Millennium Post

Lofty principles won’t save France

The ghastly terror attack on Charlie Hebdo gave rise, both in France and globally, to a wave of indignation and mass mobilisation in defence of freedom of expression. It also led to a reflection, although mostly outside of France this time, on the limits of that freedom and the respect owed to other people’s beliefs and cultures, especially those of minorities.

In the United States for example, a number of articles denounced the violence and expressed sympathy for the family of the victims, but questioned the ‘blindness’ of the French toward Charlie Hebdo’s perceived Islamophobia and racism – a judgment that in my opinion was a bit quick and often based on a misinformed reading of the cartoons. In the Muslim world, the attack was mostly followed by an unequivocal rejection of extremism, but also by unease at the offensive nature of some of the drawings. Much criticism was directed at French double standards in the enforcement of freedom of speech.

France is right to stand firmly by its democratic principles. Freedom of speech does include, of course, the right to ridicule other people’s beliefs, whatever they are. This doesn’t mean such ridicule is right, and it doesn’t make it any less distasteful, but freedom of expression cannot be tailored to every individual’s own subjective definition of what is acceptable and what is not. But then, France should apply those same principles consistently to all French citizens. Last week’s attack should be seen as an opportunity to engage in a thorough reflection about how we French define and apply democratic freedoms, in particular when it comes to our Muslim population. If we uphold the right to draw and ridicule the prophet, as I think we should, then shouldn’t we also uphold the right for our Muslim fellow citizens to express their own beliefs in the public place? Freedom of expression applies to everyone, or no one.

Let’s take one example, the particularly thorny issue of the Islamic veil. In the name of secularism (French: laïcité), another republican principle that we French hold dear, the veil is banned from schools. Its use is restricted when accessing public services and often discouraged in the workplace.

Of course, there are some sensible arguments in favour of the ban, which have to do with the role of schools as a social equaliser, or the need to protect Muslim schoolgirls from being forced to wear the veil due to social and familial pressure. However, this also means our children grow up in an environment in which exposure to other cultures, and the expression of differences of opinion and belief that is inherent to democratic education, are partly suppressed.

Non-Muslim kids effectively grow up in ignorance of Islam, the religion of a vast number of their fellow citizens. They become used to the idea that their Muslim classmates must hide their beliefs if they want to be accepted into French society. On the other hand, a large number of Muslim kids, whether they wear the veil or not, see the ban as yet another form of discrimination, yet another reminder that they are second-class citizens in their own country.

This in turn feeds into a broader sense of rejection and simmering resentment that leads some of our youth to look elsewhere to build their identity; some may become increasingly receptive to the rhetoric of militant Islamism. Shouldn’t this be a cause for concern? Shouldn’t we learn from the failings of our policies? Surely laïcité shouldn’t mean our minorities have to hide.

Of course, there is a broad variety of opinion on the veil within the Muslim ‘community’ itself. A large proportion of Muslims do not look at the ban as a bad thing. But my point is: when did we ever ask their opinion?  When did we ever grant French Muslims a real voice and representation in the public debates that most concern them? Public policy on matters related to Islam is decided by non-Muslim elites, based on assumptions, clichés and very often barely veiled (no pun intended) racial prejudice.

French people have a habit of hiding behind noble ideals and high-minded principles in order to avoid addressing complex issues. We hold laïcité just as sacred as Muslims hold the prophet. Well, maybe the time has come to take a scalpel to those principles, expose their inherent contradictions, and invite our Muslim fellow citizens to take part in the process.

As French politicians try to take advantage of national grief and make calls for republican unity, professing their unwavering commitment to democratic freedoms, it might be useful for them to take a step back and question their own collective responsibility in the growing antagonism that divides French society. For more than a decade now, the overwhelming majority of them, across nearly the entire political spectrum, have peddled to French people the same lie: that immigration, insecurity and the ‘Islamisation’ of French society are real problems. They are not. They are mirages. Social and economic inequalities, the failure of the education system in the suburbs where many French Muslims live, and most of all, individual and state attitudes toward our Muslim fellow citizens, are the real problems. It is time for France to come to terms with the fact that those five or six million Muslims – that we talk about as if they just disembarked from rafts last night – are just as French as we are. They are entitled to the exact same rights. Too many mainstream politicians, not just the National Front, continue to claim that French Muslims need to ‘earn’ their citizenship, and fulfill certain conditions in order to 'integrate' into French society. They do not need to integrate. They are French citizens already.

France is currently headed down a very dangerous path. Its democratic heritage is threatened by the rising tide of xenophobia and the increased public acceptance of rightist values and ideas that only a few years ago were still relegated to a fringe of extremist agitators. Now that fringe has grown into a mass movement, those once-extreme ideas are openly discussed and defended by mainstream politicians, and it has become perfectly acceptable to air Islamophobic views on French TV. On the other hand, France is pressured by the growing frustration of a large section of Muslim youth, who feel like they don’t belong and have learned to loathe their own country. Empty calls for national unity, and for the Muslim ‘community’ to join hands in upholding republican values in the face of extremism, will not succeed unless we give French Muslims a reason to relate to those values. Lofty principles will not save France from the disaster it is rushing toward. The time has come for French people to engage in something they have typically little talent or appetite for: pragmatism. It is time for an inclusive debate on how to guarantee to our Muslim citizens the same rights we so stridently claim for ourselves. It will require compromise on both sides.

The author is a French citizen. He has been working on conflict and fragility issues in Asia for over 10 years
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