New book puts France at center of anti-Muslim backlash

Women hold signs reading ‘Is it not a provocation, just my freedom of conscience’ during a ‘headscarf march’ organized by the Collective against Islamophobia ‘Respect Equality Dignity’ on Sept. 3, 2016, in Avignon, southern France. (AFP)
Updated 14 February 2018
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New book puts France at center of anti-Muslim backlash

LONDON: Islamophobia in France is being fueled by state-backed efforts to encourage secularism, according to a new book that puts the country at the heart of a growing intolerance toward Muslims in Western societies.
In “Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France,” Jim Wolfreys, a British academic and author, argues that French politicians have given discrimination and racism a veneer of respectability in their response to a wave of Daesh attacks that hit French towns and cities in the last three years.
The bloodshed has left innocent Muslims facing unprecedented scrutiny of what they wear, eat and say in a society polarized by inequality, he claims.
Wolfreys, a senior lecturer in French and European Politics at King’s College London, told Arab News there is a “danger of confusing understandable fear of terrorism with fear of Muslims.”
France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community, with estimates of its size ranging from 2.1 million to about 6 million, out of a total population of 66.9 million. Many of these Muslims can trace their roots back to the country’s colonial rule in North and sub-saharan Africa during the 19th and 20th centuries.
Secularism is one of the guiding principles of the French political and legal systems and questions around immigration and integration have long been a subject of debate in the country. But rhetoric once considered taboo has entered mainstream political discourse in recent years, according to Wolfreys.
In 2011, even before the recent wave of militant attacks, France became the first European nation to ban women from wearing full-face veils in public.
Then, as gun battles and suicide bombings rocked the country in a series of attacks claimed by Daesh, local authorities in several towns outlawed women from wearing burkini swimwear. Officials said the clothing, which covers the female head and body in keeping with conservative Islamic custom, was a security threat and flouted the nation’s secular principles.
France’s highest administrative court subsequently overturned the restriction imposed by one resort, with three judges ruling that it was “clearly illegal” and in violation of “fundamental liberties,” but the ban heightened concerns among many Muslims that they were being made scapegoats for the Daesh-inspired violence.
Islam and immigration went on to become two of the central issues in the 2017 presidential election, when Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, won almost 11 million votes in the second round of polling.
Le Pen campaigned on an openly Islamophobic ticket, denouncing mosques for allowing worshippers to pray in the streets and warning of the danger of living “under the yoke of the threat of Islamic fundamentalism.”
She lost convincingly to her liberal rival, Emmanuel Macron, but mainstream political concerns about Islam have not gone away.
On Sunday, President Macron told the French weekly newspaper “Le Journal du Dimanche” that he planned to reorganize the structure of Islam in France to help “preserve national cohesion.” He provided no details about how he hoped to do this.
Wolfreys’ book, “Republic of Islamophobia: The Rise of Respectable Racism in France,” looks in detail at the causes and consequences of state-fueled discrimination.
He reports the results of an opinion poll conducted by a French human rights institute that found 45 percent of National Front supporters do not consider “dirty Arab” a reprehensible phrase. In the same survey, nearly three-quarters of respondents said they do not regard Muslims as fully French.
However, Wolfreys accuses mainstream parties from both the right and left of the political spectrum of adopting increasingly intolerant interpretations of secularism.
He writes that the problem became particularly acute after two masked gunmen attacked the Paris offices of the satirical magazine “Charlie Hebdo” on Jan. 7, 2015, in retaliation for a series of cartoons defaming the Prophet Muhammad. Twelve people were killed, with Al-Qaeda in Yemen and Daesh issuing contrasting claims of responsibility for the carnage.
On Nov. 13 that year, Daesh militants also carried out a coordinated assault across the French capital, with three suicide bombers blowing themselves up outside the Stade de France and gunmen killing 89 people attending a rock concert at the Bataclan theatre.
This was followed in July 2016 by an attack in the southern city of Nice, in which a cargo truck was driven into a crowd of revelers celebrating Bastille Day, killing more than 80 people.
Wolfreys’ book warns that the French government’s response to the bloodshed has been disproportionate and risks further marginalizing innocent Muslims, pushing them into the arms of extremists.
“The renewed emphasis since the 2015 Paris attacks on inculcating respect for ‘republican values’ in schools, punishing those alleged to defy them, fast-tracking those accused of ‘apology for terrorism’ through the courts, and increasing surveillance and ‘vigilance’ is unlikely to prevent such atrocities from happening again,” he writes.


UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

Updated 19 June 2019
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UN: Nearly 71 million now displaced by war, violence at home

  • The figures are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics
  • UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017

GENEVA: A record 71 million people have been displaced worldwide from war, persecution and other violence, the UN refugee agency said Wednesday, an increase of more than 2 million from last year and an overall total that would amount to the world’s 20th most populous country.
The annual “Global Trends” report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees counts the number of the world’s refugees, asylum-seekers and internally displaced people at the end of 2018, in some cases following decades of living away from home.
The figures, coming on the eve of World Refugee Day on Thursday, are bound to add fuel to a debate at the intersection of international law, human rights and domestic politics, especially the movement in some countries, including the US, against immigrants and refugees.
Launching the report, the high commissioner, Filippo Grandi, had a message for US President Donald Trump and other world leaders, calling it “damaging” to depict migrants and refugees as threats to jobs and security in host countries. Often, they are fleeing insecurity and danger themselves, he said.
The report also puts a statistical skeleton onto often-poignant individual stories of people struggling to survive by crossing rivers, deserts, seas, fences and other barriers, natural and man-made, to escape government oppression, gang killings, sexual abuse, militia murders and other such violence at home.
UNHCR said 70.8 million people were forcibly displaced at the end of last year, up from about 68.5 million in 2017 — and nearly a 65 percent increase from a decade ago. Among them, nearly three in five people — or more than 41 million people — have been displaced within their home countries.
“The global trends, once again unfortunately, go in what I would say is the wrong direction,” Grandi told reporters in Geneva. “There are new conflicts, new situations, producing refugees, adding themselves to the old ones. The old ones never get resolved.”
The phenomenon is both growing in size and duration. Some four-fifths of the “displacement situations” have lasted more than five years. After eight years of war in Syria, for instance, its people continue to make up the largest population of forcibly displaced people, at some 13 million.
Amid runaway inflation and political turmoil at home, Venezuelans for the first time accounted for the largest number of new asylum-seekers in 2018, with more than 340,000 — or more than one in five worldwide last year. Asylum-seekers receive international protection as they await acceptance or rejection of their requests for refugee status.
UNHCR said that its figures are “conservative” and that Venezuela masks a potentially longer-term trend.
Some 4 million people are known to have left the South American country in recent years. Many of those have traveled freely to Peru, Colombia and Brazil, but only about one-eighth have sought formal international protection, and the outflow continues, suggesting the strains on the welcoming countries could worsen.
Grandi predicted a continued “exodus” from Venezuela and appealed for donors to provide more development assistance to the region.
“Otherwise these countries will not bear the pressure anymore and then they have to resort to measures that will damage refugees,” he said. “We are in a very dangerous situation.”
The United States, meanwhile, remains the “largest supporter of refugees” in the world, Grandi said in an interview. The US is the biggest single donor to UNHCR. He also credited local communities and advocacy groups in the United States for helping refugees and asylum-seekers in the country.
But the refugee agency chief noted long-term administrative shortcomings that have given the United States the world’s biggest backlog of asylum claims, at nearly 719,000. More than a quarter-million claims were added last year.
He also decried recent rhetoric that has been hostile to migrants and refugees.
“In America, just like in Europe actually and in other parts of the world, what we are witnessing is an identification of refugees — but not just refugees, migrants as well — with people that come take away jobs that threaten our security, our values,” Grandi said. “And I want to say to the US administration — to the president — but also to the leaders around the world: This is damaging.”
He said many people leaving Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador through Mexico have faced violence by gangs and suffered from “the inability of these governments to protect their own citizens.”
The UNHCR report noted that by far, the most refugees are taken in in the developing world, not wealthy countries.
The figures marked the seventh consecutive year in which the numbers of forcibly displaced rose.
“Yet another year, another dreadful record has been beaten,” said Jon Cerezo of British charity Oxfam. “Behind these figures, people like you and me are making dangerous trips that they never wanted to make, because of threats to their safety and most basic rights.”