DUBAI: When emotions run high, visions tend to be scattered and opinions end up being mistaken for facts. This is why Arab News has been partnering with the leading polling agency YouGov to produce solid research-based reports on the region.
As part of the same initiative, its French language digital edition, Arab News en Francais, recently commissioned a far-reaching study on the perceptions of French people of Arab origin on life in France.
The findings of the survey were the subject of a virtual panel discussion on Monday featuring leading experts, academics, decision-makers and diplomats.
The event, organized by Arab News and its French-language digital edition Arab News en Francais in partnership with the Arab World Institute (AWI) in Paris, tackled a number of thorny issues under the rubric of “Integration in France: Perception problem or systemic crisis?”
In his keynote speech, Jack Lang, the IMA president, described the Arab News en Francais-YouGov poll as an “excellent” initiative. “I just want to convey my intimate feeling. I think France is a country that has succeeded in interweaving cultures and civilizations.
What makes France a strong country is that it is, to borrow Nelson Mandela’s phrase, a ‘rainbow nation.’
“Now we are talking about the integration of Arab citizens. But after the Second World War, we were talking about the integration of Italian workers,” Lang said.
He said the designer Riad Sattouf’s description of France as “a masterpiece” is “true” because “France is a symbol of strength. It is also true that there is discrimination against citizens of Arab origins.
The discrimination is more social than cultural, but we must continue to fight it.”
In a special welcome address, Ludovic Pouille, the French ambassador to Saudi Arabia, also thanked Arab News en Francais for the study on French citizens of Arab origin and the virtual debate.
“Unfortunately, we are living in times of great violence” he said, saying that “the whole world” is affected by terrorism.
“Beyond this terrorist threat, we are also victims of hatred via social networks. We must fight terrorism in all its forms and the hatred it produces.”
Pouille added: “It should be remembered that France has deep respect for Islam. Islam is the second religion in France and all French Muslims benefit from a protective framework such as there is for all religious denominations, and we remain vigilant against hate speech and racism.”
He reiterated a point he made in an exclusive commentary for Arab News en Francais on Monday: “France would not be France without Arab and Muslim contribution.”
Senator Nathalie Goulet expressed concern over the situation in France. She recalled that as part of her duties, in 2014 she had requested “investigation into jihadist networks.”
This led to “the financing of Islam in France and the report submitted to the senate was passed unanimously.” Responding to the remarks of Lang, Goulet, who represents the department of Orne, said: “I listened to Jack Lang. I think we don’t live in the same country.
The situation is not good. You cannot talk of integration of people born in France and having an immigrant background. French Muslims are French.”
In his comments, Dr. Ghaleb Bencheikh, a Franco-Algerian Islamologist and president of the Fondation de l’Islam de France (FIF), said the concept of a supranational identity has “become some kind of a refuge.”
According to him, the ideology of the majority triumphs to the detriment of all the other minorities combined. Pointing to the prominence of social networks, he said these offer a wide audience to demagogues whose remarks negatively influence public opinion and lead to the stigmatization of a segment of the population.
“Some people talk about republican secularism. I find this to be nonsense. Indeed, secularism is not a value; it is a legal principle,” Bencheikh said.
Dr. Myriam Francois, who has done her PhD in Islamic political movements in Morocco from the University of Oxford, felt the French government is not fully playing its role in society.
“Many groups are simply neglected by the government. Yet, in theory, everyone has the same right to upward social mobility,” she said.
She contended that since the French people are a revolutionary people, it is therefore “normal for them to turn against the government if it does not fully grant them their rights.” This, she said, explains in part the resurgence of violence.
Francois said discrimination exists at all levels of French society, adding: “We tend to Islamize social issues. Muslims are one of these marginalized groups, but are far from the only ones.”
She continued: “The problem lies in the rejection of the ‘other.’ Today, we need a republic that represents the entire French population, such as it is today. We must campaign to give everyone their place.
It’s not just up to white men to give their opinion.” Francois’ views were seconded by Dr. Melyssa Haffaf, program director at Georgetown University. “Discrimination is the heart of the problem,” she said.
“It is above all social and economic discrimination that provokes violence and hateful reactions in France.” Haffaf said there is evidence to show that it is often non-Muslims who speak out about the place of religion.
“However, their vision can be influenced by political ideologies and distorted by stereotypes. We should therefore give the floor more often to those directly affected by this issue, and give Islam (as well as other cultural minorities) the place they deserve within the country.”
Whatever the differences of opinions among the panelists, all agreed that the state ought to play a more prominent role in the integration of Arabs in France.
Haffaf said: “The republic is an entity made up of elected men and women who must be more honest with respect to the different communities that have shaped the country over the centuries to get to today’s France.”
She contended that the Enlightenment was not unique to Europe. “Islam has also proved itself,” she said. “Its history must be introduced to young people through education. Diversity cannot be an opinion; it must be a fact.”
For his part, Bencheikh said that to fill the void where the state is absent, the FIF, through its mobile university, will promote debate, dispel doubts, allay concerns and speak with citizens.
While agreeing with the general consensus on the topic, Francois said the French government should also rethink its actions to avoid “creating social trauma.” “How do you put up with a policeman going to ‘harass’ a woman by the beach only because she is dressed in a certain way?” she said.
“We cannot tolerate this. We must recognize the place of all citizens.” In conclusion, Goulet said that while “not everything is perfect, all is not dismal either.”
Recovering the lost “elements of the republic’s spaces” is a long process, she said, but “it is indeed necessary to hold politicians more accountable, and to put republican principles at the heart of education.”
Summing up her arguments, she said: “We must stop seeing Islam as a religion foreign to France. This creates a counterproductive divide. Real change should start with addressing this misconception.”