President Emmanuel Macron’s latest dog-whistle Islamophobia is a testimony to the fact that ‘liberal’ and ‘far-right’ rhetoric surrounding Islam and Muslims is not that dissimilar, writes Taj Ali.
Last week, Macron singled out Islam as “a religion that is in crisis all over the world today” in a speech to unveil his proposed law to fight “Islamist separatism”. It is astonishing that in the middle of a global pandemic, Macron has decided to focus on the Muslim minority community in France. Constituting less than 9% of France’s population yet constantly a source of contempt for the French Republic, racism and discrimination is nothing new for French Muslims.
A colonial mindset
The fact that Macron feels the need to “defend” secularism would seem to suggest the French republic is under attack. To associate the Muslim community with separatism emphasises difference and seeks to position the Muslim community as outsiders. In a climate where anti-Muslim hate crimes are increasing, Macron’s singling out of the Muslim community will only add fuel to the constant fire.
Macron’s choice of the word “separatism” is also deadly problematic. Usually used in reference to ethnic groups demanding an independent nation-state within a larger geographical locality, Macron’s rhetoric seems to suggest Muslims are disloyal and have split allegiances. This mirrors far-right rhetoric which seeks to portray Muslims as “fifth columnists” intent on destroying western civilisation.
Whilst Macron’s Islamophobia is not as overt as that of Marine Le Pen and the National Front, it is nonetheless still very much existent and deep-rooted. Clothed in the language of liberalism and secularism, this form of Islamophobia is insidious and dangerous. In many ways it is a colonial mindset, which historically informed France’s colonial policy in Muslim-majority lands.
During the colonial period, the French perceived Muslims to be too attached to Islam and felt this would be an impediment to their compliance with the French secular ideology known as Laïcité. This led to a ban on some religious symbols such as face coverings. Macron’s rhetoric, in many ways, embodies what Rudyard Kipling referred to as ‘the white man’s burden’. This civilisational rhetoric was used to justify colonialism on the basis that it was needed to civilise the ‘savages’.
There is a crisis all over the world today facing Muslims, and that crisis is Islamophobia. Since 9/11, Muslims in France have been constructed as a suspect community. Such attitudes are not confined to mere rhetoric but also embedded in legislation. Under the guise of fighting terrorism, the French government has pursued authoritarian legislation which specifically targets the Muslim community and undermines basic civil liberties.
France has long engaged in practices of state securitisation against its Muslim minority communities as demonstrated by the ban on face veils in 2011, followed by a 2016 ban on Burkini swimwear in several French towns. These restrictions on Islamic religious practices and symbols were less about combating violent extremism and more about pursuing a policy of forced assimilation and limiting religious freedoms for Muslims.
In 2017, the anti-terrorism bill was introduced which authorised French authorities to restrict freedom of movement, conduct unwarranted house searches, dismiss workers from employment without due process and close down mosques. A UN expert argued the new terrorism laws would undermine basic rights and freedoms.
These limits on religious freedoms under the guise of fighting terrorism continues to associate the Muslim community with the terrorism threat, and therefore portrays French Muslims as the enemy within. The upcoming legislation is being formulated within a racist paradigm which is constructed around a notion of “protecting” the French Republic and its values.
It remains to be seen what implications this new legislation will have for the Muslim community in France but if Macron’s rhetoric and previous legislation is anything to go by, the new law could further entrench Islamophobia in the French republic.
The demonisation of French Muslims and the ensuing moral panic has resulted in restrictions on the basic civil and human rights of Muslims. Discriminatory legislation coupled with divisive rhetoric depicting the Muslim community as “the other”, only further legitimises the far-right which seeks to portray Muslims as posing a threat to the Western way of life.
As a British Muslim from Luton, I have witnessed the rise of the English Defence League and have seen first-hand the very real consequences Islamophobia has on Muslims.
The dangerous rhetoric whipped up by the mainstream media and politicians alike about our community has, no doubt, contributed to a rise in anti-Muslim hate-crimes across Europe. We must question why so-called ‘liberal’ politicians like Macron dedicate more time on legitimising the far-right narrative that presents Islam and Muslims as an existential threat, as opposed to spending time on tackling Islamophobia? Liberty, equality, fraternity? Not if you’re Muslim.
The far-right is on a rapid rise across Europe and it seems as though many politicians such as Macron are willingly sophisticating their hateful narrative. By courting the far-right in order to win votes, Macron risks strengthening the far-right position and legitimising their dangerous propaganda which seeks to scapegoat Muslims for all of society’s problems.
Politicians have a responsibility not to entertain ludicrous right-wing conspiracies such as “Muslim separatism” and take a firm stand against Islamophobia. It is rhetoric from the top which sets the tone. Islamophobia is not simply the preserve of a small number of fringe bigots on the far-right; it has very much become the mainstream within Western liberal democracies.
Taj Ali is the former ethnic minorities officer at the University of Warwick. He recently graduated from Warwick University with a BA in History and Politics. You can follow him on Twitter @taj_ali1