How France can step up its fight against extremism
The gruesome murder of Professor Samuel Paty in Paris on Friday contributed to the demonization of the Muslim community in France. Muslims inside and outside France denounced this act. Tareq Oubrou, the imam of a Bordeaux mosque, told France Inter radio: “Every day that goes by without incident, we give thanks. He added: “We are between a rock and a hard place. He attacks the Republic, society, peace and the very essence of religion, which concerns unity.
Despite the condemnations of Muslim leaders and public figures, who realize how harmful these acts of terrorism are to the community as a whole, it is important to analyze what motivates this behavior, which essentially contributes to the stigma and the marginalization of Muslims.
Attacks like this one and the shootings at the office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 are the worst enemies of Muslim communities in the West. Right-wing politicians use them to stigmatize all Muslims, which puts them on the defensive, increases resentment at their presence, and adds to their sense of estrangement from mainstream society. The French system is particularly fertile ground for this dynamic because of the constitutional principle of “laicite” (secularism). This is why the hijab is prohibited in public schools.
However, this does not mean that communities do not have rights. The French constitution gives the right to blasphemy, but at the same time it protects the right of individuals to practice their faith. In short, you can insult Islam but you cannot insult Muslims. In 2008, famous French actress Brigitte Bardot was fined € 15,000 ($ 17,650) for accusing the Muslim community of destroying the country and “of imposing its acts”.
When I see the Muslim community in France struggling to be accepted into a harsh secular society, I can’t help but think of the essay “Antisemite et juif”, written by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and published at the end from the 40s. In it, Sartre described the hardships of the Jewish community in France. His conclusion was that the Jews should not shirk the system; rather they should be part of it. Today, Jews are well integrated into French society without losing their identity.
Muslims are now on the same path and experience the same struggles as they seek to achieve a state of integration without assimilation. Muslims must have a strategy – they must follow Sartre’s advice and use the system to claim their rights and gain acceptance. They must contribute to public life and use the legal system to defend their right to practice their religion, as well as to compel others to respect them.
In the aftermath of Friday’s attack, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo retweeted a photo that showed a message from Lea, a six-year-old girl, who said if you don’t like a picture someone drew , you don’t kill it, you draw a nicer one. This message, as simple as it sounds, carries a lot of wisdom. In fact, it is similar to Sartre’s complex reflections. Muslims must draw a beautiful image of Islam: an image in a French frame.
The Muslim community needs a strategy to break the vicious cycle of discrimination that creates resentment and isolation, which in turn creates fertile ground for extremist ideology. The key to breaking this cycle is a sense of belonging. Muslims in France should feel they belong to the system because they are French and because they are accepted by the system as Muslims.
Muslims must draw a beautiful image of Islam: an image in a French frame.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Above all, the leaders of the Muslim community should work with the authorities to stimulate Muslim participation in public life. A 2018 study published in Foreign Affairs magazine found that feelings of national pride and belonging are fueled by political representation. The feeling of not being represented – or, worse, not being accepted – gives Muslim immigrants a feeling of not belonging to the community as a whole. As research on group behavior suggests, such feelings leave people reluctant to make an effort to integrate. They will also tend to seek other sources of belonging, which will lead to further polarization of the group. Resorting to extremism and rejecting their new society is a way of asserting an identity, and it is also an expression of revenge on an environment that rejects them.
Muslim participation in public life must go hand in hand with the fight against Islamophobia. There should therefore be a collective effort by the Muslim community to fight against Islamophobia using the French legal framework, which denounces racism and discrimination. He should also seek allies in French society at large and raise awareness that Islamophobia causes polarization, leading to extremism. Such an undertaking should not be presented as an exclusively Muslim project but as a French project which will guarantee Muslims the enjoyment of their rights as French citizens, which means that they will be able to enjoy freedom, equality and of fraternity.
- Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is the co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peacebuilding (RCCP), a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliate researcher at the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.
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