism and a series of shifting laws called the “indigénat,” which, among other things, determined who could be a French citizen. Al-Saji notes that these laws were influential in emphasizing difference for the Muslim majority in Algeria; for example, while Jewish Algerian natives were recognized as French citizens in 1870 with the Cremieux Decree, Muslim Algerian natives were not eligible for French citizenship unless they renounced their religion and culture and adopted a French identity.

Inherent in the colonial attitude is the belief that one’s “civilization”—its language, its values and its practices—is an improvement on the lives of those who are colonized. This belief manifested itself drastically in the attitude toward Algerian Muslim women, who were seen as both oppressed and exotic. Under this mindset, their “liberation” could become the moral justification for imperialism’s violent casualties.

This dynamic is perhaps best illustrated during the Algerian War of Independence, when a series of public unveiling ceremonies were organized in 1958. During these ceremonies, many of which were arranged by the French army, Algerian women removed their haiks (traditional wraps worn by North African women) or had them removed by European women, before throwing them to the ground or burning them. Often, speeches were given afterwards in support of the French and the emancipation of Muslim women.

While these highly-publicized ceremonies were framed as spaces of empowerment for Muslim women, other accounts of this history tell a different story. In his book, Burning the Veil: The Algerian War and the ‘Emancipation’ of Muslim Women, 1954-1962, Neil MacMaster notes that some of the women who took part in these ceremonies were very poor, recruited from high schools or, in some cases, pressured to participate with threats to their safety and that of their families. In one harrowing case, when the army could not find a Muslim woman to lead the ceremony, they enlisted Monique Améziane, a young woman from a wealthy and pro-French family who had not previously worn a veil or heik, to speak—in exchange for sparing the life of her brother, whom they had already arrested and tortured.

The symbolic power of the veil during this time, however, was not only recognized by the French, but also by those fighting for Algerian liberation. In his essay Algeria Unveiled, Frantz Fanon makes the case that the veil can be a tool of anti-colonial resistance and a way of limiting access to oppressors, going so far as to call it a “bone of contention in a grandiose battle.”

During the war, the veil also became a literal tool of resistance. Some female freedom fighters for the National Liberation Front used haiks to conceal weapons and classified information; after this tactic was discovered, they used unveiling to their advantage, adopting European dress as a way to fly under the radar of the French.

How the veil has been reclaimed—and weaponized

Within France, at the intersection of gender, ethnic and religious identities, the Muslim veil or head covering took on new significance in the 20th century. Because of the popularity of orientalist art during this time, the veil already had stereotypes of the foreign and forbidden. But veiling was no longer just a physical marker of religious or cultural difference—it was also seen as an affront to assimilation, a visible symbol of resistance to colonization.

This meaning was intensified by the state’s staunch espousal of a unified French cultural and social identity, in opposition to multiculturalism. This belief can be traced all the way back to the French Revolution, which has also been credited with planting the seeds for laïcité, France’s principle of secularism. Although laïcitéoriginated in a 1905 law about the separation of church and state, it has been used in recent years as the driving force behind the anti-hijab policies.

In 2004, Muslim headscarves were among the array of religious symbols banned from being worn in French public schools. And in 2010, the country prohibited full-face veils like niqabs in public spaces like streets, parks and public transportation, becoming the first European country to enforce a nation-wide ban and even launching a government campaign that proudly stated, “the Republic is lived with an uncovered face.”

This sentiment took on a new irony at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 when France mandated mask-wearing in public spaces, while still banning Muslim face coverings.

“Muslim women who wear the hijab have always been on the receiving end of Islamophobia for their visible identity,” Nazma Khan, the founder of World Hijab Day, told TIME. “Simply put, the proposed hijab ban is a systematic vilification and discrimination against Muslim women in hijab.”

The Collective against Islamophobia in France, a non-profit that was forced by the French government to dissolve in 2020 in a move that Human Rights Watch called a “threat to basic human rights and liberties,” reported in 2019 that 70% of Islamophobic hate speech and acts in France were directed at women.

To advocates, the intense focus on a physical marker of otherness, along with the rhetoric touting women’s empowerment, can distract from what’s really at stake: what they see as France’s attempt to control citizens, as territorial residents were controlled in the past.

“If it was about giving Muslim women more agency, then in that case, you could let them or let all women wear whatever they wanted,” says Al-Saji. “But It’s actually about controlling what women wear and how they appear and what gets seen and that their bodies are seen, this kind of colonial male desire, that constructs Muslim women as trapped and pawns of their culture and needing to be unveiled.”

Source: Who Gets to Wear a Headscarf? The Complicated History Behind France’s Latest Hijab Controversy

Wells: Emmanuel Macron, l’ENA, and the old weird France

Interesting take by Paul Wells:

We haven’t updated you on French President Emmanuel Macron in a while. It’s not going great. The next presidential election is a year away and polls suggest Macron could lose to Marine Le Pen, leader of the populist Ralliement National, the successor to her father Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National. The older Le Pen made it to the second round of presidential elections in 2002, the younger in 2017. Each time respectable opinion told French voters they must vote against Le Pen to save the Republic; both times voters did as they were told. The second time the result was Macron’s presidency. He can’t be sure it will work again. He’d become France’s third consecutive one-term president. His successor would open a can of worms. A belated sequel to Trump and Brexit.

Macron needs to get his mojo back. His choice of project is surprising. Last week he announced the closure of France’s École nationale d’administration, or ENA. It’s a graduate school for the bright young men and women who will form the senior ranks of France’s public service. Four of its graduates have become president. Nine have been prime minister. Countless others run government departments, city halls, banks, retail giants, museums. Because énarques (as ENA alumni are called) are so superbly adaptable—super-generalists, the Swiss army knives of the country’s management apparatus—they tend to flit from one job to another, with little apparent connection between positions except that each is the sort of job an énarque would have.

L’ENA is also the school Macron attended. The school that made his presidency possible, certainly the only thing that made his presidency possible. There’s drama in this assault on what made him. Something almost oedipal. It’s like when Ralph Klein had the Alberta hospital where he was born demolished. It’s as if Justin Trudeau had closed McGill University, or some ski lodge at Whistler, or whatever made him what he is today. Twenty-four Sussex? Actually, come to think of it, he has closed 24 Sussex. Hey, wait a minute…

But I digress. To an outsider, it’s hardly obvious why a stalled politician would close a fancy school. The answer hardly seems to match the question. The explanation lies in the distinctive place l’ENA occupies in the French cultural myth. As for why Macron would be the guy who’d decide to pull the trigger… well, therein lies a tale. For one thing, his reform project goes back quite literally to the day Macron graduated from the school 17 years ago.

This will take some telling. I’ve met a number of énarques. The school admits foreign students, so the odd Canadian gets in and graduates. French graduates sometimes find themselves posted to the stately French embassy on Sussex Drive, next door to 24. The current ambassador, Kareen Rispal, just won a prize for alumnae who dedicate themselves to advancing women’s rights. Énarques are, with no exception that I’ve met, cool, eloquent, poised in complex situations. Absolutely superb talkers, but not pushy. They know they’ll get their chance to shine. They always have. I once got invited to speak to alumni of the ENA and one of its main feeder schools, the Institut d’Etudes politiques de Paris, which I attended for a year on a lark ages ago. I’ve rarely been so nervous before a speaking gig.

To get into l’ENA, you have to pass a tough battery of written and oral exams on law, economics, public finances, current events, the European Union and more. Students typically study for a year at a prominent university simply to prepare for the exams. If you fail you’re free to try again the following year, but there is no other recourse or appeal. French higher education is bracingly unsentimental. One of Nicolas Sarkozy’s speechwriters famously failed the entry exam three times as a young man and has carried an epic grudge against the place ever since.

Students spend two school years at the school, divided between courses in Paris, courses at the seat of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, and work terms in government departments. At the end, another brutal round of exams. If you finish in the top 15 of a class of 100-odd, you get to pick your spot in the most prestigious departments in government. Finish much lower and you may wonder whether l’ENA was worth the trouble.

The point of it all is that social connections are no help. You can’t survive all these tough exams because you come from the right family or you have the right accent. L’ENA was founded in 1945 as France crawled from the rubble of occupation and liberation. The old French civil service was like old bureaucracies everywhere: file clerks, stenographers and power brokers who landed jobs for life because they knew someone or had a cousin return a favour. A prewar minister of education, Jean Zay, came up with plans for a school to replace all this cronyism and inertia with something more merit-based. An elite public-service corps, chosen by merit and trained with care. But after the Nazi invasion Zay was arrested by the collaborationist Vichy regime for resisting the occupation and for being a Jew. In 1944 he was murdered by the Nazi-collaborating militia. Soon after France’s liberation Charles de Gaulle put Maurice Thorez, the former French Communist Party leader who’d become the minister for the public service, in charge of implementing Zay’s plan.

Within a decade the énarques were key to a highly-planned postwar economy. By the ’60s there were signs of resentment. For all its egalitarian inspiration, the school had a knack for collecting and promoting cohorts that looked a lot like the same old hereditary leadership class. In France as anywhere else, money buys tutors, quiet study time, and connections that shape your life before the entrance exam even if they don’t play a direct role after. That sense of resentment, of a reform that had entrenched privilege instead of erasing it, deepened over time.

Each graduating class at l’ENA holds a party early on to select a name for their promotion, or graduating class. It’s an emblem of the solidarity that comes from shared stress. The class of 1949 was the Promotion Nations unies, after the United Nations. Later classes named themselves after writers (Tocqueville, Proust) or politicians (de Gaulle, the ’70s West German Chancellor Willy Brandt). Some promotions achieve legendary status. The promotion Voltaire, class of 1980, was legendary: it produced a president, François Hollande; a presidential candidate, Hollande’s longtime partner Ségolène Royal; and a prime minister, Dominique de Villepin.

But then along came Macron, who arrived in 2002 and graduated in 2004. There were already magazine articles about Macron’s class at l’ENA before anyone suspected he would be a presidential candidate. The charming kid from the northern city of Amiens didn’t particularly stand out in a class of rapid climbers who moved into key posts in government and business soon after they graduated in 2004. Here’s the piece in French Vanity Fair from 2014. Twenty members of the class of 2004 were already chiefs of staff or senior advisors to government ministers, it says. Others ran insurance companies or worked at the United Nations. “Their names aren’t known to the general public but they constitute what must be considered a rising power network. And there’s no reason to think they’ll stop there, when it’s all going so well.” Much of the material for my own article, the one you’re reading, comes from Les Jeunes Gens, a book that the Vanity Fair article’s author, Mathieu Larnaudie, published after Macron’s 2017 election.

From their first days at l’ENA, the class of 2004 had a sense of themselves as a unique group, blessed—and tested—by their good fortune. Things were happening.

On April 21, 2002, Jean-Marie Le Pen had been one of two winners in the first round of the country’s presidential election. He soon lost big to Jacques Chirac in the run-off, but the unprecedented breakthrough by a far-right populist seemed an unprecedented challenge to France’s Republican values. This was also the first class at l’ENA after Chirac abolished compulsory military service for young French men. A double cohort, comprising returning conscripts and men who’d never have to serve, swelled the class’s ranks (134 French students aiming for choice spots in the civil service, plus 51 international students) and made it more lopsidedly male than usual.

Finally, on Valentine’s Day 2003, France’s foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin (ENA 1980, promotion Voltaire) gave his speech at the United Nations opposing the Bush administration’s plans for war in Iraq. Here was France carving its own path, standing against the tide, putting Anglo-Saxon noses out of joint.

All these events seemed to pose questions to the young classmates: what’s France for in the world? What’s the nature of public service? Who owes what to whom in this world? The questions were all the more pressing because, looking around, it was pretty obvious to the bright young kids that many of them were born lucky and that the hard work had come later. One was the grandson of a legendary cabinet minister. Most came from prominent families. Their school was France’s highest-pressure meritocracy, but it wasn’t only that.

The class gave a hint that it might have a rebel streak when it came time to name itself. On a long, boozy night, a few surprising names for the promotion were proposed. One was “Les Héritiers,” after a 1964 book that described how France’s higher education system reinforced privilege instead of  opportunity. The group finally decided their class would be known forever as the promotion Léopold Sedar Senghor, after a Senegalese poet who, educated in Paris and elected to the prestigious Académie Française, became Senegal’s first democratically elected president.

But that gesture was nothing compared to the coup de théâtre the class of 2004 pulled off on the last day of school. Here was the moment when students would learn how they scored on the exams and the top 20 would have their pick of civil-service jobs. The highest-scoring student in the class—the major, in the lingo—was Marguerite Bérard, daughter of an énarque and another énarque, living with a classmate she would later marry, on her way to jobs as senior advisor to Sarkozy and then as a bank president. She accepted a handshake from the director of l’ENA and then handed him a 20-page manifesto, ENA: The Urgent Need for Reform, signed by 132 of the class’s 134 students. Emmanuel Macron, 6th in his class, was one of the signatories.

The surprise was complete. The school’s leadership was humiliated. The students all received letters from a French cabinet minister berating them for their cheek. They also received the jobs they wanted and the future the ENA had been built to deliver. But 17 years later, the most relentless and seductive and unstoppable member of the promotion Senghor is implementing the reform they called for on the day when it seemed they really could write their own future.

Will it make a difference? It’s hard to say. Macron has already announced that ENA will be replaced with a new Institute for Public Service, with more entry paths than the single round of brutal exams, but with the same exit ranking as the old school. Instead of going to central coordinating agencies of government, the new school’s top grads will have to get out into the country and work in departments that actually deliver services to citizens. My hunch is that to the great majority of French citizens, it’ll be a distinction without a difference: a factory for producing a leadership class that, after it finishes its stint on the ground, will go on to run everything else.

The option of replacing ENA with nothing—leaving France without a dominant dedicated public-service school, an absence that would make it more like Canada and a lot of other countries—seems not to have occurred to Macron. Old habits die hard, even in people who think they’re dedicated to change. I do hope Macron, or some other politician who shares a certain idea of France, beats the latest Le Pen next year. For all its quirks, indeed in most cases because of them, it’s still a great country.

Source: Emmanuel Macron, l’ENA, and the old weird France

France’s New Public Enemy: America’s Woke Left

As noted in the article, the irony is that “many of the leading thinkers behind theories on gender, race, post-colonialism and queer theory came from France:”

The threat is said to be existential. It fuels secessionism. Gnaws at national unity. Abets Islamism. Attacks France’s intellectual and cultural heritage.

The threat? “Certain social science theories entirely imported from the United States,’’ said President Emmanuel Macron.

French politicians, high-profile intellectuals and journalists are warning that progressive American ideas — specifically on race, gender, post-colonialism — are undermining their society. “There’s a battle to wage against an intellectual matrix from American universities,’’ warned Mr. Macron’s education minister.

Emboldened by these comments, prominent intellectuals have banded together against what they regard as contamination by the out-of-control woke leftism of American campuses and its attendant cancel culture.

Pitted against them is a younger, more diverse guard that considers these theories as tools to understanding the willful blind spots of an increasingly diverse nation that still recoils at the mention of race, has yet to come to terms with its colonial past and often waves away the concerns of minorities as identity politics.

Disputes that would have otherwise attracted little attention are now blown up in the news and social media. The new director of the Paris Opera, who said on Monday he wants to diversify its staff and ban blackface, has been attacked by the far-right leader, Marine Le Pen, but also in Le Monde because, though German, he had worked in Toronto and had “soaked up American culture for 10 years.”

The publication this month of a book critical of racial studies by two veteran social scientists, Stéphane Beaud and Gérard Noiriel, fueled criticism from younger scholars — and has received extensive news coverage. Mr. Noiriel has said that race had become a “bulldozer’’ crushing other subjects, adding, in an email, that its academic research in France was questionable because race is not recognized by the government and merely “subjective data.’’ 

The fierce French debate over a handful of academic disciplines on U.S. campuses may surprise those who have witnessed the gradual decline of American influence in many corners of the world. In some ways, it is a proxy fight over some of the most combustible issues in French society, including national identity and the sharing of power. In a nation where intellectuals still hold sway, the stakes are high.

With its echoes of the American culture wars, the battle began inside French universities but is being played out increasingly in the media. Politicians have been weighing in more and more, especially following a turbulent year during which a series of events called into question tenets of French society.

Mass protests in France against police violence, inspired by the killing of George Floyd, challenged the official dismissal of race and systemic racism. A #MeToo generation of feminists confronted both male power and older feminists. A widespread crackdownfollowing a series of Islamist attacks raised questions about France’s model of secularism and the integration of immigrants from its former colonies.

Some saw the reach of American identity politics and social science theories. Some center-right lawmakers pressed for a parliamentary investigation into “ideological excesses’’ at universities and singled out “guilty’’ scholars on Twitter.

Mr. Macron — who had shown little interest in these matters in the past but has been courting the right ahead of elections next year — jumped in last June, when he blamed universities for encouraging the “ethnicization of the social question’’ — amounting to “breaking the republic in two.’’

“I was pleasantly astonished,’’ said Nathalie Heinich, a sociologist who last month helped create an organization against “decolonialism and identity politics.’’ Made up of established figures, many retired, the group has issued warnings about American-inspired social theories in major publications like Le Point and Le Figaro.

For Ms. Heinich, last year’s developments came on top of activism that brought foreign disputes over cultural appropriation and blackface to French universities. At the Sorbonne, activists prevented the staging of a play by Aeschylus to protest the wearing of masks and dark makeup by white actors; elsewhere, some well-known speakers were disinvited following student pressure.

“It was a series of incidents that was extremely traumatic to our community and that all fell under what is called cancel culture,’’ Ms. Heinich said.

To others, the lashing out at perceived American influence revealed something else: a French establishment incapable of confronting a world in flux, especially at a time when the government’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic has deepened the sense of ineluctable decline of a once-great power.

“It’s the sign of a small, frightened republic, declining, provincializing, but which in the past and to this day believes in its universal mission and which thus seeks those responsible for its decline,’’ said François Cusset, an expert on American civilization at Paris Nanterre University.

France has long laid claim to a national identity, based on a common culture, fundamental rights and core values like equality and liberty, rejecting diversity and multiculturalism. The French often see the United States as a fractious society at war with itself.

But far from being American, many of the leading thinkers behind theories on gender, race, post-colonialism and queer theory came from France — as well as the rest of Europe, South America, Africa and India, said Anne Garréta, a French writer who teaches literature at universities in France and at Duke.

“It’s an entire global world of ideas that circulates,’’ she said. “It just happens that campuses that are the most cosmopolitan and most globalized at this point in history are the American ones. ’’

The French state does not compile racial statistics, which is illegal, describing it as part of its commitment to universalism and treating all citizens equally under the law. To many scholars on race, however, the reluctance is part of a long history of denying racism in France and the country’s slave-trading and colonial past.

“What’s more French than the racial question in a country that was built around those questions?’’ said Mame-Fatou Niang, who divides her time between France and the United States, where she teaches French studies at Carnegie Mellon University.

Ms. Niang has led a campaign to remove a fresco at France’s National Assembly, which shows two Black figures with fat red lips and bulging eyes. Her public views on race have made her a frequent target on social media, including of one of the lawmakers who pressed for an investigation into “ideological excesses’’ at universities.

Pap Ndiaye, a historian who led efforts to establish Black studies in France, said it was no coincidence that the current wave of anti-American rhetoric began growing just as the first protests against racism and police violence took place last June.

“There was the idea that we’re talking too much about racial questions in France,’’ he said. “That’s enough.’’

Three Islamist attacks last fall served as a reminder that terrorism remains a threat in France. They also focused attention on another hot-button field of research: Islamophobia, which examines how hostility toward Islam in France, rooted in its colonial experience in the Muslim world, continues to shape the lives of French Muslims.

Abdellali Hajjat, an expert on Islamophobia, said that it became increasingly difficult to focus on his subject after 2015, when devastating terror attacks hit Paris. Government funding for research dried up. Researchers on the subject were accused of being apologists for Islamists and even terrorists.

Finding the atmosphere oppressive, Mr. Hajjat left two years ago to teach at the Free University of Brussels, in Belgium, where he said he found greater academic freedom.

“On the question of Islamophobia, it’s only in France where there is such violent talk in rejecting the term,’’ he said.

Mr. Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, accuseduniversities, under American influence, of being complicit with terrorists by providing the intellectual justification behind their acts.

A group of 100 prominent scholars wrote an open letter supporting the minister and decrying theories “transferred from North American campuses” in Le Monde.

A signatory, Gilles Kepel, an expert on Islam, said that American influence had led to “a sort of prohibition in universities to think about the phenomenon of political Islam in the name of a leftist ideology that considers it the religion of the underprivileged.’’

Along with Islamophobia, it was through the “totally artificial importation’’ in France of the “American-style Black question” that some were trying to draw a false picture of a France guilty of “systemic racism’’ and “white privilege,’’ said Pierre-André Taguieff, a historian and a leading critic of the American influence.

Mr. Taguieff said in an email that researchers of race, Islamophobia and post-colonialism were motivated by a “hatred of the West, as a white civilization.’’

“The common agenda of these enemies of European civilization can be summed up in three words: decolonize, demasculate, de-Europeanize,’’ Mr. Taguieff said. “Straight white male — that’s the culprit to condemn and the enemy to eliminate.”

Behind the attacks on American universities — led by aging white male intellectuals — lie the tensions in a society where power appears to be up for grabs, said Éric Fassin, a sociologist who was one of the first scholars to focus on race and racism in France, about 15 years ago.

Back then, scholars on race tended to be white men like himself, he said. He said he has often been called a traitor and faced threats, most recently from a right-wing extremist who was given a four-month suspended prison sentence for threatening to decapitatehim.

But the emergence of young intellectuals — some Black or Muslim — has fueled the assault on what Mr. Fassin calls the “American boogeyman.’’

“That’s what has turned things upside down,’’ he said. “They’re not just the objects we speak of, but they’re also the subjects who are talking.’’

Source: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/09/world/europe/france-threat-american-universities.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

Macron’s Islamic charter is an unprecedented attack on French secularism

The best analysis I have seen to date:

Adopted last month by the French Council of the Muslim Faith at the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, a new 10-point “Charter of Principles” of French Islam will please all those who have been calling for a “progressive,” “reformed” or “enlightened”Islam – one consistent with democratic, egalitarian and liberal western values.

It also represents a significant personal victory for Macron, who for months had pressured the council to craft a document committing to a “French Republican Islam”. Non-Muslim authorities, governments, media and public intellectuals have been demanding this for years as a way to combat “Islamism” and “extremism”.

It very clearly aims to turn Islam into a quietist, ‘pacified’ religion whose practitioners remain docile and obedient to the political powers-that-be

The unprecedented charter can thus be seen as a clear assertion that Islam is indeed compatible with secular democracies in general, and with the French republic in particular. In a nutshell, the charter aligns Islam with France’s republican principles, including gender equality; non-discrimination, including sexual orientation; and freedom of conscience, including the freedom to leave Islam.

It condemns “excessive proselytism” and attests to the superiority of and obligation for all Muslims to recognise France’s laws, constitution, republican principles and “public order”.

Article two proclaims an obligation for Muslims to “conform to the common rules” of France, which “must prevail over any other rules and convictions, including those of our own faith”. Article eight recognises the French principle of laicite, or secularism.

But article six, the longest, is also the most loaded. It proclaims that no mosques or other Islamic places can have “political agendas” or engage in political and ideological discourse or activity; these are described as “an instrumentalisation” and “perversion of Islam”, whose sole and “true purpose is prayers and the transmission of values”.

It condemns “the propagation of nationalist discourses defending foreign regimes and supporting foreign policies that are hostile to France, our country”. It dissociates Islam from “political Islam” and prohibits signatories from engaging in the latter, including “Salafism (Wahhabism), the Tabligh and the Muslim Brotherhood”. This amounts to an excommunication of those Islamic trends and movements from legitimate or “true” Islam.

Crafted by the executive

There is no doubt that this charter was essentially crafted by the French executive itself – especially Macron and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who for years had been calling for the assimilation of Islam strictly within the limits, laws, principles and frameworks of France’s Fifth Republic. Darmanin even wrote a book about it.

The charter is not coming from Muslims. It is the brainchild of Macron’s campaign to force the French Muslim council to craft such a text, deploying against one religion a type of pressure, intimidation, threats, ultimatums and blackmail never before seen in French post-war history.

At the end of the signing ceremony, a close adviser to Macron explicitly threatened anyone who refuses to sign and live by the charter, saying: “Those who disagree will hear from us very quickly and see their operations inspected very, very closely by our services.” This, in a context where the interior ministry is banning Islamic NGOs, closing schools and shutting down mosques by the dozen.

This operation is an integral part of Macron’s crusade against “Islamist separatism”, for which he is using the French Council of the Muslim Faith as a facade, an alibi, a cover to circumvent a constitution that forbids state interference in religious doctrines. The charter is a word-for-word synthesis of all the injunctions and demands that Macron has addressed to Muslims over the past year.

Amazingly, article nine not only declares that state racism does not exist, but also that such an expression would constitute “defamation, and as such, a crime”. Its timing coincides with the introduction of Macron’s anti-separatism bill, and the Elysee Palace has stated that the charter was drafted within the framework of “technical workshops” presided over by the interior minister.

What are we to make of this operation? Firstly, it is an attempt, which some may find timely and even necessary, to align Islamic theology with the values, laws and principles of liberal, secular western states.

Secondly, it very clearly aims to turn Islam into a quietist, “pacified” religion whose practitioners remain docile and obedient to the political powers-that-be. Macron is trying to strip Muslims of their right to engage in oppositional and critical discourse and activism.

Thirdly, this hostile takeover is an attempt by the executive to assume control over the totality of Islam in France in order to “securitise” it from A to Z: its mosques, imams, institutions, NGOs, associations – even its theology. One should also expect that the repression and persecution of any Muslim deemed “Islamist” or “Salafist” will only get worse.

Fourthly, besides the extreme violations of freedom of religion and the brutalisation of Islam, the charter is also a glaring violation of French laicite – a principle the Macron government nonetheless claims to uphold. Based on the 1905 law on the separation of church and state, French laicite includes three sacred principles that are not open to interpretation: freedom of conscience and religion, the separation of church and state, and equal treatment by the state of all religions. Macron is trampling on all three pillars.

Uncertain fate

Only Muslims, and no other religions, are being summoned to craft a “charter” and implement principles such as gender equality, acceptance of homosexuality, and the prohibition of political discourse and activity. How about requiring the same from Catholics and Jews, some of whom oppose French laws on same-sex marriage or medically assisted procreation?

The attempt to delegitimise as “political Islam” and exclude from the religion several important Islamic trends under false pretexts, along with the persecution to which these Muslim groups are increasingly subjected, represents extreme violations of freedom of religion and human rights in general.

France has finally found its grand mufti: its (non-Muslim) president himself

The direct attempt by the executive to shape from above the organisation of Islam and its theology is by far the worst violation of the separation of church and state in the entire history of the Fifth Republic. It marks the end of French laicite and a regression to a crude form of quasi-medieval Gallicanism, when the state controlled, organised and narrowly defined religion.

The fate of the charter is more than a little uncertain. It will surely be weaponised, including as a divide-and-conquer tool. In the meantime, France has finally found its grand mufti: its (non-Muslim) president himself.

Source: Macron’s Islamic charter is an unprecedented attack on French secularism

France’s Treatment of Its Muslim Citizens Is the True Measure of Its Republican Values

Good analysis and commentary:

Since the 2015 terrorist attacks against the staff of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, France has faced a succession of such attacks by Muslim extremists, the most recent of which saw the October beheading of teacher Samuel Paty and the murder of three people at Notre Dame Basilica in Nice. The country has been left grappling with the question of why it has become such a target and how it ought to respond.

For President Macron, France is being targeted by terrorists because of its “freedom of expression, right to believe, or not, and its way of life.” He claims that a form of “Islamist separatism” has found find fertile ground for its ideals in some parts of the country – and to counter this, Macron announced his plan to create a “French Islam,” a practice of the faith which will be regulated by the state. For over four decades successive French presidents have sought to manage the state’s relationship with an ethnically and religiously diverse Muslim community, adherents of a faith without a formal leadership structure which might provide an obvious intermediary. All to little avail. State appointed leaders have struggled to gain community recognition, while attempts, like Macron’s, to delineate to Muslims the terms of their beliefs are unlikely to be well received. Not to mention the apparent irony of a secular leader defining terms of religious practice.

In France, the concept of laïcité(secularism) enjoins a strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. Designed in origin to protect individuals from state intrusion, and the state from religious influence, it has in recent years been increasingly wielded to do the opposite: encroaching evermore into the private sphere of Muslim citizens: from dress codes, to dietary needs, via religious education, the state has sought to prohibit each of these in recent years, only to be confronted by the strength of a Republican framework which has ultimately seen courts uphold its principles.

While the president has been adamant that the problem isn’t Islam, but a rejection of Republican principles, his government’s rhetorical and political focus has caused many to feel otherwise. From incessant debates about the headscarf, to polemics around women only swimming class to the Interior Minister feigning shock at ‘ethnic aisles’ in supermarkets, mundane habits of Muslim life are touted as examples of a “separatism” the state links to terrorism.

In a report last year entitled “Discrimination Against Muslims: The State Must React”, Amnesty International denounced “hostile climate and discriminatory discourse” towards Muslims, highlighting a speech by the Interior Minister in which he listed very basic religious freedoms including praying, fasting and growing a beard as “signs of radicalization.” One man whose mosque was raided under the legacy of the post-2015 state of emergency legislation is quoted as saying “the worst part is, if they have real concerns, they would launch an enquiry, but like this, it just feels like they are punishing us for nothing.” In a climate of fear and where the far-right party of Marine Le Pen’s ideas have come to define the terms of public discourse around Islam and Muslims, the government’s unwillingness to distinguish normal forms of religious practice from forms of extremism leaves millions of French Muslims open to accusations of extremism.

Recent measures are being justified on the basis that sections of the Muslim community are in conflict with republican values, but there is little evidence of this. In fact, in the largest quantitative study of the relationship between terrorism and discrimination in France, researchers from the Centre for the Study of Conflict in Paris unearthed the exact opposite. They found that overall Muslims deeply trust the institutions of the Republic, more so even than the control group, aside from the media and the police: ”What emerges from the study looks more like a massive adherence of French Muslims to the Republic.”

Crucially, the study found that trust in the institutions of France diminished with only one factor: experiences of discrimination, something it predicts the latest measures are likely to exacerbate. The study concludes by saying “there is no rejection of the values and institutions of the Republic in France, by a majority of Muslims.”

The concern is that discrimination against Muslims in France is already prevalent in every sector, from housing to employment and interactions with the police. According to the government’s own figures, 42% of Muslims (other studies put the figure at 58%) declare having experienced discrimination due to their religion, a figure which rises to 60% among women who wear a headscarf. A recent YouGov survey found that 67% of French Arab Muslims believe their faith is perceived negatively, while 64% said the same of their ethnicity.

For many, the creeping authoritarianism which sees the minutia of Muslim life problematized and debated for prime time TV shows, is indicative of a worrying political instrumentalization of racism. Since 2015, and following the “state of emergency” which ended in 2017, the French parliament has approved exceptional measures which have led to thousands of abusive and discriminatory raids and house arrest disproportionately targeting Muslims. The signs of authoritarianism begin at the margins – but rarely do they end there.

In the wake of the recent attacks, two deeply controversial bills have been advanced by President Macron. The “global security” bill has been met by mass protests across France. Among its most contentious clauses are that it would allow the use of surveillance drones, as well as lead to a possible prison term and 45,000 euro fine for anyone showing images which could identify a police or army officer. The government claims that social and mainstream media exposure of police violence endangers individual police officers, with Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin explaining: “Society’s cancer is the disrespect of authority.” But journalists across France have been sounding the alarm, while the spokesman for the E.U. Commission, said: “In a crisis period it is more important than ever that journalists should be able to do their work freely and in full security.”

Just as the bill was being debated, footage emerged of a black French music producer, Michel Zecler, being brutally beaten by four police officers in his studio in Paris, in what campaigners say is simply the latest example of endemic police brutality. The new bill would criminalize the person filming the police officer. Along with human rights groups, journalists and academics, UN experts have called on France to review the entire bill, stating: “it will have serious implications for the right to private life, the right to peaceful protest and freedom of expression” and rejecting the concession of minor amendments.

The new law on “Republican principles” is also causing widespread concern. Among its more worrying clauses are that anyone convicted of “apologie of terrorism”- a thought crime the numbers of which have exploded since 2015, and which has seen children as young as 10 taken into police custody – would automatically be added to a terrorism watch list. In just over a month, 270 new cases have been opened.

Since Samuel Paty’s murder in October, France has flagged over 400 violations of the homage to the slain teacher, of which 150 are considered “apologia for terrorism,” and over 50% of which occurred within a school environment.

France’s interior minister has ordered investigations into 76 mosques “suspected of separatism” which now face potential closure, in a country where prayer space is already very limited, with only 2,623 mosques and prayers halls in France for an estimated 5.7m Muslims. At least 73 mosques and Islamic private schools across France have been closed by authorities since January on grounds of ‘extremism’, but as Amnesty makes clear ‘radicalization’ has often been used as a euphemism for ‘devout Muslim’.

The proposed new law will include much tighter controls over civil society, including and specifically, Muslim religious organizations and leadership which will be required to conform to a “Republican charter” – a veritable modern day patriotism test imposed on a suspect community. The state’s red lines for Muslim are “political Islam” and foreign funding, which has historically – and with full support from the state – provided French Muslim citizens with their religious institutions. Imams will have to be trained through a state sanctioned body which will ensure their conformity with the state’s version of laicity, itself increasingly contested by the quango created to monitor it.

Crucially, the space we call freedom, where civil society, religious or otherwise, is able to organize according to their ideals, principles and values, as long as these do not infringe the law – is shrinking. Particularly once again for Muslims. In recent weeks, several Muslim organisations, including France’s largest anti-islamophobia organization (CCIF) have been dissolved by government decree, on grounds denounced by Amnesty international and an array of public figures and organizations, which have called for a reversal of the decision dubbed “extreme”: “Amnesty international is extremely concerned about the signal that this sends to NGOs and the fight against discrimination in France.”

These proposed laws and the rafts of measures justified by counter-terrorism are profoundly eroding basic freedoms in France: freedom of speech, of association, of thought. In seeking to eradicate the space for oppositional thinking in the name of upholding “republican principles”, France is betraying itself.

France’s Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti told the press “too many people (…) are using the law of 1881 which protects freedom of expression to express views in conflict with the values of the Republic.” Yet if freedom means anything, it means the right to express views which are indeed in conflict with the state – including its claims to a monopoly on the meaning of Republican principles. Many people might call this popular counter power the very basis of democracy.

Instead, the space for oppositional views is shrinking rapidly. Macron’s education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, branded academics critical of the government’s approach, “islamo-leftists”intellectually complicit” in terrorism for importing “indigenist, racialist, and decolonial ideologies,” which he claimed were responsible for ‘conditioning’ violent extremism. The accusation that academics who question the official narrative could be providing the fodder for terrorism led to the tabling of a law on university research, since approved by the Senate, that redefines and limits research to being “exercised with respect for the values of the Republic” – read, state sanctioned.

Just as President Macron champions France as the beacon of free speech and democracy, his government is involved in undermining – and seeking to undermine – some of the Republic’s most cherished principles, starting with freedom of the press.

President Macron is playing a dangerous double game – abroad, he plays on linguistic and cultural differences to play down serious concerns expressed by his own citizens in foreign publications, going so far as to contact the New York Timesaccusing the English-language media of “legitimizing this violence”, presumably by running stories he doesn’t approve of. A critical op-ed in the Financial Times was removed and replaced by one penned by the President himself in what many speculated was just the latest incident of political pressure being places on journalists to retract critical views. Meanwhile Reporters without Borders have tracked a disturbing increase in judicial harassment of investigative reporters, as well as concerns related to editorial independence.

There are many ways to shut down free speech, including by making the truth unsayable.

Days after the murder of Samuel Paty, France’s youth minister cut short a previously scheduled meeting with students to discuss religion because she was uncomfortable with the concerns being expressed around prejudice and islamophobia. We all know free speech is never absolute, it certainly isn’t in France where laws already regulate hate speech. But young people are not naïve. They can spot the hypocrisy of politicians who lecture them about free speech when it comes to accepting deeply disturbing caricatures, but won’t listen to their concerns around discrimination.

The state of free speech isn’t measured at the Elysée pulpit. It can be measured in the silencing of those who resist the government’s narrative over who is the blame for France’s long list of woes. But more broadly, the state of a nation’s freedoms can always be assessed at the margins. The specter of terrorism is a useful ploy to dismiss the increasingly punitive measures faced by French Muslims – but the delusion is to believe that their loss of freedom isn’t a loss of freedom for us all.

Terrorists will seek to aggrandize their limited reach, turning a knife attack into an internationally recognized “act of war” through symbolic targets and gory violence. But we could do with some perspective – over 3,000 people a year die in road accidents in France. Over 300 are dying a day of COVID. Since 2012, 260 peoplehave died in terrorists attacks in France. Does the specter of terrorism truly warrant a profound undoing of democratic principles that people fought and died for?

We can view terrorism as an attack on our “values”– or we can reject this narrative. Our values aren’t threatened by these attacks, they are threatened by our response to them. It’s now urgent our leaders are held to the Republican ideals they claim to represent.

Source: France’s Treatment of Its Muslim Citizens Is the True Measure of Its Republican Values

Aykol: France and Macron Aren’t Helping Solve Islam’s Crisis. They’re Strengthening Extremists Instead.

Good thoughtful commentary:

“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.” That is what the French President Emmanuel Macron said on Oct. 2, while announcing his “anti-radicalism plan.” Just two weeks later, on Oct. 16, a devotee of that radicalism killed and beheaded a high-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb, merely for showing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his classroom. And soon after, three worshippers at a church in Nice were savagely murdered by another terrorist who seemed to have the same motivation: to punish blasphemy against the prophet of Islam.

In return, the French authorities initiated a crackdown on anything they deemed to be Islamism, and also projected the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad on government buildings in France—only to provoke mass protests in various parts of the Muslim world.

Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.

All these events have initiated an ongoing debate about France, Islam, and freedom. Some in the West now see France as the beacon of Enlightenment values against the dark forces of religious fanaticism. Others argue that the main problem is Islamophobia, racism and the colonial arrogance of France in a world where—except for a handful of extremists—Muslims are the real victims.

As a Muslim who has been writing about these issues for about two decades, let me offer a more nuanced view: First, France—like any target of terrorism—deserves sympathy for its fallen and solidarity against the threat. Moreover, Macron is largely correct that Islam is facing a “crisis”—not “all over world,” but certainly in some parts of the world—and we Muslims need an honest conversation about that. Unfortunately, Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.

Many Muslims would find any talk of Islam facing a crisis unacceptable, if not heretical, for they think of Islam as a divinely ordained, perfect, and eternal truth. Yet one can well believe in the divine core of Islam, as I do, while being critical of the many layers of human interpretation built on top of that. It is this human interpretation that gave us much of the Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, which has some harsh verdicts that conflict with what the modern world calls human rights and civil liberties—the notions that people should be free to believe or disbelieve in a religion, and free to evangelize or criticize it.

Let’s take the burning issue at hand: What should Muslims do in the face of blasphemy against the Prophet—or sabb al-rasul, as medieval jurists called it. They all agreed it should be severely punished. According to mainline Shafi and Maliki jurists, the blasphemer would be executed immediately, unless he or she repented. According to the stricter Hanbalis, the blasphemer would be executed even if he or she repented. And according to the milder Hanafis, there was no clear ground for execution, but the blasphemer could be jailed and beaten with sticks.

None of these verdicts had any basis in the Quran—like most similar verdicts in Islamic jurisprudence—but jurists inferred them from some targeted killings that reportedly took place during the Prophet’s battles with the polytheists of his time.

What is less noticed is that medieval Muslim jurists reasoned according to the norms of their time, where the concept of free speech simply didn’t exist. Indeed, their Christian contemporaries weren’t any more lenient to blasphemers or heretics. The Byzantine Empire, under the Justinian Laws of the 6th century, declared, “Men shall not … blaspheme God,” and gave the death penalty for those who did. Later, in Europe, the Catholic Inquisition took blasphemy law a step further by making this capital punishment just more painful with new techniques like auto-da-fé, or burning people alive at the stake.

We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam

Yet Christianity has changed immensely in the past four centuries—first with the lessons taken from the horrific Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and then new ideas of tolerance advocated by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Debates on freedom among Catholics continued well into the 20th century, but ultimately all mainline Christians gave up coercive power in the name of their faith.

However, the same transformation hasn’t yet fully taken place in Islam—and that lies at the core of the crisis, that not just Macron but also critical Muslims are talking about. Medieval Islamic jurisprudence is still there, with some violent and coercive verdicts unrefuted by most contemporary religious scholars. Most Muslims are not interested in these verdicts, let alone eager to implement them, but some are. Their zealotry, in the extreme, leads to vigilante violence and terrorism. In the mainstream, it leads to blasphemy laws that are in place in many Muslim-majority states—Pakistan being one of the most ferocious.

A fairly conservative but thoughtful American Muslim, Yasir Qadi, a popular preacher and a dean at the Al-Maghrib Institute, recently admitted this problem in an interesting post “on the French terrorist attack.” Most mainstream Muslim authorities condemn such terrorist attacks, he noted, but “don’t directly address the fiqh [jurisprudence] texts involved.” Especially on the issue of blasphemy, he added, “There are texts and fiqh issues that need to be discussed frankly—hardly anyone has done that (still!).”

Having such frank discussions on Islamic jurisprudence—and the underlying theological assumptions—could open Islam’s path toward its own authentic Enlightenment, the gist of which should be giving up coercive power in the name of the faith. We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam, and to better reflect the true values of our faith.

In other words, Islam needs its own Enlightenment, but Macron is advocating the wrong sort of Enlightenment. And that’s a problem deeply rooted in France’s own history.

It is worth recalling that the Enlightenment was not a monolithic movement. As the late great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb explained in Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, there was rather a clear distinction between the French and the Anglo-Saxon paths: In France, Enlightenment often implied a combat between faith and reason. In Britain and America, it often implied a harmony of them. Therefore, the French path has been much more assertive, anti-clerical, and also bloody. The French Revolution, lest we forget, was an extremely violent affair, where hundreds of priests were killed—often by beheading—and the Church’s dominance of the public square was replaced, not by neutrality, but an alternative religion called the Cult of Reason.

Having subdued Catholicism long ago with this aggressive Enlightenment, France seems to be reviving it against Islam, especially under the banner of laïcité, its unmistakably illiberal form of secularism.

The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.

The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.

The main problem of this specific form of secularism is its reliance on preemptive intolerance; assuming that religion and its symbols might become oppressive if they are visible, laïcité suppresses them in the first place. The result of such policies is often a simmering grudge among the religious, and ultimately a backlash, if not revenge—which is precisely how Turkey got its great Islamic avenger, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Although Macron says the target of laïcité is not Islam, but only “Islamism,” the latter term is left quite vague in his rhetoric. In practice, it’s not vague at all. In France it has long been obvious that personal Muslim practices are targeted: For many years, Muslim women in France have been banned from wearing headscarves in public buildings, or so-called burkinis on beaches. Last September, a French politician from Macron’s party protested a young French Muslim woman for merely walking into the National Assembly while wearing a headscarf. And, in October, the French interior minister even took issue with halal food aisles in supermarkets—and kosher ones, too, signaling a threat to the religious freedom of just not Muslims, but other practicing believers as well.

In other words, what France requires from its Muslims is not just accepting the freedom of speech of blasphemers, but also giving up a part of their own freedom of religion. This is not only wrong in principle, but also myopic and counterproductive. It just makes it harder for practicing French Muslims to feel respected, accepted, and therefore fully French—precisely the sort of integration radical Islamists would like to avert.

Source: France and Macron Aren’t Helping Solve Islam’s Crisis. They’re Strengthening Extremists Instead.

Erna Paris: A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy

Complements the NYTimes interview (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/business/media/macron-france-terrorism-american-islam.html?action=click&module=News&pgtype=Homepage):

When my children were young, derisive “Newfie” jokes were all the rage. I didn’t allow them in my house; I’d lived in France as a student and learned enough about pre-war history to know that plural societies can exist peacefully only within an ethos of mutual respect.

Which is why both France and the United States have evolved into tragic political entities. Both their foundational ideologies are dangerously anachronistic.

Take the recent atrocities in France following the conduct of a teacher who pulled out the same caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed that provoked major violence in the past. There is no possible excuse for his monstrous medieval-style murder, or for the others that occurred after. But to understand circumstance is neither to assign blame nor to condone violence, a fact historians must constantly emphasize. That France houses almost six million Muslims, the largest population in the West, makes it critical to understand the impact of the Prophet Mohammed caricatures in that country.

The contemporary world will remain a mix of ethnicities and religions as migrations increasingly reshape societies, but when it comes to pluralism, France has a twofold problem. First is its commitment to rigid secularism – a foundational ideology that dates back to the French Revolution of 1789. Second is an absolutist view of free speech that is detrimental to society.

French secularism, which mandates that the public sphere be religiously homogeneous or “neutral,” effectively nullifies one’s right to be accepted for who one is. If you wear a hijab, for example, you cannot be a teacher of children, among other public professions. Your religious obligation to dress in certain ways may “offend” the majority. If you do follow your spiritual beliefs, you will be considered an unassimilated “other” – a second-rate faux citizen who rejects the values of the French Republic.

Complicating this problematic ideology is the aggressive abuse of free speech – a foundation of democracy – to incite social tensions. A teacher who relies on unfettered free speech to teach about Islam through ugly caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed is being knowingly provocative, especially when he facetiously suggests that anyone who might be offended leave the room. This is not an innocent moment. Let us imagine Berlin in 1934, for example. Hitler is in power, but Jewish children still attend school. In the name of free speech and high-level permission, the teacher pulls out examples of Julius Streicher’s caricatures of Jews and suggests that anyone who might be offended leave the room. Such scenarios risk toxic consequences.

There are limits to free speech, as we acknowledge in Canada. In 1990, in the case of James Keegstra, an Alberta teacher who propagated anti-Semitism in his classroom, the Supreme Court upheld the Criminal Code provision prohibiting the wilful promotion of hatred against an identifiable group. And for good reason. Plural societies are inherently fragile.

Like the French, many Americans hold rigid commitments to absolute free speech – and to freedom in general. But it is precisely this foundational ideology of libertarian freedom that is propelling what was the world’s most admired nation into tragedy.

The trigger has been COVID-19 and the politicization of mask-wearing. In a recent study at Stanford University that quantified infections stemming from Donald Trump’s maskless campaign rallies, it was estimated that there were at least 30,000 coronavirus infections and 700 deaths as a result of 18 rallies the President held between June and September.

American “rugged individualism” was first popularized by Herbert Hoover in 1928 when he compared his compatriots to a European philosophy of “paternalism and state socialism,” but the ideology can likely be traced back to the 1776 War of Independence from the British, followed by the cowboy ethos of opening up the West, coupled with a distrust of government oversight. But the downside of libertarian freedom has been a lack of commitment to the public good.

Foreheads furrowed when former San Francisco baseball hero, Aubrey Huff, announced in June that he would “rather die from the coronavirus than wear a damn mask,” and in May when a guard in a store in Flint, Mich., was shot dead after telling a woman that her child had to wear a mask. Both these events expose the tragedy of freedom paired with a weak concept of commonality.

In Canada, our national narrative has shifted over the past century from xenophobia to multiculturalism. How fortunate we are. Sadly, rigid foundational ideologies are likely to continue to threaten social peace as the 21st century progresses.

Source: https://www.theglobeandmail.com/opinion/article-a-rigid-belief-in-freedom-is-driving-france-and-the-us-to-tragedy/

The French President vs. the American Media

Of note along with Erna Paris’ critique (A rigid belief in freedom is driving France and the U.S. to tragedy). Universalism is a convenient way to avoid addressing systemic issues and discrimination:

The president has some bones to pick with the American media: about our “bias,” our obsession with racism, our views on terrorism, our reluctance to express solidarity, even for a moment, with his embattled republic.

So President Emmanuel Macron of France called me on Thursday afternoon from his gilded office in the Élysée Palace to drive home a complaint. He argued that the Anglo-American press, as it’s often referred to in his country, has blamed France instead of those who committed a spate of murderous terrorist attacks that began with the beheading on Oct. 16 of a teacher, Samuel Paty, who, in a lesson on free speech, had shown his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

“When France was attacked five years ago, every nation in the world supported us,” President Macron said, recalling Nov. 13, 2015, when 130 people were killed in coordinated attacks at a concert hall, outside a soccer stadium and in cafes in and around Paris.

“So when I see, in that context, several newspapers which I believe are from countries that share our values — journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”

Legitimizing violence — that’s as serious a charge as you can make against the media, and the sort of thing we’ve been more used to hearing, and shrugging off, from the American president. And Americans, understandably distracted by the hallucinatory final days of the Trump presidency, may have missed the intensifying conflict between the French elite and the English-language media.

More than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the most in any Western country. Mr. Macron, a centrist modernizer who has been a bulwark against Europe’s Trumpian right-wing populism, said the English-language — and particularly, American — media were imposing their own values on a different society.

In particular, he argued that the foreign media failed to understand “laïcité,” which translates as “secularism” — an active separation of church and state dating back to the early 20th century, when the state wrested control of the school system from the Catholic Church. The subject has become an increasing focus this year, with the approach of the 2022 election in which Mr. Macron appears likely to face the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. Mr. Macron didn’t initially campaign on changing the country’s approach to its Muslim minority, but in a major speech in early October denouncing “Islamist separatism,” he promised action against everything from the foreign training of imams to “imposing menus that accommodate religious restrictions in cafeterias.” He also called for remaking the religion itself into “an Islam of the Enlightenment.” His tough-talking interior minister, meanwhile, is using the inflammatory language of the far right.

When Mr. Paty was murdered, Mr. Macron responded with a crackdown on Muslims accused of extremism, carrying out dozens of raids and vowing to shut down aid groups. He also made a vocal recommitment to secularism. Muslim leaders around the world criticized Mr. Macron’s and his aides’ aggressive response, which they said focused on peaceful Muslim groups. The president of Turkey called for boycotts of French products, as varied as cheese and cosmetics. The next month saw a new wave of attacks, including three murders in a Nice church and an explosion at a French ceremony in Saudi Arabia.

Some French grievances with the U.S. media are familiar from the U.S. culture wars — complaints about short-lived headlines and glib tweets by journalists. But their larger claim is that, after the attacks, English and American outlets immediately focused on failures in France’s policy toward Muslims rather than on the global terror threat. Mr. Macron was particularly enraged by a Financial Times opinion article on Nov. 3, “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further,” which argued that he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism. The article said he was attacking “Islamic separatism” when, in fact, he had used the word “Islamist.” Mr. Macron’s critics say he conflates religious observance and extremism, and the high-profile misquote — of his attempt to distinguish between the religion of Islam and the ideology of Islamism — infuriated him.

“I hate being pictured with words which are not mine,” Mr. Macron told me, and after a wave of complaints from readers and an angry call from Mr. Macron’s office, The Financial Times took the article off the internet — something a spokeswoman, Kristina Eriksson, said she couldn’t recall the publication ever having done before. The next day, the newspaper published a letter from Mr. Macron attacking the deleted article.

In late October, Politico Europe also deleted an op-ed article, “The dangerous French religion of secularism,” that it had solicited from a French sociologist. The piece set off a firestorm from critics who said the writer was blaming the victims of terrorism. But the hasty deletion prompted the author to complain of “outright censorship.” Politico Europe’s editor in chief, Stephen Brown, said that the article’s timing after the attack was inappropriate, but that he had apologized to the author for taking it down without explanation. He didn’t cite any specific errors. It was also the first time, he said, that Politico had ever taken down an opinion article.

But French complaints go beyond those opinion articles and to careful journalism that questions government policy. A skeptical Washington Post analysis from its Paris correspondent, James McAuley, “Instead of fighting systemic racism, France wants to ‘reform Islam,’” drew heated objections for its raised eyebrow at the idea that “instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims,” the French government “aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.” The New York Times drew a contrast between Mr. Macron’s ideological response and the Austrian chancellor’s more “conciliatory” address after a terror attack, and noted that the isolated young men carrying out attacks don’t neatly fit into the government’s focus on extremist networks. In the Times opinion pages, an op-ed asked bluntly, “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?”

And then, of course, there are the tweets. The Associated Press deleted a tweet that asked why France “incites” anger in the Muslim world, saying it was a poor word choice for an articleexplaining anger at France in the Muslim world. The New York Times was roasted on Twitter and in the pages of Le Monde for a headline — which appeared briefly amid the chaos of the beheading — “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street.” The Times headline quickly changed as French police confirmed details, but the screenshot remained.

“It’s as though we were in the smoking ruins of ground zero and they said we had it coming,” Mr. Macron’s spokeswoman, Anne-Sophie Bradelle, complained to Le Monde.

As any observer of American politics knows, it can be hard to untangle theatrical outrage and Twitter screaming matches from real differences in values. Mr. Macron argues that there are big questions at the heart of the matter.

“There is a sort of misunderstanding about what the European model is, and the French model in particular,” he said. “American society used to be segregationist before it moved to a multiculturalist model, which is essentially about coexistence of different ethnicities and religions next to one another.”

“Our model is universalist, not multiculturalist,” he said, outlining France’s longstanding insistence that its citizens not be categorized by identity. “In our society, I don’t care whether someone is Black, yellow or white, whether they are Catholic or Muslim, a person is first and foremost a citizen.”

Some of the coverage Mr. Macron complains about reflects a genuine difference of values. The French roll their eyes at America’s demonstrative Christianity. And Mr. Macron’s talk of head scarves and menus, along with the interior minister’s complaints about Halal food in supermarkets, clashes with the American emphasis on religious tolerance and the free expression protected by the First Amendment.

Such abstract ideological distinctions can seem distant from the everyday lives of France’s large ethnic minorities, who complain of police abuse, residential segregation and discrimination in the workplace. Mr. Macron’s October speech also acknowledged, unusually for a French leader, the role that the French government’s “ghettoization” of Muslims in the suburbs of Paris and other cities played in creating generations of alienated young Muslims. And some of the coverage that has most offended the French has simply reflected the views of Black and Muslim French people who don’t see the world the way French elites want them to.

Picking fights with American media is also an old sport in France, and it can be hard to know when talk of cultural differences is real and when it is intended to wave away uncomfortable realities. And reactionary French commentators have gone further than Mr. Macron in attacking the U.S. media, drawing energy from the American culture wars. A flame-throwing article in the French magazine Marianne blasted U.S. coverage and then appeared in English in Tablet with an added American flourish denouncing “simplistic woke morality plays.”

But the ideological gaps between French and American points of view can be deceptive. The French commentariat has also harped on the #metoo movement as an example of runaway American ideology. Pascal Bruckner, the well-known public intellectual, called the sexual abuse case against Roman Polanski “neo-feminist McCarthyism.” But perhaps the most prominent American journalism in France this year came from The Times’s Norimitsu Onishi, who played a central role in forcing France to grapple with the well-known pedophilia of a famous writer, Gabriel Matzneff. A recent profile in a French news site described Mr. Onishi and others as “kicking the anthill just by naming things” that had previously gone unspoken. Mr. Matzneff is now facing charges.

And Mr. Macron has his own political context: a desperate fight against a resurgent coronavirus, a weak economy and a political threat from the right. He is also disentangling himself from an early, unsuccessful attempt to build a relationship with President Trump. He had spoken to President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. the day before our conversation.

I asked him whether his vocal complaints about the American media weren’t themselves a little Trumpian — advancing his agenda through high-profile attacks on the press.

Mr. Macron said he simply wanted himself and his country to be clearly understood. “My message here is: If you have any question on France, call me,” he said. (He has, in fact, never granted The Times’s Paris bureau an interview, which would be a nice start.)

And he recoiled at the comparison to Mr. Trump.

“I read your newspapers, I’m one of your readers,” he said.

Ivison: Trudeau makes sudden course correction on freedom of speech

While current concerns over freedom of expression relate mainly with respect to Muslims, there are many examples from other religions. The advent of social media makes navigating between hate speech (high threshold) and that which is offensive or a microaggression:

Justin Trudeau was asked by a reporter on Tuesday whether he condemns the publication of cartoons caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad.

“No,” he said, definitively in French. “I think it is important to continue to defend freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Our artists help us to reflect and challenge our views, and they contribute to our society.”

Source: Trudeau makes sudden course correction on freedom of speech

L’expérimentation multiculturaliste

As in the separate post on Ivison’s legitimated critique of different messages in English and French regarding limits to freedom of speech, what I found more interesting that some of the usual misunderstandings of multiculturalism in Quebec, the realization that Quebec’s demographic weight will continue to decline as the rest of Canada continues to increase immigration while Quebec immigration remains largely flat:

La semaine dernière, après avoir atermoyé pendant 12 jours, Justin Trudeau a finalement réagi à la décapitation par un islamiste radical de l’enseignant français Samuel Paty, qui avait montré à ses élèves des caricatures de Mahomet. Le premier ministre a dénoncé cet attentat terroriste tout en plaidant pour qu’on abaisse les tensions. « On ne doit pas avoir d’autres tisons pour accroître les flammes », a-t-il dit. Il s’engageait à parler à différents leaders, dont « des leaders dans la communauté musulmane ici au Canada pour comprendre leurs inquiétudes, leurs préoccupations ».

On pouvait y voir une critique à peine voilée d’Emmanuel Macron, qui s’est engagé à combattre le « séparatisme islamique » en France, tout en déplorant « la crise de l’Islam », un combat qui lui vaut les foudres de nombreux pays à majorité musulmane. « Nous ne céderons rien », a dit le président français, refusant que la liberté recule devant les menaces terroristes.

Le premier ministre canadien en a rajouté une couche. Interrogé sur ce droit de dessiner Mahomet, il a affirmé que la liberté d’expression avait des limites et qu’elle devait s’exercer dans « le respect des autres » et dans le souci « de ne pas blesser de façon arbitraire ou inutile ». Il recevait l’appui sans équivoque du chef du Nouveau Parti démocratiqueJagmeet Singh.

Or, mardi, Justin Trudeau a fait volte-face en reconnaissant que « nos journalistes, nos artistes ont un rôle dans la société de nous confronter et nous devons les laisser libres de faire leur travail ».

Pourtant, sa conception du respect, voire de la bienséance, qui doit limiter la liberté d’expression est parfaitement compatible avec la position qu’il avait adoptée au sujet de la liberté d’enseignement et de ces professeures sanctionnées pour avoir utilisé, à des fins pédagogiques, un mot qui blesse des étudiants noirs.

La liberté d’expression et d’opinion est un droit fondamental de nos sociétés démocratiques, un droit qui existait bien avant l’adoption de nos chartes des droits et libertés. Le droit canadien est clair : en dehors des propos haineux, des appels à la violence, de la diffamation qui cause un dommage et du harcèlement, la liberté d’expression est entière. La parole peut ne pas être vraie ou vertueuse ; elle peut blesser. La même chose peut être dite de la liberté d’enseignement, tout aussi fondamentale, qui est aussi celle de connaître, d’explorer, de critiquer.

Justin Trudeau peut prêcher la vertu multiculturelle si cela lui chante, mais il ne peut mettre en doute des libertés fondamentales auxquelles tient la grande majorité des Québécois. Et pour ce qui est de les représenter sur la scène internationale, on repassera. Il n’avait pas à prendre de haut le président français qui défend les valeurs de la République face à l’islam radical.

Le premier ministre François Legault a remis les pendules à l’heure : il a exprimé son appui indéfectible à Emmanuel Macron et à la France. Il s’est en pris à « certains dirigeants politiques qui craignent le terrorisme et qui, devant le chantage de certains groupes religieux radicaux, sont prêts à faire des accommodements qui ne sont pas raisonnables ». La nation québécoise a des valeurs et elle entend les défendre : la liberté d’expression, la laïcité, la langue française, a-t-il dit.

Deux conceptions s’opposent. Justin Trudeau n’a que le mot « communauté » à la bouche. Il parle de la communauté noire ou de la communauté musulmane comme s’il s’agissait de blocs monolithiques d’individus composant un « État post-national » — c’est son expression — devenu un assemblage multiculturel de communautés. Le Canada est d’ailleurs le seul pays où le multiculturalisme est inscrit dans sa constitution.

Dans cette optique, le peuple québécois n’est plus qu’un groupe ethnique parmi d’autres au Canada, les « Quebs », comme disent les jeunes anglophones du West-Island.

L’autre conception, c’est celle d’une nation québécoise qui tente de poursuivre son aventure en français avec tous ceux qui s’y joignent dans une perspective universaliste et démocratique.

Depuis l’élection des libéraux, le Canada a haussé à 250 000, puis à 300 000, puis, récemment, à 400 000 le nombre d’immigrants qu’il entend accueillir chaque année. Impossible pour le Québec de maintenir ce rythme : il lui faudrait accueillir 90 000 nouveaux arrivants par an, presque le double du niveau actuel. Dictée par Ottawa, cette réduction du poids politique de la nation québécoise au sein de la fédération n’a jamais fait l’objet d’un débat public. Pour certains, Justin Trudeau et l’élite torontoise qui le soutient sont engagés dans une expérimentation sociale inédite, une « a-nationalisation », pour ainsi dire, dont il faut discuter.0 commentaire 

Source: https://www.ledevoir.com/opinion/editoriaux/589107/liberte-et-integrisme-l-experimentation-multiculturaliste?utm_source=infolettre-2020-11-05&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=infolettre-quotidienne