Weaponizing laïcité: how secularism fails France’s Muslim women

Image Description: The Elysee Palace

Last November, after the terrorist beheading of Samuel Paty, a French teacher who had shown his class cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on freedom of expression, the discourse on laïcité and Islamic separatism was once again brought to the forefront of French politics. Paty had used a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo during the lesson, after warning his Muslim students and allowing them to excuse themselves from the room.

His decapitation by the Chechen-born attacker Abdullakh Anzorov ten days later became the catalysing event for French President Emmanuel Macron to introduce a new bill to tackle Islamic separatism and Islamist organisations, stating that “France would not renounce caricatures” and that Paty had been murdered because “he taught freedom of expression”.

The moral ground on freedom of expression in France is already extremely fraught, as the French press have long had anticlerical traditions and the right to blasphemy, having for decades mocked all religions, especially Christianity, and more recently, Islam. However, depictions of the Prophet are met with profound offense by many, if not most, Muslims due to religious prohibitions on idolatry and the belief that no imitations could truly express his qualities and beauty. Their use in the French media could be branded as intentionally inflammatory or Islamophobic. Nevertheless, violent extremist attacks in response to provocative free speech are still a disproportionate reaction, and one that has been widely condemned by French Imams.

Although some terrorism experts have praised Macron’s new bill, stating its power to dismantle political Islamist organisations which provide networks and ideological ecosystems for radicalisation, there are strong concerns that new legislation could further denigrate innocent Muslims, forcing them to pay the price for the actions of terrorists. The draft law calls for more transparency on the provenance of foreign funding for religious organisations, makes it more difficult to allow children to be home-schooled, and extends laïcité beyond public sector employees to all private contractors of public services.

Laïcité was born out of a 1905 law to separate the state from the growing influence of the Catholic church, and today guarantees liberty of opinion, the equality of all citizens before the law, and the right to choose whether to adhere to religious belief. It prohibits ostentatious signs of religious worship in parts of the public sphere, notably in government, hospital and school administrations. This allows the government to be free from any religious affiliation and to not subject French citizens to any religious influence. In this way, laïcité at its origin is the freedom to believe or not believe, without any influence from the state or those in power.

However, with a rise in extremist terrorist acts in the country over the last 30 years, many critics argue that laïcité has strayed from its original intent and has been at times used as a political tool to justify Islamophobic comments and acts, using secularism as a shield for discrimination.

Many supporters of laïcité have argued that France’s secularist ideal is applied equally to all religions, and does not just target Muslim women. However what this fails to take into account is that laïcité itself is partly incompatible with the way in which many Muslims currently practice their religion, while it is not with the large majority of practices in Judaism or Christianity. While the incompatibility of laïcité with Islam may not be reason enough to abolish a concept so central to the republic, the government’s failure to acknowledge this disparity is telling, considering much of Islam’s history in France is rooted in labour immigration from French North African colonies in the 1960s.

Regardless of the potential incompatibility of laïcité with Islam, it is important to note that there have been examples of cases where Muslim women adhering to their faith in public have been treated differently to Christian women. Most notably the police forced a Muslim woman to strip from her burkini on a Nice beach in August 2016 after the Nice terrorist attack in July of the same year. In response to this many people took to Twitter to share pictures of nuns wearing their habits on French beaches; and it wasn’t until the ban on the burkini that nuns were no longer permitted to do so, under the same legislation. Although many seaside resorts have since lifted their bans on the burkini due to their breaching of fundamental freedoms, the message was still clear: there was no issue with Christian women exercising their right to modesty on beaches until Muslim women were reprimanded for it.

A number of laws in the last 20 years have specifically targeted Muslim religious symbols in the public sphere; including the 2004 ban on the headscarf and other visible religious symbols in schools and the 2011 ban on full-face veils in public. Additionally, although Macron’s new bill targets Islamism, also known as ‘political Islam’ or ‘Islamic fundamentalism’, due to its potential for providing a framework through which radicalisation could flourish, the proposition in his new bill of extending the ban on “ostentatious religious symbols” targets the average Muslim woman – not Islamism as a political ideology.

Laws such as these indicate that France has slowly fallen from freedom of religion to freedom from religion. By definition, laïcité is “the possibility to have different religions in the public space”. Instead, the increasing number of laws on laïcité could be taking away the freedom of being able to manifest one’s religion- a vital part of many Muslim women’s identity.  The UN condemned France’s ban on the niqab, stating that “rather than protecting fully veiled women [it] could have the opposite effect of confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalising them”

However, it is not only law that deepens divisions over laïcité in France. Jean Michel Blanquer, the French Minister of Education defended Odoul’s actions towards the unnamed woman. He stated that although “the law does not prohibit women wearing headscarves to accompany children”, headscarves were not desirable in French society because of what they say “about the status of women”.  Blanquer’s comments are indicative of a deeper issue in how the West still perceives Islam. By saying that the headscarf is not desirable in France because of what it says about the status of women, Blanquer shifts the blame of the oppression of Muslim women and the restriction of their freedoms in France from laïcité to Islam. The western perceptions of Muslim women as being inherently oppressed reinforce a western superiority complex;  they indicate societal opinions of western liberalism as the ideal to strive to; expose their views of feminism as the right to show skin rather than to hide it; and apply the white saviour complex upon Muslim women, undermining their agency and their voice by assuming they never had one in the first place.

Image Credit: Badoo Official@Flickr.com