First They Came for the Muslims, and We Said “Not This Time”
The dreadful geopolitical context since 9/11 has put Muslims in a specific position of discrimination and oppression in the Western world. Between the French and the U.S. contexts toward Islamophobia, three main differences can be singled-out: first the legal tools available for the civil society; secondly the particular concept of laïcité or French secularism; and finally the distinctive challenges of coalition building.
On January 31, the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the prominent U.S. Muslim advocacy group, filed a suit on behalf of 20 individuals to challenge the constitutionality of the new President’s Executive Order, or also known as “the Muslim ban.” CAIR is claiming that this order is violating the freedom of religion protected by the First Amendment and the equal protection of the law under the Fifth Amendment. The outrage provoked by this Executive Order is largely shared among and outside the U.S., and civil society organizations are bringing a major part of the battle to the courts. Advocacy groups working against Islamophobia understand the power of the legal system when the rights of the communities they protect are being attacked. In that sense, the decision of a federal judge in Seattle halting the Executive Order marked a huge step in this legal struggle, arguing that “the executive order adversely affects the state’s residents in areas of employment, education, business, family relations and freedom to travel.” Recent statements of President Trump suggest that he is planning to sign a new similar executive order to respond to this “very bad decision.”
In France, while legal venues are also used by associations in cases for example of hate speech, individual discrimination or unlawful state action- like the infamous Burkini ban, constitutional review is not the most accessible tool for individuals and NGOs. Only since the constitutional reform of 2008, can an individual involved in legal proceedings before a court argue that a statutory provision infringes its rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. The Constitutional Council will review the provision only after the highest courts decide on its admissibility. If legal means will be undertaken by the French civil society against acts and discourses, it does not create the popular effect among the consciences as it does in the U.S.
The particular relation between France and religion brings to the rise of Islamophobia a specific side. From the constant debate around “the veil”, to the one on public prayers, every discussion about Islam and the Muslims in France is justified by the concept of laïcité. It is not an easy task to explain this concept to non-French, as Olivier Roy tried to describe laïcité evolved from bring the separation of Church and the State “to exclude religion from public space and to promote the supremacy of the state over religious organizations.” Adding to the complicated role of religions in French society, as part of its historical colonial past Islam is a longstanding particular issue for France. During colonization, French authorities in Algeria will conduct public campaign to remove veils, in 2004 veil will be banned for French Muslims high-schoolers and in 2017 French police will control Muslim women’s bathing suits. Not a day goes by in France without the words Islam, Muslim or veil being in the news, in political talk shows and debates with so-called experts. As proof, Contres-Attaques(counter attack), a platform of news and advocacy tackling islamophobia, made a video ironically opposing the idea that Islam is a taboo topic in French public discourse by featuring 40 years of French Magazine covers focusing solely on Islam, alternatively with quotes from politicians, thinkers and journalists, complaining that they are prevented to talk about Islam.
Islam is not only a topic in media, it also leads to human rights violations by security forces. In its 2017 report, The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a leading Muslim advocacy group, is registering the numbers of islamophobic acts in the past year including physical and verbal assaults, instances of discrimination, attacks on religious buildings and hate speech. The records are also disaggregated to emphasize the burden specifically on Muslim women, which represent 75% of cases, including 100% of the most serious physical assaults. The state-of-emergency in France since the November 13 attack also had dramatic consequences on French Muslims, as the CCIF report has shown, including: 297 searches, 100 house arrests and 30 bans on leaving the country. These counter-terrorism measures sometimes have targeted innocent Muslims citizens, leaving them facing consequence ranging from losing their jobs, having their children transferred to foster care and traumatized. For this reason, in a report on the state-of-emergency abuses, Human Rights Watch stated that “in a context of growing Islamophobia, the French government should urgently reach out to Muslims and give them assurances that they are not under suspicion because of their religion or ethnicity.”
One of the shared goals of Muslim advocacy groups in both the U.S. and France is to expose and challenge the constant suspicion Muslims are under from state authorities, by deconstructing the myths and fears surrounding them. Toward this goal, advocacy groups engage in inter-faith dialogue, advocate with other oppressed communities, try to raise their voice in public discourse and to challenge the assumption of collective responsibility when a horrific act is committed in the name of Islam.
Since the recent change of administration in the U.S., anti-Islamophobia organizations are joining forces with other civil rights and resistance movements –like the involvement of Linda Sarsour, American-Palestinian advocate and activist, who co-chaired the Women’s March. In a large unifying statement for justice and equality, organizations defending African-Americans, undocumented persons, LGBTQI, reproductive rights, Native Americans and people with disabilities, the Muslim community is adding its voice to the national cause for justice.
In France, coalition building remains a challenge for Muslim advocates, traditional leftist groups fighting for social justice are also marked by the concept of laïcité and suspicious of religious actors in activism, especially with misconceptions about Muslims women. Civil society organizations and advocates will therefore found more links with post-colonial movements, victims of police violence or black feminists.
The crucial role of Muslim advocacy groups in both countries is therefore to take back the right to speak on behalf of their communities and being recognized as human rights bearers, rather than constant suspects.