New book puts France at center of anti-Muslim backlash

Women hold signs reading ‘Is it not a provocation, just my freedom of conscience’ during a ‘headscarf march’ organized by the Collective against Islamophobia ‘Respect Equality Dignity’ on Sept. 3, 2016, in Avignon, southern France. (AFP)
Updated 14 February 2018

New book puts France at center of anti-Muslim backlash

LONDON: Islamophobia in France is being fueled by state-backed efforts to encourage secularism, according to a new book that puts the country at the heart of a growing intolerance toward Muslims in Western societies.
In “Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France,” Jim Wolfreys, a British academic and author, argues that French politicians have given discrimination and racism a veneer of respectability in their response to a wave of Daesh attacks that hit French towns and cities in the last three years.
The bloodshed has left innocent Muslims facing unprecedented scrutiny of what they wear, eat and say in a society polarized by inequality, he claims.
Wolfreys, a senior lecturer in French and European Politics at King’s College London, told Arab News there is a “danger of confusing understandable fear of terrorism with fear of Muslims.”
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, with estimates of its size ranging from 2.1 million to about 6 million, out of a total population of 66.9 million. Many of these Muslims can trace their roots back to the country’s colonial rule in North and sub-saharan Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Secularism is one of the guiding principles of the French political and legal systems and questions around immigration and integration have long been a subject of debate in the country. But rhetoric once considered taboo has entered mainstream political discourse in recent years, according to Wolfreys.
In 2011, even before the recent wave of militant attacks, France became the first European nation to ban women from wearing full-face veils in public.
Then, as gun battles and suicide bombings rocked the country in a series of attacks claimed by Daesh, local authorities in several towns outlawed women from wearing burkini swimwear. Officials said the clothing, which covers the female head and body in keeping with conservative Islamic custom, was a security threat and flouted the nation’s secular principles.
France’s highest administrative court subsequently overturned the restriction imposed by one resort, with three judges ruling that it was “clearly illegal” and in violation of “fundamental liberties,” but the ban heightened concerns among many Muslims that they were being made scapegoats for the Daesh-inspired violence.
Islam and immigration went on to become two of the central issues in the 2017 presidential election, when Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, won almost 11 million votes in the second round of polling.
Le Pen campaigned on an openly Islamophobic ticket, denouncing mosques for allowing worshippers to pray in the streets and warning of the danger of living “under the yoke of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.”
She lost convincingly to her liberal rival, Emmanuel Macron, but mainstream political concerns about Islam have not gone away.
On Sunday, President Macron told the French weekly newspaper “Le Journal du Dimanche” that he planned to reorganize the structure of Islam in France to help “preserve national cohesion.” He provided no details about how he hoped to do this.
Wolfreys’ book, “Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France,” looks in detail at the causes and consequences of state-fueled discrimination.
He reports the results of an opinion poll conducted by a French human rights institute that found 45 percent of National Front supporters do not consider “dirty Arab” a reprehensible phrase. In the same survey, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they do not regard Muslims as fully French.
However, Wolfreys accuses mainstream parties from both the right and left of the political spectrum of adopting increasingly intolerant interpretations of secularism.
He writes that the problem became particularly acute after two masked gunmen attacked the Paris offices of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” on Jan. 7, 2015, in retaliation for a series of cartoons defaming the Prophet Muhammad. Twelve people were killed, with Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Daesh issuing contrasting claims of responsibility for the carnage.
On Nov. 13 that year, Daesh militants also carried out a coordinated assault across the French capital, with three suicide bombers blowing themselves up outside the Stade de France and gunmen killing 89 people attending a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre.
This was followed in July 2016 by an attack in the southern city of Nice, in which a cargo truck was driven into a crowd of revelers celebrating Bastille Day, killing more than 80 people.
Wolfreys’ book warns that the French government’s response to the bloodshed has been disproportionate and risks further marginalizing innocent Muslims, pushing them into the arms of extremists.
“The renewed emphasis since the 2015 Paris attacks on inculcating respect for ‘republican values’ in schools, punishing those alleged to defy them, fast-tracking those accused of ‘apology for terrorism’ through the courts, and increasing surveillance and ‘vigilance’ is unlikely to prevent such atrocities from happening again,” he writes.

US officials push to revive Afghan peace talks

Updated 22 October 2019

US officials push to revive Afghan peace talks

  • High-level delegations in Kabul meet government, Taliban

KABUL: Top US officials including Defense Secretary Mark Esper and House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi are pushing for the revival of Afghan peace talks, despite President Donald Trump abruptly declaring the peace process dead.

Esper, who was making his first visit to Afghanistan as defense secretary, met President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.

“The aim is to still get a peace agreement at some point, that’s the best way forward,” Esper told reporters who were traveling with him.

Multiple rounds of talks to end the fighting have been held between the Taliban and diplomats in a process led by US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad, with the Afghan government excluded at the insurgents’ insistence.

Pelosi, after meetings with Ghani and Abullah that were also attended by diplomats and the top US military commander in Afghanistan, said she had discussed the issue of peace talks with the Taliban.

“Our delegation received briefings from (US) Ambassador John Bass and other top diplomats on reconciliation efforts with the Taliban … We underscored that the women of Afghanistan must be at the table for reconciliation talks.”

Ghani discussed the Sept. 28 presidential election, bilateral matters and the peace process with Esper and Pelosi, his office said. 

“Peace is a priority for us, a peace which is led and owned by Afghans and the values of the constitution and women are protected in it,” a presidential palace statement cited him as saying.

Abdullah said he was backing the revival of talks and was ready to make a sacrifice for “real peace.”

“During a fruitful meeting with Pelosi, we exchanged views on the credibility of Afghan elections, credibility requisites, prospects for peace/political settlement. Peace is one of the priorities of the Afghan people and we are supporting these efforts and I am ready for any kind of sacrifice for gaining real peace and for the cessation of war.”

He, unlike Ghani, did not emphasize the need for the peace talks to be owned and led by Afghanistan, but stressed on keeping the gains made since the Taliban was removed from power.

Trump tasked Khalilzad with finding a peaceful solution to the war and the eventual withdrawal of US troops from the country. However the process was thrown into chaos when the president tweeted last month that he was canceling peace talks with Taliban leaders at Camp David after the group claimed responsibility for a Kabul attack that killed a US soldier and 11 other people.

Khalilzad made a surprise stopover in Pakistan earlier this month at the same time that Taliban delegates were on a visit to the country and, according to foreign media reports, discussed the revival of peace talks with the group which the US had toppled from power more than 18 years ago.

Waheed Mozhdah, an analyst who knows the Taliban’s leaders, said the US had already established contact with the group and was keen to sign a deal but was concerned about a potential political crisis between rivals Ghani and Abdullah who are the main candidates in the presidential poll.

The vote was twice delayed, while the initial results of the ballot have not yet been disclosed due to technical issues.

“Now everything has to wait for the result of the election … it seems the Americans are concerned that if it signs the deal with the Taliban now and a crisis begins due to the election, then it will make America’s position weak,” he told Arab News.

“Through these trips, American officials are trying to persuade both sides (Abdullah and Ghani) to respect the result of the election so that when the time of intra-Afghan dialogue starts with the arrival of a new government, the Taliban does not argue that there is a crisis with the government.”

He said Esper’s comments about troop withdrawal was part of the deal Khalilzad had discussed with the Taliban before Trump’s interjection. 

“Americans are confounded since Trump has come to power. First he pushed for the talks, then he canceled the talks and now wants them to be resumed,” he said.

Zubair Shafiqi, another analyst, said troop drawdown was a Trump goal that was aimed at his domestic audience and his re-election campaign next year.

He said Washington had come to the conclusion that the presidential election in Afghanistan would go to a second round, and that the visits by top US officials in recent weeks was aimed at telling leaders in Kabul that they had to brace for the formation of a broad-based interim set-up which should involve the Taliban too.

“I think Americans think that with the low turnout based on (last month’s) election, there will be no strong government in Afghanistan, so it is trying to convince the key sides that they have create a government in understanding with the Taliban,” he told Arab News.