Are West’s Centuries Of Muslim Dehumanization & Islamophobia In France Linked?

The West embraced rationality, science, and liberal multiculturalism to become the guiding light for the world but dehumanizing constructions of Muslims embedded in its consciousness as internalized beliefs and practices continue to fuel Islamophobia

By Sameer Arshad Khatlani

Western Kentucky University religious studies associate professor Sophia Rose Arjana’s Muslims in the Western Imagination is a pathbreaking work of scholarship. The book presents the first genealogy of the depiction of Muslim men as monsters delineating belonging and exclusion in the West. Muslim men have been depicted as malevolent human characters as well as wicked non-human imaginary creatures in medieval tales, Renaissance paintings, Shakespearean dramas, Hollywood films, etc.

Arjana surveyed medieval, early modern, and contemporary literature, art, and cinema, to examine the dehumanizing representation and to analyze the impact of such representations on perceptions of Muslims today. She studied the demons and giants of the Middle Ages, hunchbacks with filed teeth featured in film 300 (2007). Arjana concluded that constructions of Muslim monsters constitute a recurring theme first formulated in medieval Christian thought.

Arjana shows that Muslim monsters are often related to Jewish monsters and more broadly to Christian anti-Semitism and anxieties surrounding foreign bodies. It involves both religious bigotry and fears surrounding bodily differences. Arjana argues the dehumanizing constructions are deeply embedded in Western consciousness as internalized beliefs and practices and contribute to the culture of violence against Muslims.

Jonathan Lyons’s book Islam Through Western Eyes is another magisterial work on the subject. It analyses 1,000 years of the West’s anti-Muslim ideas and images formulated in the medieval halls of the Roman Curia and courts of the European Crusaders. Lyons writes the ideas have been perfected in the newsrooms of television networks such as Fox News. He blames the grand totalising narrative that the ideas have created for preventing the West from engaging in any meaningful or productive way with Muslims.

The Crusades Lyons links with the formulation of these ideas were no ordinary wars but a divinely argued attempt to eradicate Islam and Islamic civilization through subjugation. The wars coincided with what has been described as ‘the Dark Ages’ when Europeans languished in the intellectual darkness mired in barbarism while the Muslim world carried the light of learning and played an important role in the Renaissance and Enlightenment.

The Europeans eventually overcame the ‘Dark Ages’. They embraced rationality and science, to become the guiding lights for the rest of the world particularly by fostering liberal multiculturalism. Anti-Muslim ideas and images have, however, also persisted in the West and lately most overtly in France despite the liberty, equality, and fraternity enshrined in its Constitution. It has manifested in the banning of religious clothing deemed inappropriate in the classroom every few years.

The ban from state schools on full-length robes or abayas, which Muslim girls and women wear, at the start of the new school year on August 2023, is seen as another infringement of the right to Muslim religious expression and Islamophobia in France. The argument that such bans are necessary to protect the republic from religious interference as per the strict version of French secularism does not withstand scrutiny.

That a minuscule proportion of 12 million pupils in France wore the garment was clear on day one of the implementation of the ban. Just 298 students across France came to schools wearing the robe and most of them were persuaded to change it. Only 67 were sent home when they refused to change. Just a handful of students wearing a piece of cloth did not warrant now-familiar French hysteria about Muslimness in the name of protecting France’s secular tradition.

Boston College senior lecturer Mustafa Akyol hit the nail on the head when he wrote French secularism is inherently oppressive. He added its key aim is to ‘protect the state from religion, with little protection for freedom of religion. ‘It has poisoned the Muslim world, too, with imports in Turkey & Tunisia. It gave a bad name to any ‘secularism’.’

American secularism is based also on the idea of separation of church and state but conversely protects religion from the state and offers stronger religious freedom. And that is one reason why American Muslims, wrote Akyol, ‘are much freer, happier, and better integrated.’

The Excuse

France’s strict form of secularism (laïcité) was enshrined in 1905. The French state restricts religion to the private sphere but makes exceptions for some religious accommodations except for Muslims. The French law separating church and state does not cover France’s Alsace-Moselle region. Catholicism, Calvinism, Lutheranism, and Judaism are officially recognized religions in Alsace-Moselle.

Religion is taught obligatorily in public schools there and the government also pays salaries of the clergy of the recognized religions. The law forbids the government from financing new religious buildings across France. But it allows it to pay for maintenance of those built, mostly Catholic churches, before 1905.

The state subsidizes mostly Catholic religious and some Jewish private religious schools. Catholic holidays are also a part of the school calendar and public school cafeterias serve fish on Fridays as part of a tradition of Catholicism. Akyol wrote that France cherishes blasphemy against religion, but bans insulting the anthem, the flag, and even the President (till 2013).

The refusal to make similar exceptions and have state-funded Muslim schools incorporate Muslim holidays in social calendars have also been linked to Islamophobia in France. These are just a few examples of the discrimination, not to mention demonization and biases in jobs and housing Muslims face with no redressal mechanisms in France.

France’s strict rules were meant to protect the right to religion as well as the right to not believe and the state’s neutrality in religious affairs after a struggle against authoritarian Catholicism. Secular Republicans wrested control of schools from Catholic influence at the beginning of the 20th century. In 2004, conspicuous religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, Jewish kippah, and large Christian crucifixes were outlawed in schools.

France’s right and far-right have welcomed the abaya ban. French Muslims see it as another attempt to unfairly target Islam and stigmatize Muslims, particularly against the backdrop of President Emmanuel Macron’s conduct. Macron has attempted to create a ‘French Islam’ for the state to regulate the practice of the faith by an ethnically diverse Muslim community.

In a Time magazine piece in December 2020, journalist Myriam François cited the apparent irony of a secular leader defining terms of religious practice and noted the concept of laïcité in France enjoins a strict delineation between the state and the private sphere of personal beliefs. She added the delineation was meant to protect individuals from state intrusion, and the state from religious influence.

François wrote it has in recent years, however, been increasingly wielded to do the opposite and encroach evermore into the private sphere of Muslim citizens amid growing Islamophobia in France.

In 2019, Amnesty International denounced a ‘hostile climate and discriminatory discourse’ towards Muslims in France. It highlighted the French interior minister’s speech listing basic religious freedoms including praying, fasting, and growing a beard as signs of radicalization.

François wrote government’s unwillingness to distinguish normal forms of religious practice from forms of extremism leaves millions of French Muslims open to accusations of extremism. She referred to a climate of fear and how the far-right party of Marine Le Pen’s ideas have come to define the terms of public discourse around Islam and Muslims.

Paris’s Centre for the Study of Conflict found that overall Muslims deeply trust the institutions of the Republic. François wrote what emerges from the study looks more like a massive adherence of French Muslims to the Republic while they are accused of the opposite:

Crucially, the study found that trust in the institutions of France diminished with only one factor: experiences of discrimination, something it predicts the latest measures are likely to exacerbate. The study concludes by saying ‘there is no rejection of the values and institutions of the Republic in France, by a majority of Muslims.’

The government’s figures also confirm Islamophobia in France and say 42% of Muslims report experiencing discrimination due to their religion. The figure rises to 60% among women who wear hijabs. A YouGov survey found that 64% of French Arab Muslims believe their ethnicity is perceived negatively.

A series of laws weaponised against Muslims has worsened the problem. The law on Republican principles, for instance, has clauses that say anyone convicted of thought crime ‘apologie of terrorism’ would automatically be added to a terrorism watch list. Even children have been taken into police custody under the law, turning the Republican ideals the French swear by on the head.

Sameer Arshad Khatlani is a journalist and the author of The Other Side of the Divide 

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