Reversing the trend: countering Islamophobic narratives in France
Dr Andrea Bila
Since the victory of the presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron in May 2017, generally interpreted as the triumph of the republican spirit of brotherhood over the hate filled ideology and rhetoric of the Front National, the French Muslims had high hopes regarding the tackling of hate speech. Some commentators even predicted a temporary truce on Islamophobia (Gabon 2017). These optimistic expectations were supported by the absence of direct or indirect attacks on Islam in Macron’s campaign and his unwillingness to compromise national unity during the debate between the two rounds of elections – a telling moment within each presidential campaign. Indeed, not only did he manage to resist Le Pen’s provocations to denigrate Muslim faith-based organisations, he even exposed the Front National candidate’s ignorance and poor judgment on a number of domestic policy issues. In short, his victory meant French Muslims have avoided the worst-case scenario of a life under the shadow of suspicion and persecution.
Moreover, Macron reassuringly side-stepped discussions about infringements of the religious neutrality framework, which almost always end up shifting all the blame on Islam. For Muslims, a politician’s interpretation of laïcité constitutes a litmus test of his or her attitude towards Muslim communities. Macron once again seemingly gave French Muslims assurance that their rights would be respected in a strictly egalitarian way when he discussed the issue with the representatives of major faith communities in December 2017. During the meeting, he expressed his concern over “the risk of the radicalisation of secularism”, adding that “it is the Republic that is secular and not the society – religions can express themselves in the public space” (Mathoux 2017). In this respect, declarations made by the new president are distinctly different to those of his predecessors’; hysterical approaches to laïcité and the Islamophobic witch-hunt climate they induced. Macron’s election, however, did not make the society enter the ‘post-Islamophobia age’, instead the phenomenon has just taken on a different face.
The racist and Islamophobic networks, which had the ear of the former Interior minister Manuel Valls for quite some time, still have significant influence. Although Islamophobic narratives they spread did not find resonance with the new government, these networks continue to work relentlessly and with renewed violence to intimidate and silence voices that rise against Islamophobia. They harass activists, launch coordinated smear and defamation campaigns against personalities who take a public stance against intolerance and discrimination against Muslims and pressure universities to cancel public events on these issues.
Civil society organisations have developed different strategies and tools to counter activities of these networks and their toxic messages. One of the approaches consists in using statistics and hard data to draw attention to the continuing discrimination against the Muslim communities and advocating for a change. The Conllectif contre l’Islamophobie en France (CCIF), the major Muslim advocacy group, engages in lobbying on issues related to stigma and discrimination of Islam and Muslims and encourages law and policy reform. Its annual report it publishes helps to identify trends and patterns of Islamophobia and quantify its scope. The group has recently campaigned, alongside other human rights groups, against the law reinforcing the national security and the fight against terrorism – one of the most emblematic measures of Macron’s first months in power.
The legislation replaced the state of emergency thereby making most of its special provisions subject to ordinary law. Although it would be an exaggeration to label the new anti-terror law as Islamophobic, it casts a cloud of suspicion over the whole French Muslim population and encourages misperceptions. Moreover, its opponents argue that extended counter-terrorism measures not only disproportionately target citizens of traditionally Muslim backgrounds, the measures also contribute to erosion of fundamental liberties of all citizens.
Although advocacy and campaigning for equal treatment of Muslim populations is essential, many activists argue that the rational approach to Islamophobia is not adapted to all types of target audience and therefore rarely provides satisfactory and long-term results. Rational, scientific methods question people’s core beliefs and usually provoke strong reactions; opponents put forward counterarguments and counterexamples to discredit these claims. Activists suggest that in order to reach a greater audience it is necessary to create an emotional connection and encourage people to question their assumptions through collective public action (partnerships, coalitions), humour and story-telling techniques and indirect action (for instance, by increasing the visibility of Muslims in the public space).
Media activism constitutes an alternative approach to countering this problem. Members of student organisation Etudiants musulmans de France believe that a strong media presence and campaigns conveying a message of unity and solidarity can counterbalance the hate narratives. The organisation participated in the campaign against scapegoating of Muslims and joined forces with Coexister, a youth organisation promoting interfaith understanding, in awareness-raising campaigns and public events to promote social cohesion.
Educational tools and promotion of public knowledge of Islam are also used to refute misperceptions of Islam. The project Parle-moi d’Islam (Talk to me about Islam) was launched after the Paris attacks in order to counter the misuse of religious texts by extremist recruiters to indoctrinate young Muslims and incite them to violence. The activists behind the project strive to counter the influence of Salafists and extremists who have a strong presence on social networks by developing tools that allow them to engage with young audience. The educational videos they create are broadcast on the group’s YouTube channel and social networks and offer an alternative narrative on Islam and an informed approach to religious texts.
Muslims have also expressed a need for safe spaces where they can come together to share their experience and organise. Several grassroots organisations and initiatives coordinate events which seek to empower the Muslim community and facilitate their autonomy. For example, Um’Artist addresses racism and Islamophobia by providing a platform to Muslim artists whose diversity best illustrates the plurality of cultures and traditions of this population. Organisations like Lallab and Akhawate Business help Muslim women develop a positive self-image and let them reclaim their narrative and their public identities. These initiatives, which do not shut the door on non-Muslims, attempt to encourage creative expression, entrepreneurship, dialogue and mutual understanding.
Platforms and grassroots initiatives striving to empower Muslims, advocating for their rights and challenging the negative stereotypes both online and offline are numerous and varied. Muslim communities have seen emerge from their midst a number of actors who initiate and lead the movement for a positive change. The ball is now in the court of public stakeholders to help them make the French society tolerant and accepting by penalising discriminative behaviour and ensuring that laws address systemic and structural inequalities and injustices impacting Muslims.
Gabon, A. 2017. Que signifie la victoire de Macron pour les musulmans de France ? Middle East Eye, 14 May. [Online]. [Accessed on 8 April 2018]. Available from: http://www.middleeasteye.net/
Mathoux, H. 2017. Face aux représentants des religions, Emmanuel Macron s’inquiète d’une “radicalisation de la laïcité”. Marianne, 22 December. [Online]. [Accessed on 8 April 2018]. Available from: https://www.marianne.net
 Salafism, a branch of Sunni Islam known for its conservative and literalist approach to religious texts, is regularly accused of providing an ideological basis for the modern-day terrorist networks. Scholars, however, distinguish between quietist apolitical Salafism, political Salafism focusing on political commitment and reform, and Jihadi Salafism which seeks to overthrow apostate regimes through violent action. There is also a lot of discussion among adherents to this trend about which group belongs and does not belong to this movement.