How France can boost its fight against extremism
The gruesome murder of teacher Samuel Paty in Paris on Friday has contributed to the demonization of the Muslim community in France. Muslims inside and outside France have denounced the act. Tareq Oubrou, the imam of a Bordeaux mosque, told France Inter radio: “Every day that passes without incident we give thanks.” He added: “We are between hammer and anvil. It attacks the Republic, society, peace and the very essence of religion, which is about togetherness.”
Despite the condemnations by Muslim leaders and public figures, who realize how harmful such acts of terrorism are to the community at large, it is important to analyze what drives this behavior, which basically contributes to the stigmatizing and marginalization of Muslims.
Attacks like this one and the shootings at the office of the 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 feelings of estrangement from society at large. The French system is particularly fertile ground for this dynamic because of the constitutional principle of “laicite” (secularism). This is why the hijab is banned in public schools.
Nevertheless, this does not mean that communities do not have rights. The French constitution gives the right to blaspheme, 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, the famous French actress Brigitte Bardot was fined €15,000 ($17,650) for accusing the Muslim community of destroying the country and “imposing its acts.”
When I see the Muslim community in France struggling to get accepted in a hard-core secular society, I cannot help but think of the essay “Anti-Semite and Jew,” written by French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and published in the late 1940s. In it, Sartre described the ordeals of the Jewish community in France. His conclusion was that Jews should not shy away from the system; rather they should be a part of it. Today, Jews are well integrated into French society without losing their identity.
Muslims are now on the same journey and experiencing the same struggles as they seek to reach a state of integration without assimilation. Muslims should have a strategy — they need to follow the advice of Sartre and use the system to claim their rights and garner acceptance. They need to 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 wake of Friday’s attack, Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo retweeted a picture that showed a message from Lea, a six-year-old, which says that if you don’t like a drawing someone drew, you don’t kill him, you just draw a nicer one. This message, as simple as it sounds, carries a lot of wisdom. In fact, it is similar to the complex reflections of Sartre. Muslims need to draw a nice picture of Islam: A picture in a French frame.
The Muslim community needs a strategy to break the vicious cycle of discrimination creating resentment and isolation, which in turn creates a fertile ground for extremist ideology. The key to breaking this cycle is the feeling of belonging. Muslims in France should feel that they belong to the system because they are French and because they are accepted by the system as Muslim.
Muslims need to draw a nice picture of Islam: A picture in a French frame.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
First and foremost, Muslim community leaders should work with the authorities to boost Muslim participation in public life. A 2018 study published in Foreign Affairs magazine provided evidence that feelings of national pride and belonging are fueled by political representation. The feeling of not being represented — or, worse, not being accepted — makes Muslim immigrants feel like they do not belong to the larger community. As research on group behavior suggests, such sentiments leave people reluctant to make any effort to be integrated. They will also tend to look for alternative sources of belonging, resulting in further group polarization. Resorting to extremism and rejecting their new society is one way to affirm an identity, and it is also an expression of revenge on an environment that is rejecting them.
Muslim participation in public life should go hand in hand with fighting Islamophobia. So there should be a collective effort by the Muslim community to fight Islamophobia using France’s legal framework, which denounces racism and discrimination. It should also look for allies in the wider French society and raise awareness that Islamophobia causes polarization, leading to extremism. Such an endeavor should not be portrayed as an exclusively Muslim project but as a French one that will ensure Muslims can enjoy their rights as French citizens, meaning they can enjoy liberty, equality and 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 Peace Building (RCCP), a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.