Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1253, ( 2 - 8 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Ramadan in Paris

Despite a worrying rise in Islamophobic incidents in France since the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings earlier this year, Muslims in the French capital are celebrating as usual this Ramadan, writes David Tresilian in Paris

Al-Ahram Weekly

Visitors to the Paris district of Belleville in the city’s 19th arrondissement during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan may not see differences from the way it has been marked in previous years in this largely North African and sub-Saharan African district of the French capital.

Tables are laid out in the streets for the evening iftar meal, small shops sell traditional Ramadan food items, and there is an atmosphere of celebration as people relax in cafes and restaurants in the evenings after the day’s fast.

Beneath the surface, however, there may be important differences in the background to this year’s Ramadan. An incident near Lyon in the south of the country on 26 June, in which a man was murdered and a factory attacked in what appears to have been at least in part a jihadist crime, has added to tensions already present in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings in Paris in January.

According to the Observatoire National Contre l’Islamophobie (ONCI), a French national organisation promoting inter-religious understanding, in the weeks following the January attacks there was an explosion in the number of incidents of Islamophobia in France, including verbal and physical threats, attacks on mosques and other buildings, and vandalism of Muslim-owned property.

While the number of recorded incidents of anti-Muslim feeling in France had shown a marked decrease in 2014, ONCI president Abdallah Zekri said, “After the terrible crimes committed in January 2015… Islamophobic acts against French people of Muslim religion reached a peak never seen before in France.”

In the weeks after the January killings, 128 incidents were reported to the police, along with 95 verbal or physical threats. Not only did this mark a stark rise over previous years, but the incidents included attempted shootings, as well as the vandalism of mosques and other property.

“It is sad to see that the political class has not denounced these appalling acts or extended its support to Muslim citizens of France who are equal members of the national community,” Zekri said in a statement. “Idle thugs who spend their time painting Nazi slogans on the walls of mosques are reminders of a sorry past and should be unequivocally condemned.”

While such incidents have now declined in number, there have been sporadic attacks on symbols of the Muslim presence in France since, including an arson attack on the Addawa Mosque in the 19th arrondissement of Paris on 6 June, one of the city’s oldest and serving a mixed North African and sub-Saharan African community.

According to a Council of Europe report on human rights in France released in February, while incidents of anti-Muslim feeling in the country tend to take place in the wake of inflammatory media stories, dying away once they leave the front pages of the newspapers or the evening news, bigoted material about Islam and Muslims on the Internet and social networks does not stop circulating even in the absence of such stories.

The report, compiled by Council of Europe commissioner for human rights Nils Muizneks, said, in part: “The commissioner is concerned about the decline in tolerance and the high number of verbal assaults and offensive expressions of a hateful or discriminatory nature recorded in France.”

The council was concerned at the “persistence of discriminatory police checks on the basis of physical features” directed particularly at young men of North African or sub-Saharan African appearance, it added, and noted that while “the majority of French politicians reject racist and discriminatory rhetoric … it is nevertheless disturbing to note that, in France, a number of parties and politicians use intolerant or racist language.

“The commissioner condemns hate acts as well as hate speech, which may be of a racist, xenophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-Muslim or homophobic nature. He believes that … the resurgence of hate acts and hate speech which accompanies certain events in the national or international news reveals a worrying erosion of social cohesion and of the principle of equality [in France].”

Similar concerns have been voiced by the ONCI, which has said that the number of anti-Muslim incidents reported to the police in France “does not reflect the reality, since many Muslims are unwilling to complain to the police about anti-Muslim acts, feeling that no action will be taken against the perpetrators.”

Said Zekri, “Discrimination against Muslims is not taken into account or even recognised” as a form of anti-Muslim feeling, despite this having often been reported against people having “Muslim names” or of “Muslim appearance” in job applications or applications for housing and other services.

“Cyber-hatred in the form of chain mails on the Internet has been going up and is now a major source of lies about Muslims and Islam,” Zekri added.

While physical attacks against Muslims and attacks on Muslim places of worship and property remain rare in France, some commentators believe that discrimination does not.

In recent years, media campaigns on issues targeting the country’s Muslim population, among them the wearing of the Islamic veil or headscarf by some Muslim women, incidents of Muslim public prayer outside mosques, and the provision of halal menus in school and company canteens as well as fast-food restaurants, have all made the headlines, along with stories about the radicalisation of some Muslim young people.

The French media spends a disproportionately large amount of time on such stories, perhaps sensing that they help to haul in readers. Arguably they have created an atmosphere in which even if Islamophobia in the sense of anti-Muslim acts or directly anti-Muslim discrimination is unlikely to be tolerated in France, low-level or casual Islamophobia may have become more common.

 Comments that would not be tolerated were they directed against other groups have apparently become acceptable in parts of the French media, among them the idea that France’s Muslims are a “problem” because of their “refusal to integrate” into French society.

A TIME FOR OUTREACH: A time for outreach and enhanced community involvement, Ramadan in France is also an occasion when members of the country’s Muslim community may feel increased curiosity on the part of their fellow citizens.

This may be especially the case this year as a result of fears over the radicalisation of some young French Muslims, a tiny minority of whom have joined the activities of terrorist groups in the Middle East such as Islamic State, and the fall-out of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings in Paris in January, for some commentators amounting to a “French 11 September” in a reference to the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington in 2001.

Interviewed in the mass-circulation newspaper Le Parisien at the beginning of Ramadan, French Muslims from different backgrounds who had gathered for a communal iftar meal in the Paris suburbs said that since the events in January there has been a “greater feeling of solidarity” among people of Muslim religion living in the area.

While some felt that Muslims in France tended in some cases to be “looked at askance” by the wider population, others felt there was a desire for greater dialogue among many French people of different religious, ethnic and social backgrounds, and linked this to the shock of January’s events.

There has been a noticeable opening up to other communities in the area, some of those interviewed said, connected in many cases to an enhanced desire for discussion within mosques and community organisations.

Increased attendance at the area’s mosques had nothing to do with a community folding in on itself as a result of external pressures, one man said. Instead, “people come to have a chat, to listen to each other, to express their solidarity, to try to understand what is happening in the country.”

Such sentiments were shared by Abderrahim Hafidi, presenter of the popular “Islam” programme on the public TV channel France 2, who said that the “tragic events that took place in January have consolidated a process that has been going on for at least a decade, emphasising not only the moral message of religion but also looking at questions of citizenship.”

Mohamed Hicham, president of a Paris region community organisation, told the paper that since the events in January there has been a greater desire for outreach both within and outside the Muslim community in his area.

“People are now coming in from outside to sit down and chat with us,” he said, part of a process of getting to know each other that can only be extended this Ramadan.

But there are still feelings that ignorance about Islam in the wider community can create fertile ground for opportunistic media or political campaigns. Stories about the wearing of the Islamic veil or headscarf by some Muslim women in contravention of a 2004 law in France which outlaws ostensible signs of religious belonging in public institutions, among them schools, universities, or by state employees, have become more common.

Stories about Muslim public prayer outside mosques and halal menus in canteens and fast-food restaurants have also made the headlines, according to commentators raising fears about the alleged “Islamisation” of France.

According to French sociologist Nilüfer Göle, author of a recent book on Islam in Europe that has been widely discussed in France, such media stories are dangerous because they seek to polarise debate and can falsely represent the issues.

The binary oppositions used in the press — “either you are for freedom of expression or you are on the side of the terrorists” or “either you are for equality of the sexes or you are in favour of the veil” — close down discussion, she told the French newspaper Le Monde in June, because they do not take multiple points of view into account or pay attention to their development over time or on the ground.

Talking to Muslim focus groups across the country, Göle discovered that many of the ordinary people of Muslim faith she talked to were “angry at the media, which they saw as always presenting Islam either as a source of problems or of extremism.”

In recording the results of such discussions for her book, entitled Musulmans au quotidien, une enquête européenne sur les controverses autour de l’Islam, she found that people were keen to discuss such matters in a calm and rational manner, “perhaps as part of a conscious effort to counter jihadism.”

Those she talked to were “keen to explain their point of view to other people, did not look to make their views felt at any price, and were generous towards others having opposing points of view.”

Such has not necessarily been the case with those wanting to use such controversies to further a popularist political agenda, among them the leader of the extreme-right National Front Party, Marine Le Pen. When a popular fast-food restaurant chain started to advertise a halal menu to serve the needs of its Muslim customers in 2010, Le Pen swung into action, claiming that French citizens were being “treated with contempt in their own country” as part of the “forced Islamisation” of France.

When Muslim worshippers in the 18th arrondissement of Paris, parts of which have traditionally had a significant North African or sub-Saharan African character, were obliged to pray in the streets during Friday prayers because of a lack of space in local mosques, Le Pen compared the situation to the “German occupation” of France during the Second World War.

For Göle, talking to Le Monde, the effect of the January events, far from playing into the hands of politicians like Le Pen, has been to “suggest constructive and inclusive solutions,” the desire for which was notably seen in the huge demonstration against extremism and in solidarity with the victims of terrorism that took place in Paris in January this year and was summed up in the “Je suis Charlie” slogan.

 “Society came together to avoid social fractures,” Göle said. “There was no sense in which it moved against Islam and Muslims” as a result of the Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings.

Many of France’s Muslims, notably those who had joined the “Pas en mon nom” (not in my name) movement, “also stood up publicly against the jihadists and those who wanted to hijack their religion.”

ORGANISING A COMMUNITY: Although French society fiercely rejects what is known in the country as “communitarianism,” in other words, the fostering of ethnic, religious or other identities in its midst, France also has a strong tradition of seeking representative bodies to engage in dialogue with the state, notably with regard to the affairs of the country’s various religious communities.

The country’s Muslims have been no exception to this rule, and over recent years attempts have been made to find ways in which France’s Muslim community, ethnically mixed and from at least half a dozen different countries of origin, can find a common voice to express its views, or, failing that, to act as an interlocutor with the state.

It is believed that there are some five or six million Muslims in France, perhaps seven per cent of the population, most of them having either arrived in France in the waves of immigration that took place in the 1960s and 70s to feed the period’s labour market boom, or being the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters, of such immigrants.

Historically, a majority of France’s Muslim community has been of Arab origin, notably from the three North African countries of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, which were either colonies or protectorates of France, though the country also has significant populations of Muslims of West African origin, these tracing their origins particularly to Senegal and Mali, both formerly colonised by France.

While the first generation of Muslim immigrants to France may have retained strong links to their countries of origin, even returning to them on retirement from jobs in France, this has tended not to be the case for the second, third and even fourth generations, who may have fewer links to these countries, being raised and educated in France.

Similarly, while the first generation of particularly North African immigrants to France tended to gather in particular areas, notably near the industries in which they worked or in certain, sometimes underprivileged, urban areas and city suburbs, this is less and less the case today as their sons and daughters, educated in France and enjoying generally better positions in the labour market, have made their mark in professional and other spheres.

Today, there is nothing in the least bit unexpected in seeing people of North African and sub-Saharan African origin occupy positions in every walk of life, though there have been concerns, familiar from other countries having significant minority communities, of “glass ceilings” coming into effect for top positions.

While France has had several cabinet ministers of Arab and African origin and from across the political spectrum, there are still only half a dozen French Muslim MPs. This diversity means that it is difficult to speak of a single Muslim community in France.

Some prefer to speak of an identity around which certain interests may coalesce, as is true of Hispanics in the United States, for example, who may also originally come from at least half a dozen different countries and occupy a variety of situations, from undocumented immigrants to members of Congress or Wall Street traders.

In France, certain common interests — the provision of specific forms of education, the acquisition and upkeep of places of worship or cemeteries, the training of teachers of religion or imams, the keeping up of the pressure on the state to provide equal rights or to fight discrimination — may draw Muslims together and render community associations useful platforms for voices to be heard.

Perhaps it was partly this kind of thinking that caused former French president Nicolas Sarkozy to sponsor the formation of the Conseil français de culte musulman (CFCM) in 2002, which claims to provide a national forum in which issues such as those above may be discussed and recommendations made.

According to its website, the CFCM aims, among other things, to aid in “the acquisition, construction and management of religious institutions,” to “help resolve problems in the organisation of the pilgrimage or the slaughter of animals on religious festivals,” and “to represent the Muslim religion in general to the Muslim faithful, the state authorities and wider public opinion.”

The CFCM is seen as a semi-official organisation in the way that the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), founded in 1983 and historically the only other national Muslim organisation in France, is not. However, it is still a voluntary association and does not have a privileged legal standing.

The UOIF, seen as less institutional and, by some, as more radical in its views, describes itself on its website as seeking a “middle way” in its understanding of Islam that “takes the socio-cultural context into account in religious practices and religious views,” thus helping “Muslims in France to live and practice their religion in dignity, serenity and in harmony with their environment.”

Most recently, the French government has organised what it calls an “instance de dialogue,” a sort of enlarged focus group, with representatives of the Muslim community in France in order both to hear that community’s concerns in the months after the events in January and to discuss issues such as how to deal with Islamophobia in France, the construction of new mosques and cultural centres, and the training and certification of imams.

At a meeting of the group in Paris on 16 June, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said the idea was intended to lead to the establishment of a Fondation de l’Islam de France — a French Islam Foundation — that would promote understanding of the Muslim religion and of Arab and Islamic civilisation.

“Islam is a recent religion in France,” Valls said. “It is an object of curiosity and of interest … but it can also lead to certain concerns” linked to faulty understanding and confusions.

“A new Foundation will be set up before the end of the year to provide the financing for cultural, educational and social projects and to promote French Islam. A research programme on French Islam, the Muslim world and the study of Islam will also be set up,” he said.

AFTER CHARLIE HEBDO: The Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarket killings in January shocked France and the world because of the apparent ease with which the killers were able to attack premises in central Paris that were under police protection and of what they revealed about the radicalisation of a tiny minority of young French Muslims.

Six months later, and as the country’s Muslims celebrate the holy month of Ramadan, the soul-searching continues about what could have possessed the two brothers and their associate responsible for the crimes to act in the way they did.

Readers of the French press have been presented with articles describing every aspect of these individuals’ lives, from their earliest schooldays to the fateful day on which they picked up their guns to execute their murderous plans.

 Sociologists, criminologists, psychologists and others have been drafted in to try to explain such crimes. Political scientists and philosophers have been commissioned to pick over the meaning of the giant demonstrations that took place across France after the attacks in order to remember those who died and to protest against extremism.

This Ramadan, additional efforts are being made across France to foster inter-religious dialogue, to promote outreach activities and to help people discover their Muslim, Christian and Jewish neighbours.

The government has taken a lead in such efforts, adding a new “instance de dialogue” to the country’s already extensive apparatus of Muslim organisations and civil society activity, much of it going on unheard and uncelebrated at the grass roots level.

It is to be hoped that this will help France enjoy a happy and peaceful Ramadan.

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