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French civil liberties activist Yasser Louati says you can’t ‘free women’ by denying them individual choice

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JAISAL NOOR, TRNN: Islamophobia on the rise. In France, five coastal towns recently banned the so-called “burkini,” and three more are considering a ban. The burkini was developed as an alternative to the burka, the full-body cover that some Muslim women wear, to allow them to go swimming while still following their religious customs. Now the socialist Prime Minister of France, Manuel Valls, has weighed in, expressing support for the bans, and politicians across the political spectrum in all of Europe are discussing their pros and cons. In France, the Collective Against Islamophobia has filed a legal challenge to the burkini ban. Now joining us to discuss this is Yasser Louati. Yasser is a French human rights and civil liberties activist and researcher. Thanks so much for being with us. YASSER LOUATI: Thank you, sir. NOOR: So the Independent is quoting that France’s prime minister has backed the ban, saying they are not compatible with French values, and are based on the, quote, “enslavement of women.” How do you respond to that? LOUATI: First, what people in America need to know, and around the world, is that in France the prime minister, Manuel Valls, is notorious for taking a public stance against French Muslim citizens, and that he spent most of his time talking rather than ruling the country. The French president, for example, just gave an interview saying that Prime Minister Valls, quote, “fell victim of his own communication.” So people shouldn’t take too seriously what this person says. Second, if you want to analyze what he just said, how can you free women by denying them free choice? You can, for example, speak about the enslavement of women when women themselves feel that they have the right to be modest and go swim. Second point is that nobody asked what those women think. So we have a, you know, men legislating against women and cracking down on their individual freedoms. So the question is, are we living in a country, a so-called democracy, where the rule of law is supposed to prevent the rule of opinion prevail over the rule of law. NOOR: And so talk about what sparked this most recent effort. France purportedly is a secular country. But it has a history of banning religious headdress. And some would say this is tied into recent terror attacks, including most recently in Nice last month, when a supporter of the Islamic State drove a truck into a crowd, killing 85 people. What do you think is behind this ban? LOUATI: First, the killer of the Nice attack, there have been no concrete [alternate] proofs linking him to the so-called organization of the Islamic State. He was known to be a psychopath who was deeply depressed, and who stopped taking his medication. Second, 33 people got killed in Nice, some Muslims themselves are victims of terror here in France. The other point is that when people say that banning the burkini is going to prevent radicalization or terrorism, this is completely laughable. First, for example, Amedy Coulibaly, one of the culprits of the January 2015 attacks, was taking pictures of himself and his girlfriend wearing a bikini on the beach. Second, if you are an Islamist or fundamentalist, or whateer you want to name those people, would you really go to the beach and swim next to people topless, or in shorts, or shirtless, or wearing bikinis? It makes absolutely no sense. But the mayor of the city of Cannes sees this opportunity to, of course, gain momentum within the far-right electorate. Don’t forget, there is a primary election upcoming in November for the right-wing political party, the so-called Les Republicains. At the same time, we have an upcoming presidential election next year. And the parliamentary election. This is all politics. The problem is that minorities are falling victim of that. And nobody sees the Islam [inaud.] being conducted by the government. We talk about minority issues, but nobody questions [inaud.]. NOOR: And so you are joining us from France, so we apologize for some of the connection issues. But so talk–you know, you mentioned the primaries. France and other European countries have taken a swing to the right, and in France we’ve seen it, especially after the Paris attacks just a few months ago. And you’re saying Muslims are becoming scapegoats. So talk about the work that’s being done to counter this. You’re including the work of your previous organization, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. LOUATI: First, the shift to the right goes back to the mid-’80s, when Muslims began to become a bit visible, because the second generation, unlike their parents, sought full citizenship. They were not okay with being invisible, and just as cheap, disposable labor. So we saw this shift starting in the ’80s and ’90s. And after September 11, it gained momentum until you saw–you know, it was able to legislate and issue laws specifically targeting minorities. Now the work that needs to be done is [not] still being done. We still have a fragmented anti-racist front. People on the left are still a bit divided on questions of Islamophobia, and how to tackle it. And the right has become such a powerful force that now they are present in the media, at the highest levels of the government, and even people from the left are, and the current ruling party, are [dear] to far-right ideas being carried and defended by people like Marine Le Pen and her political party, the Front National. So right now what we see, you know, we shouldn’t be desperate, is that we see a rise of grassroots organizations taking these issues at heart, and doing what we call the community work. For example, in terms of political representation, challenging the state in court, challenging police brutality, et cetera, et cetera. But so far we still don’t see a national effort to carry on with this work. NOOR: And what impact is this having on the Muslim community itself? LOUATI: Well, the Muslim community feels a bit like they aren’t [inaud.], that they are being treated as the public enemy. Every single time there’s a problem, the government turns against the Muslim community and holds us responsible. So, for example, when the French state failed to protect the country, several times in 2015, even 2016, it didn’t question its failed strategy against terrorism or against radicalization, despite humongous amounts of powers, like the law on surveillance, and repressive laws being adopted. No, it just said, well, Muslims are responsible, and should question their religion. So the people right now who should be held accountable for the increasing terrorist attacks are the government itself. And now the French Muslim community is questioning itself how to deal with the government. Is it a question of waiting for the second one to come? I truly doubt the next government will be any better. I believe it will be worse. Or if the Muslim community organizes itself and then acts separately, or adheres to a national effort for social justice–and this is still being discussed at the grassroots level, and as I said earlier, we haven’t seen a national initiative becoming a bit visible, to give some, a kind of insight, of what’s going to happen next. NOOR: And talk about the connection between what’s happening in present-day France, and France’s colonial history with North Africa. For many decades, France colonized, brutalized, from Morocco to Algeria to Tunisia. And that’s one of the reasons why you have so many Muslim, especially North African, immigrants living in France, many who are secluded in the slums and feel like they’re second-class citizens. Can you talk about that, as well? LOUATI: France was, indeed, a colonial empire. But even after it dismantled, or supposedly gave independence to its former colonies–which is not true, by the way–it is still behaving with these former indigenous people as [scrutinized] people. You don’t see the government treating them as fully-fledged citizens. For example, the most recent initiative from the government was supposedly organized when the Islamic faith in France came with the idea that France will [inaud.] foundation for Islamic, the [inaud.] of French Islam. Okay. But that foundation would be ruled or headed by a white, non-Muslim politician. Second, that organization would have no autonomy. Third, the people within that organization would not be elected by Muslims themselves. So we still have a neocolonial approach towards the former [indigenous] people, namely blacks and Arabs from Africa. The other point is that we haven’t dismantled the heritage of the colonial past of France. For example–we haven’t, for example, studied or analyzed what remains of France’s colonial past. The relationship between France and its own people. The power–the power of the government. The way the police behaves. So I can give an example of the police in France of many neighborhoods who are mostly inhabited by Muslim blacks and Arabs. You know, the police behaves over there as a force of occupation, not a force of protection and to serve the community. The other point is that Muslims are still being treated as foreigners. You hear constantly, those people, when you live in France you abide by the rule of France or [inaud.] told this is not Saudi Arabia. If I go to Iran, I wouldn’t do this and that. Well, I’m sorry. We are now reaching the third generation of French Muslims. It’s about time they are treated as such. NOOR: All right. Well, Yasser Louati, thanks so much for joining us. Yasser is a human rights activist, civil liberties activist, and researcher. LOUATI: Thank you, sir. NOOR: Thank you for joining us at the Real News Network.


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Yasser Louati is French human rights and civil liberties activist and researcher. He has been until now the spokesperson for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) and head of its international relations desk. He is currently leading a coalition effort against the current state of emergency in France, PREVENT in the UK and skyrocketing islamophobia throughout Europe.