How the French Elite Created the War Against the Veil

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French minister’s statement comparing wearing headscarves to slavery demonstrates an ongoing struggle over freedom of religion and citizenship, says Yasser Louati, spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France

Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

France’s decades long battle over the Muslim veil known as the hijab continues. Recently France’s Minister of Women’s Rights said quote, “Of course there are women who voluntarily wear the headscarf. But there were also American negros who were in favor of slavery”.

Now joining us to discuss these comments and French Islamophobia is our guest Yasser Louati. He’s a spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France and he recently published a piece in Islamophobia studies journal titled L’Exception Française: From Irrational Fear of Muslims to their Social Death Sentence. Thank you so much for joining us Yasser.

YASSER LOUATI: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So Yasser, the Minister, she took back using the word negro, neg in French but hasn’t walked back her statement on the head scarf. What’s been the reaction in France?

LOUATI: It’s been sincere outrage within the Muslim community and beyond the Muslim community. The fact that she used the French word nègre in a position to actually express her open contempt towards other women from a dominated minority group for the simple fact that they decide to wear a headscarf and because some international brand decided to attack or bring this offer of the core Islamic fashion. So now Muslims are suing the minister. We are have a banding class action against her. Now there is a [brother] out to which towards the French elite will not only give her support but at the same time offered her platform I think, twice or three times in a row to make her points without the presence of a Muslim woman, a veiled Muslim woman, or a black person to at least contradict her. So it was only the position of a white woman speaking on behalf of other minority groups. I’m pretty sure that’s quite familiar in the U.S. as well.

DESVARIEUX: I’m glad that you mentioned the elite because in your piece you mentioned how the battle of the veil was a creation of the elite and we’re talking on both sides of the political spectrum. So how did the elite create the war against the veil?

LOUATI: We have to go back to France’s colonial past. What we call the second or third generation of French Muslims are descendants of the first immigrants who were brought here to work as cheap labor in factories and construction sites after second World War and will be 30 years of French economic prosperity. But the myth was that these people were going to work and then go back to their countries. But once they settled and had children, their children were not of the parents. They said we are French, we expect and demand equal treatment and become full-fledged citizens. The elite said we don’t think so. So as early as 1983 and 1984 we had several right wing deputies and even left wing deputies saying that now the new threat is the presence of Muslims. By the late 1980s when we have these children going to primary schools, secondary schools in public institutions, what we call laïcité which means [mistreat] separation between the state and the church became not a tool of constitutional right of religious freedom but to exclude Muslims from public space.

So by the late 1980’s laïcité was used to say that the Muslim headscarf is not a right, it is a political statement on behalf of Muslim extremists. Again we kept playing with all the values of the French Republic because these Muslims were becoming equal citizens. So after laïcité was forgotten about and after everything was fine. Now that these Muslims were expecting this equal treatment, now we had to change the rule of the game. Therefore we are now banning Muslim children from attending schools once they decide to dress modestly. We are banning Muslim mothers from accompanying their children to field trips. We are banning now or trying to ban Muslim women from going to university etc. etc. by demonizing their headscarf. But the demonization starts with the headscarf that is currently being applied to the whole Muslim minority in France.

DESVARIEUX: But Yasser the argument against the headscarf being in public spaces is really about that, this is what they argue, that it’s about separation between church and state and the need to keep religious iconography out of public institutions like schools. What do you make of that argument?

LOUATI: Now the 1905 law in France is about state neutrality of religion. Not people’s majority. Meaning that the state remains neutral but not everyday citizens. This argument is just for nationalists and is constantly being repeated by our elite. It’s like saying for example, you have freedom of speech but only at home. This is what you’re saying, you have freedom of religion but only at home. This is part of people’s identity. It is not on the government, especially male or white males in the government to decide upon Muslim women and how to dress. So this argument does not stand the test of time.

DESVARIEUX: There’s also an argument that banning headscarves in schools is helping Muslim women choose the veil because they say in reality that if you’re a child or a teenager under your parent’s roof then it is imposed on you. What’s your response?

LOUATI: Then why do Muslim women keep battling to wear it? Every single time I guess the government and quite often, I guess, their own parents will. At the same time this is the same intellectual mechanism used in the war in Iraq. You are too, you are not smart enough or intelligent enough to think for yourself so we are going to free you because you don’t know what’s good for you. You do not free people by excluding them from public schools, by excluding them from public space. What you do if you are really serious and sincere about freeing people, you give them free choice. What’s being done right now is imposing the white majority’s choice on the Muslim minority in France.

DESVARIEUX: So what is the solution to combat this growing Islamophobia. I know that you’ve started a petition asking the government to repeal the law that does not allow headscarves in schools. So give us an update. How’s that going?

LOUATI: First we have to recognize Muslims as full-fledged citizens, which is not the case. You know [ ] the famous [ ] writer spoke several times about countries tricking or playing with their own value. Here in France we speak about freedom, freedom of religion, human rights, that everything applies to everybody. But not to minorities.

So when we start looking at Muslims as citizens, yes it will work. Second we have to stop playing with the law and the constitution. Not later than a week ago the President was willing to change the constitution so convicted terrorists lose their citizenship once they are sentence. This is completely crazy. It was a statement by the government saying if you are a terrorist you are no longer French and by extension terrorists cannot be French.

No, once you have principles, once you have values, you stick to them in times of crisis and peace. Right now when it comes to Muslims we should stop playing with the separation of church and state and let people decide what religions they want to practice and how they should dress. And if you look at how this is being practiced, every single time a law was passed into parliament to ban the headscarf in a specific area of our society the law was taken forward by white males. This is patriarchy and new colonialism being applied upon French citizens.

DESVARIEUX: Alright Yasser, let’s pause the conversation here and in our next segment go a little bit deeper and explore the origins of Islamophobia in France and the structures keeping it in the mainstream. Yasser thanks so much for being with us.

LOUATI: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

Part 2

JESSICA DESVARIEUX: Welcome back to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

We’re picking up our conversation about French Islamophobia with our guest Yasser Louati. He’s a spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia and he joins us now from France. Thanks again Yasser for joining us.

YASSER LOUATI: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So Yasser, France has the largest population of Muslims in Europe with about 4.7 million Muslims. First of all, just break down for us, why is there such a large population of Muslims in France in the first place?

LOUATI: This goes back to France’s colonial past. We shouldn’t forget that France colonized most of Africa including North Africa which is inhabited by Arabs and Muslims and Sub-Saharan countries like Senegal, Mali, etc. So after France supposedly gave them independence, which I don’t believe as a matter of fact, people from these countries were shipped to contribute to the economic effort of rebuilding France after the 2nd World War. So yes you are definitely right, France is home to the biggest Muslim minority in Europe.

DESVARIEUX: Okay and you’re saying building up France. How so?

LOUATI: Because France was devastated after the second World War. There weren’t enough people to help rebuild the country. So what happened is that country made some agreement to bring people to France through various ways. But what happened is that during the 60s and 70s, by the mid 70s French corporations or French companies had a choice. Either invest in new machines or bring in cheap labor. They went for the second option. That’s why you have lots of Muslims who came from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Mali, Senegal, etc.

DESVARIEUX: And these corporations we’re talking about a lot of car manufacturers is that right?

LOUATI: Yes car manufacturers, industry companies, etc. and of course they were not paid as much as the rest of the white population. They were not given the same rights as the remaining of the workers. As a matter of fact when they went on strike in the 1980’s to tell you how ignorant our elite was and still is, they called those strikes by Muslim workers, holy strikes being remotely controlled by Iran. This is how crazy and those people are from Africa.

DESVARIEUX: Got you, got you. Okay, let’s talk a little bit more about the history. I want to specifically talk about how French citizenship works because in your piece you really lay out that there was a policy and it was the law of the land for quite sometime, that if you’re born in France you’re automatically considered to be a French citizen. But that changes right Yasser?

LOUATI: Yes because in the 1980’s we had, you know, pressure groups led by various members of parliament saying that in order to keep, you know, French purity we have to repeal the law of the land. Meaning that when you are born in France you were automatically granted French citizenship. But this intellectual mechanism was being the same one applied against Jews in the early 20th century. Saying that they should not be automatically granted French citizenship and the debate started in the late 80’s and ended by 1998. It was sparked again after the Paris attacks in November and thanks to a great mobilization by civil society including our organization, the government [will] backed down and repeal the project about repealing the law of the land.

DESVARIEUX: So what’s been the effect of that sort of policy shift?

LOUATI: Well you basically tell people you have two kinds of citizenships. You have the pure one, the number one, the A level, the A list. And then you have the rest of them. Meaning that you are only a citizen on your passport or your ID card. It means that you don’t have equal right. You should not expect equal treatment. You shouldn’t have access to the same level of representation in our institutions, etc. And racism in France is profoundly structural. You should not forget that France greatly benefited from slavery, from colonization, and the domination of foreign peoples. So when those peoples are born here in France they are not looked at as equal citizens they are looked at as second class citizens.

DESVARIEUX: Continuing on that line about the structural racism in France. In your piece you make mention of how anti-headscarf policies sort of have been the economic death sentence for veiled women, especially since they’re not able to expand their legal challenges to religious discrimination and things of that nature. So can you just explain how the law is hurting veiled women?

LOUATI: First we have yes indeed Muslim women who are in a situation of social death sentence. We shouldn’t forget that 80% of Islamophobia victims are women; discrimination, hate speech, and physical violence. When you have a set of laws targeting specifically Muslim women. The 2004 law against the headscarf, the 2009 law against the full veil scarf, we had the government pressuring close to reverse their decisions to grant rights to Muslim women. We constantly speak about Muslim women as the specific enemy of the French Republic, it’s values and it’s tradition. Even after the Paris terrorist attacks the headscarf was again mentioned. Now there are ongoing debates about banning the headscarf in public space, public transportation and now universities. And when you have a Prime Minister, [ ] to our many [advance], who says that the paramount fight for the French Republic is to target the Muslim headscarf. He said it again, two days ago that the less we win the ideological battle then we will have to turn to quote “totalitarian and authoritarian measures”.

That’s how far they’re willing to go against Muslim women who decided to wear the headscarf. So Muslim women don’t have much choice but to fight for their rights. But even when they do they are not given platform to speak for themselves. We always hear someone who speaks on their behalf. Or we get what they call minority informants or native informants to speak on behalf of Muslims and tell the elite what they want to hear. This happens again with this episode with the Minister of Women’s Rights. When she used the French word nègre, various Muslim women wrote columns, recorded videos, posted them all online and nobody gave them the microphone to speak for themselves.

DESVARIEUX: So Yasser, at the end of the day what is the solution? We’ve identified the problems within the law, we’ve identified the structural racism. But what specific policies could France enact if they really want to heal this relationship with the Muslim community?

LOUATI: Again it’s a struggle for minorities to tackle Islamophobia [forest] and take this destiny into their own hands and then pull the struggle into a bigger struggle for social justice. We shouldn’t forget that the demonization of Muslims of course is a great harm for Muslims themselves but is also great harm for the wider society. And that applies for France, the U.K., or even the U.S. You build an enemy within, you demonize a specific category of your population in order to justify otherwise unacceptable laws. For example, the Patriot Act of the U.S. You know we used Muslims as the enemy and then we [ ] but again it is very important for minorities to challenge the government and hold it responsible. What our organization is doing is that first assist victims, both legally and psychologically, work with institutions and then coordinate our struggle both on the European and international level. Because the injustices we are facing here in France as are the exact same ones being faced throughout Europe and North America. So it’s a great struggle which requires lots of resources but we have no other choice but to push forward.

DESVARIEUX: Alright, Yasser Louati, thank you so much for joining us.

LOUATI: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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