– In 2020, French President Emmanuel Macron announced plans for stricter laws to combat what he calls âIslamist separatismâ and crackdown on âradical Islamistsâ in France, which he believes are caused by repeated deviations from values the republic came about. To counteract this, President Macron announced that he would create a “French Islam”, a state-regulated practice of faith.
In February 2021, the French National Assembly passed a controversial âseparatist lawâ to strengthen the country’s secular identity. The bill aims at “deliberate politico-religious projects that lead to the creation of an opposing society and indoctrination contrary to French law”. Ironically, this legislation, which seeks to protect constitutional values, including human dignity and gender equality, has been criticized for undermining those very values.
“Instead of reacting with pragmatism, instead of giving a rational answer to a very difficult topic of radicalization and terrorism, we react to these problems very emotionally, which is dangerous,” said the French scientist and commentator Rim-Sarah Alouane in an interview with me.
âThe Law of Separatism contains a list of changes that not only restrict civil liberty, but also expand the 1905 Law Restricting Religious Freedom. This law is the same, it applies to everyone, but if you look at it, it will de facto affect Muslim groups, âsays Rim-Sarah.
French officials insist that the bill is not directed against Muslims in France, but against the reconstructed vision of a religion that behaves contrary to the republic.
There are 5.7 million Muslims in France, one of the largest in Europe. This draft law extends to what is known in France as the “principle of neutrality”, which prohibits civil servants from wearing religious symbols and expressing political views, and is extended to private contractors for public services.
âThe groups that are in a difficult position will be in an even more difficult position because of such laws. Imagine that you work for a private company as a maid or garbage collector, you have to be religiously neutral because your company has a contract with the state, âsays Rim-Sarah.
The draft law against âseparatismâ also contains provisions that strengthen the powers to close mosques that promote âextremismâ and oblige associations to adhere to French ârepublican principlesâ.
The human rights group Amnesty International called for the many problematic provisions of the bill to be deleted or changed. âThe proposed law would be a serious attack on rights and freedoms in France. It would allow public authorities to fund only organizations that sign a “Republican Commitment Treaty” – a vaguely defined concept that is widely prone to abuse and threatens the very freedom of expression and association that the French authorities claim to stand for â, It says in the statement.
Recently there was an uproar in France that raised serious concerns in the public debate over the ban on the use of religious symbols for parents who pick up their children after school, accompany them on school trips and national sports competitions.
Although the bill does not clearly identify Muslims or hijabs, it does affect mothers who wear hijabs (headscarves) while accompanying their children. In 2004 a change was made banning the use of religious symbols in schools in France, although parents were exempted from this ban, only to be brought up for discussion again.
French officials have often advocated this ban as a protection of the country’s “secular constitution” and as a defense against the regressive Islamic attitudes towards its women. Only to give the Muslim women living in France the freedom or even the choice to choose what to wear or not to wear.
The âDon’t touch my Hijabâ movement in France had Muslim women protest against the hijab ban, calling it Islamophobic and a way to exclude Muslim women in the country.
âThe niqab ban is just an excuse to pursue Muslim visibility. Whatever you think about the niqab, we all have an opinion on it, it doesn’t matter. I think it’s a conversation that should be about Muslim women, and not the state should decide what is religious or not.
âForcing a woman to wear a certain item of clothing is the same as forcing a woman to remove a certain item of clothing. Telling Muslim majority countries, whether Saudi Arabia or Iran, that a Muslim woman should dress a certain way is wrong, but I would say the same for countries that say that a Muslim woman should take off her hijab. It’s about the freedom of Muslim women, let Muslim women live their lives, âsays Rim-Sarah.
The threat to secularism is often emphasized in the case of France by questioning French Muslims who appear to be poorly integrated into what the state believes to be French society. The integration debate is essentially structured around the compatibility of religion and national identity, which has also become a powerful political instrument in France and, more recently, throughout Europe.
France was the first country in Europe to ban full face-covering in public in 2011, but other countries in Europe still have a partial or total ban on the burqa, including Norway, Denmark, Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria and Latvia. At the beginning of March, Switzerland passed a referendum to ban full face coverings in public spaces. The consequence of such a construction is that terrorism and the veil end up on the same level of analysis as violence against European values ââand principles and âthe construction of Muslims in Europe as enemies of European societiesâ.
The extraordinary character of French secularism or lacitÃ©“Is more than just a fundamental separation of the religious and the political,” it is a profound structural and ideological system that is unique to France and French history “. LibertÃ©, Ã©galitÃ© and fraternitÃ© are the refuge of French identity, but there is no cultural unity without accepting cultural diversity. The same French secularism that cries out for freedom takes that freedom of choice from individuals with multicultural identities. The problem is the assumption that the Muslim population in France could influence French identity because of the concept of lacitÃ©‘. The separatist law, used to bolster French tradition by discouraging religious beliefs and identities, only creates a society that isolates, dominates and excludes minority citizens in the name of upholding republican principles.
âIn France, more laws are being passed restricting civil liberties. It is deeply worrying because we are passing laws that directly restrict civil liberties, rights and freedoms. If it affects one group, eventually everyone is affected. People don’t seem to realize that this will basically only be for the Muslims because they believe that it is only for the Muslims to oppose political Islam, fight separatism, but the reality is once a group is tackled, others will follow. You know the story. The moment you attack a person because of their identity, you are attacking the very foundation of democracy, âsays Rim-Sarah.
The author is a journalist and filmmaker from New Delhi. She hosts a weekly online show called The Sania Farooqui Show where Muslim women from around the world are invited to share their views. You can follow her on Twitter Here.