France Muslims are feeling alienated

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SHAFAQNA – Almost two months on from the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo office and the Jewish supermarket in Paris, the “Je Suis Charlie” banners, stickers and graffiti are starting to fade from the streets and public squares.

The worst terrorists attacks on French soil for decades have left lasting scars and trauma for many people and brought to the surface difficult, simmering questions about what it means to be French and Muslim today.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population. There are an estimated five million Muslims in the country.

I found a country struggling to create an environment where all its citizens can belong and flourish

At the same time, a growing number of people, especially people under the age of 35, are being attracted by the politics of the far-right and parties such as the Front National who say immigration and immigrants are bad for France.

They oppose what they see as the Islamification of Europe.

I have spent the past four weeks in France meeting current and former Charlie Hebdo employees, the Front National’s Marion Le Pen, France’s youngest ever MP, and the controversial comedian Dieudonne for a BBC Three documentary.

The film explores the politics and complexities around race, identity and religion and what it means to be a French Muslim in secular France, through the experiences of young French Muslims.

I met young people who say they are rejected by the country of their birth, France, because of their Muslim identity; one woman told me: “It’s like being rejected by your mother.”

These feelings are especially acute in the suburbs of Paris.

Trouble spots

Here, less than 12 miles from the centre of the capital, I met a group of young people who say the stigmatisation and discrimination against Muslims has left them angry.

As one put it: “They would rather we have blonde hair and blue eyes.”

The suburbs are widely viewed as trouble spots or “sensitive” urban areas. There is a much higher percentage of poverty and a visibly diverse mix of people living here, compared with the centre of Paris – almost 27% of residents are from immigrant backgrounds.

There continue to be tensions over how the suburbs are policed, and stop-and-search continues to target non-white youths.

Unemployment in the suburbs remains high – official statistics show it stands at 24%.

Unemployment rates for people aged between 15 and 24 are almost twice as high – 45% – compared with those living in “non-sensitive” areas.

For centuries, French citizens were expected to keep their religion in the background: assimilation was key.

However, in an age of multiculturalism, this approach is becoming more difficult to sustain.

Hijab flashpoint

One flashpoint is the hijab. In 2004, a law was passed prohibiting the wearing or open display of religious symbols in French schools and government buildings,

In 2010, it became illegal to wear a face veil, a niqab or a burka in a public place.

France says the law is necessary to protect the country’s secular ideas and culture.

However, I found young Muslim women telling me these laws were pushing them away from wider society.

One young Muslim woman, excluded from school, she says for refusing to stop wearing a long, loose skirt and a headscarf, says she wants to move to Saudi Arabia, because she feels she would have more freedom to practise Islam there and better opportunities.

Away from the suburbs, I met two French Muslim professional women living middle-class lives.

One, a white French woman who converted to Islam, says nobody at work knows she is a Muslim.

She only wears her hijab after work and at weekends because she says she would be unemployable if she wore it at work.

She is a secret Muslim. She told me she is not the only one.

Islamophobia target

Anti-racist groups in France say it’s visible French Muslim women who are bearing the brunt of a rise in Islamophobia and verbal and physical attacks against Muslims.

Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, there has been a 70% rise in recorded Islamophobic attacks against individuals and mosques.

Civil society groups say in the two weeks that followed the killings there were more recorded Islamophobic incidents than in the whole of 2014.

While filming in Nice, I experienced first-hand the suspicion around the hijab.

At Nice airport, I cleared airport security but was asked to undergo a secondary security check.

When I asked why, I was told by the female security official: “You wear this thing,” and she pointed at my hijab.

I responded with: “Oh this thing? I hardly notice it anymore, I wear it because it enhanced my flying-while-Muslim travel experiences.”

I was told: “Madame, you have an excellent sense of humour.”

Among the Muslims I met, the most common emotions I encountered were deep hurt and resentment. Some have the sense that they are being asked to prove their loyalty to a country that only wants to tolerate them as the children of immigrants.

Yet nearly all want France to embrace them as full citizens who belong in France and have a future in French society.

After the Charlie Hebdo attacks, we were led to believe “Je Suis Charlie” had united a country.

In France however, I found a country struggling to create an environment where all its citizens can belong and flourish.

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