A little over 5 years ago, a series of attacks organized by the Islamic State militant group shook the city of Paris. The attacks came at the height of the Syrian refugee crisis, which had resulted in a drastic increase of the Muslim population in France, thus perpetuating a climate of fear and resentment towards this community. The attacks were deemed “an act of war” by President François Hollande, the leader of France at the time, and were immediately followed by raids across the country in search of the suspects.
Since this immense tragedy, questions pertaining to the appropriate definition of “freedom of religion” and “freedom of expression” have been circulating intensely throughout France. The French government has historically approached these concepts differently from other nations. In fact, the French values of “liberty, equality, and fraternity”, warranted by the Enlightenment and French Revolution, are considered fundamental in the country and demand policies encouraging assimilation and uniformity rather than a segregated, albeit diverse, populous. This secularist mentality has, however, rendered limitations attached to individual ethnic and cultural identities, which in nature tend to be fluid and multidimensional.
Presently, we are seeing a reemergence of these types of attacks. Just a few weeks ago, three people were stabbed outside a church in the southern city of Nice. These violent stabbings follow the beheading of school teacher, Samuel Paty, for showing his students a caricature of Prophet Muhammad as part of a free speech class discussion.
In response to these attacks, the government of France has decided to mobilize resources in order to fight against ‘radical Islam’. President Macron is implementing regulations upon the Muslim community, encouraging their assimilation with French society and its cultural values. However, these recent actions raise potential for questions and concerns. Is it possible, in today’s relatively modern and progressive society, to regulate a religion and its expression? To what extent does this inhibit the realization of true identity for French Muslims, and other members of the country affected by stigmas? Why is there a need for prioritizing loyalty to the nation rather than to one’s religious and cultural identity?
I think that Macron’s outlook and methodology in approaching these attacks and the country’s recovery has its flaws. Individuals often grapple with relationships built in different settings and times. We are complex, and ever-changing. To make uniformity the status quo amongst maturing populations inhibits thought in a way that can be considered morally incorrect, especially when applied governmentally. This permits bigotry towards certain groups, and prohibits these same groups from finding a place in society.
As the French population experiences grief and anger, the Muslim community is dealing with yet another hit to their foundational image as participants of a peaceful and just religion. A group of French Muslims gathered to stand guard outside their town’s cathedral on November 6th, in a display of solidarity with their Christian counterparts and as symbolic protectors of the cathedral. This act, although noble and commendable, can also be seen as a survival strategy for the Muslim community. Without these displays of reassurance, it is easy for the community to buy into the predominant media narrative that works to invoke deep rooted feelings in its audience. These feelings, to varying degrees, historically promote a perspective riddled with hatred and fear towards the Muslim community
Media outlets have been the insidious promoter of biases upon individuals and groups for as long as they have existed. News outlets and advertising campaigns seek to invoke strong feelings in audience members. Whether or not we realize it, we are more likely to remember a product from an advertisement if we feel happy while watching it and more inclined to flip to a news channel with dramatized content. Media outlets have preyed on this tendency to generate profit, and as a result have created trepidation and hostility towards certain communities. For example, in 2019, the deputy director of the french newspaper Le Figaro openly commented that he hates the Muslim religion during a debate over the wearing of a hijab or veil in a public place. He continued to present the way in which he directly displays this hatred, explaining that he once left a bus due to someone wearing a hijab. By hiring Islamophobic and hateful individuals at executive levels of these organizations, organizations that are responsible to inform and educate the general population, we are complacent in infusing bias. We end up subscribing not just to Le Figaro, but also to misinformation and consent to distort our perspectives on these groups.
Moreover, reports of terrorist acts often plant biased rhetoric and paint the Muslim population as a whole in a violent and ruthless light. There is no undermining the severity of these attacks, however it is not uncommon for them to serve as a contribution to the common narrative depicting the Islamic religion as one with savage inclinations. Rather than painting the attacks as isolated anomalies, media outlets often use them to feed into notions of Muslim bigotry, despite the best efforts of Muslim community members.
As the French community moves ahead and works to recover from this and other similar occurrences, it is necessary for the government and members of the community to take the multifaceted and sensitive nature of this crisis into account. The ‘state secularism’ approach that has been promoted in France since the Revolution is facing increasing opposition, and its restriction of expression may be doing the opposite of its intention as it further polarizes diverse communities in the country. The dissent that came after the banning of religious symbols in schools in the early 2000s has only intensified, and France’s national values, characterized by the restriction of one’s origins and beliefs in lieu of national loyalty, seem to be creating more problems than they are solving.
I believe that France must shift its focal point and lean towards accommodating minority groups more thoroughly, as well as turning its attention towards finding commonalities amongst citizens. For example, public opinion polls done in France showed that although 70% of Muslim respondents disagree with the magazine publication of images of the Prophet, non-Muslim and Muslim respondents alike still strongly condemn the resulting attacks. By shifting the spotlight onto these points of agreement, France can work towards dismantling individual and systemic tensions and biases.
However, in order for this dissent to run its course, the country and its government must be ready to loosen their grip on the assertion of individuality and open their minds to actively recognize and combat stereotypes that substantial societal functions work to promote. It is time for the meaning of the time old French motto “liberté, égalité, fraternité” to be re-evaluated.
Edited by Ines Navarre.
Misbah Lalani is a first year at McGill University, pursuing a bachelor’s in honours international development studies and industrial labor relations, with a minor in social entrepreneurship. She is serving as a staff writer for Catalyst and is particularly interested in economic development and market conditions in Middle East.