We have spent a week in France meeting with key organisations and with people who understand how poisonous the tentacles of Islamist extremism have been and how they have also given rise to greater feelings of anti-Muslim hatred, which have been fuelled by a number of factors. We have spoken to Muslims who see the victim narrative pumped into French Muslims who have suffered anti-Muslim hate incidents and to those who have had their fears expanded because of the perpetual victim narrative that Islamist groups in the country have been promoting.
What is happening in France is troubling. It is troubling since the State is grappling with extremism, disaffection within parts of its population, anti-migrant attitudes and a hardening of political stances to groups who talk about discrimination. Yet, there is another issue that is layered on top of this and it includes Islamist groups who talk about Islamophobia as if there is a perpetual battle between Muslims and the State. They take a ‘them and us’ approach which is constantly filtered into discussions and talks at a local level and the impression that Muslims come away with after listening to such groups is that they are being targeted for persecution by the State. This thinking and the re-enforcement of the belief that Muslims are being persecuted by the State, does the following. It re-enforces just the Muslim identity within those who accept this toxic message and it further alienates and marginalises them mentally to their surroundings and to those who are non-Muslim.
This is not to take away from the state of emergency laws that were enacted in France after the massive terrorist attacks in Paris and which went on for two years, finally to be lifted in late 2017. There were real issues of infringements on civil liberties and life for some French Muslims is further complicated by abuse and racism. However, instead of raising the morale of French Muslims with hope, French Muslims are fed a diet of ‘raging Islamophobia’, a French State that does not care for them and a sense of being embattled that all plays into the hands of radicalisers. What women can and can’t wear is naturally a campaigning point for these groups, as is Islamophobia, something that we would term, anti-Muslim hate. Yet, the very defence of freedoms that these groups cite, they will not be willing to defend if, for example, a gay Muslim wanted to join them and speak about Islam openly. Or, if an Ahmadi Muslim wanted their open support, or if an ex-Muslim called for solidarity with them. Then these freedoms become a ‘pick and mix’ approach, something that shows how such groups discard democracy as soon as it does not suit them.
France is in a complex and difficult place, though President Macron has made some really bold moves. The first of these is to reach out into the banlieues of France to try and reverse some of the deep unemployment and disaffection that is felt in these areas. He also has spoken of tackling the ‘slow burn of Islamist extremism’
France’s democratic values should not be at odds with Muslims. But with Islamists in the ascendance in Muslim communities in France, there is a risk that the very values that France defends, may become the ones that are attacked in the future.