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Middle East Eye: The ‘Republican March’: A nationalist rally with sinister undertones

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The concept of national unity is an appealing one to our politicians – let us rally around a visionary leader – and in the case of Francois Hollande, around one of the most unpopular presidents in French history at a time of huge national division over everything from economic policy to gay marriage.

In his speech during the “Republican march” on Sunday 11 January, Hollande stated: “Clarissa, Frank, Ahmed  – died so we could live free,” in reference to the three police officers gunned down in the Charlie Hebdo attack.

The image of diversity – black, white, Arab – united under the republic encapsulates the French ideal, all differences subsumed under the national banner, erased in the unity of principles and values. Ahmed, the Muslim police officer, Hollande told the crowds, died defending the principle of laïcité, a central principle of the French Republic and an incarnation of which has been used to advance ever more restrictions against Muslims in contemporary France.

Moments of real national unity are incredibly rare and in many cases, quite sinister. Because despite the rhetoric, national unity can provide a glorified cover to the stifling of differences of opinion and the opportunity to impose a singular narrative, the nationalist narrative of “who we are” which can only be contested at the risk of being expelled from the national body and in so doing, of becoming the suspect “other”. Sunday’s march gathered people for various reasons – among them to remember the dead, to oppose terrorism and to support freedom of expression.

Vigils to remember the dear are typically solemn affairsthe strength of emotion is consistently aimed at those who lost their lives in tragic circumstances. Vigils aren’t about us, they’re about them. And that’s why, watching the largest ever public rally in French history, it was clear to me that this was no vigil. This wasn’t so much about “them”, the victims of political violence, but about “us” and about what we, the French stand for.

What we stand for, we were told, was opposing terrorism. But this begs the question of who exactly supports it? Or perhaps more to the point, who is perceived as supporting it? After all, protests are generally the purview of a minority which feels its voice isn’t being heard, of the besieged who must take a stand against the status quo. But when the protest becomes the status quo, surely the question shifts to whom exactly is being targeted by the message.

Some may claim the banners were directed at the terrorists – presumably not the dead ones – but the international networks to which they claimed allegiance. Are terrorists thought to be responsive to public protests? Or perhaps the message targeted elsewhere. If the target wasn’t the terrorists, is it the perception of an enemy much closer to home – the implied enemy within?

Many juxtaposed “opposing terrorism” with “supporting free speech” – but with Charlie Hebdo taken to symbolise free speech in the context of the march, this particular publication, which deliberately produced incendiary and at times racist images targeting Muslims, has come not only to define free speech in France, but it has been incorporated through this march into the definition of national values.

In becoming the heroic voice of French freedom of expression, its previously contested maligning of Muslims and minorities has been reimagined as the quintessential expression of French identity.

To realise just how problematic this is, it is worth considering that this alleged beacon of anti-racism was publishing demonising images of Muslims in a country in which, just last month, a popular TV presenter was sacked for saying Muslims “should be deported to prevent civil war”; where France’s best-loved novelist Michel Houlebecq’s most recent bestseller was described by one journalist as “when the ideas of the far-right made a grand return to serious French literature”.

For a leftwing magazine, it seemed oddly blind to the struggle of the Muslim working classes, siding with a near societal consensus that their presence represents an inherent problem within European societies. In a 2013 poll, 74 percent of the French admitted they perceive Islam as incompatible with French society.

Recast in this sense, a nationalist rally of this magnitude which has as one of its central themes a perception of free speech embodied by a magazine which sought to denigrate an already much maligned minority within a broader climate of hostility and discrimination should perhaps raise some concerns. To speak of national unity at a time when France has rarely been so divided could only occur in the face of a perceived, existential external enemy – a common threat behind which all citizens must unite.

Ethnic minorities and Muslims in particular experience acute levels of discrimination at every level, from education, to housing, to employment. In France, a Christian citizen is two-and-a-half times more likely to get called for a job interview than an equally qualified Muslim candidate. Verbal and physical abuse of Muslims was up 47 percent last year.

This march was in fact part of the construction of the national self in contrast to the demonised Muslim “other”, expanded from the ahistorical, evil terrorist, to the broader Muslim threat, of which the terrorists are the mere violent tip of the proverbial iceberg. So much so that Muslims present at the march often felt the need to clarify their position within this potentially exclusionary lens – holding up placards to protest their innocence and respond to the presumption of guilt which assumed from their Muslim-ness a potential sympathy for murder.

This is the same republic which was constructed historically against the colonies from whence many young Muslims originate and which continues to this day, to largely exclude them not only from centres of power, but also from the sort of social mobility which might provide a stake in the constantly evolving national identity. Historically, the republic’s civility was built off the back of the presumed barbarism of its colonies, its sense of self constructed in opposition to the “unenlightened” Muslims which France conceived of as its civilising burden.

This so-called anti-establishment magazine which provided the pictorial illustrations of some of the bilious representations of Muslims, has since had its funding guaranteed by the French state, simultaneously undermining its journalistic independence, anarchic credentials and stamping its discriminatory output with a state certification.

I have previously argued that the targeting of Charlie Hebdo seems to have been a strategic decision by al-Qaeda, because it was known for selecting symbolically significant targets, in this case, which had previously polarised French society. Targeting Charlie Hebdo would allow them to appear to be acting in the name of all aggrieved Muslims, despite the fact even those troubled by the images have been vocal in their condemnation of the use of violence as a response. Sadly, the perception that they were indeed acting on behalf of broader sentiment appears to be prevalent.

In the wake of the attack, former prime minister Alain Juppe, while affirming the right of Muslims to live in security, called on Muslims to “assume their responsibilities” by affirming the values of the republic, while also calling on them to advocate gender equality. Unless you assume the attack was in any way connected to the broader Muslim community – and to a perceived conflict between republican and Muslims values, the call appears somewhat misplaced. I’m going to suggest it is misplaced either way.

French author Yann Moix went on, declaring that from hence forth “we will only call Muslim those who marched with us,” suggesting the republican march served a broader political ideal of not only narrowing the space for dissent, – ironically – but it also cemented a sense of Muslims as suspect citizens whose allegiance was to be proven, not accepted as given. Evidence of this new climate was immediate, as Rokhaya Diallo, a French Muslim broadcaster was reduced to tears on live radio, as a prominent writer badgered her to distance herself from the actions of the terrorists, a call she felt placed her and all Muslims on “the bench of the accused”.

Even if the objective of this horrific attack had been freedom of speech, the global response which has included widespread reprinting of the images in question, as well as the continued publication of Charlie Hebdo, suggests free speech has thankfully not been dented by the terrorists. It is, however, under threat from the immediate passing of ever more intrusive surveillance laws, the state of exceptionalism serving to justify ever more restrictions even before the banners extolling freedom of expression have been put away, and the massive police and military presence which only presages greater freedom for those who haven’t consistently been the victims of their abuses.

The republican march meant many things to many different people. But it has unquestionably been instrumentalised to further a sense of the republic inherently at odds with Islam and as requiring of its Muslim citizens to caveat their presence within it.

Sunday’s rally was a reminder that there is nothing quite so unifying in French politics as anti-Muslim prejudice.

– See more at: http://www.middleeasteye.net/columns/republican-march-nationalist-rally-sinister-undertones-1121786289#sthash.svTCsAm0.dpuf

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Written by Myriam Francois

January 26, 2015 at 10:29

AJE Listening Post: Charlie Hebdo: A satirical return

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You can watch my contribution to this episode of the Listening Post examining media coverage of the Charlie Hebdo affair.

http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/listeningpost/2015/01/charlie-hebdo-satirical-return-2015118164637517246.html

Written by Myriam Francois

January 10, 2015 at 10:27

The Independent: “I oppose gender segregation in universities. But its advocates have every right to their opinion”

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Original article can be read here

In March this year, University College London hit the headlines after a Muslim organisation hosted a debate in which audience members were offered one of three options – male-only, female-only or mixed seating. Following the publication of a report by Universities UK which advised that if the segregation represented the “genuinely held religious beliefs” of the hosts, separate seating could be upheld, a number of journalists decried that “the sexist eccentricities of some religions” were being given “priority over women’s rights” and protests erupted outside the London headquarters of Universities UK. 

I am not personally in favour of segregating talks at universities – as a Muslim, I don’t see the rationale for it. The logic behind the spatial distinction between male and female spaces during prayer doesn’t extend beyond those ritual acts and rigidly enforcing it outside of that context is – to my mind – unnecessary.

But the discussion of this issue has been troubling. The two main arguments appear to be an opposition to religious segregation in public spaces and an argument over equality.

Firstly, separating men and women cannot necessarily be assumed to reflect a statement of male supremacy. It can reflect personal preferences, as in women-only gyms, etiquette concerning behaviour in sacred spaces, as in orthodox synagogues or mosques, or feminist calls for “autonomous women’s space”. Like some feminists, some conservative Muslim women argue for their right to female-only spaces. Why should such requests be ignored simply because their purveyors are Muslim rather than radical secularists?

Ultra-conservatives

The fact that some Islamic societies are run or dominated by ultra-conservatives is undeniable and I share concerns that such individuals limit female participation, either as speakers or as members. Separate seating can reflect an idealisation of a Saudi-style system where men and women hardly interact outside of a familial setting. This de-facto disempowers women who are reduced to existing in a male universe. This is neither desirable, nor Islamic. But prohibiting separate seating doesn’t resolve underlying sexism, it merely forces its advocates off campus where the views expressed are less likely to be challenged. And what does it say of more progressive interpretations if the only way to encourage them is through legal imposition?

The Guardian journalist Polly Toynbee and others have argued that “whatever is segregated by diktat is rarely equal”, but separate seating spaces, like single sex schools can hardly be compared to Apartheid South Africa, convenient as the rhetorical device may be. Racial segregation was the reflection of a belief in white supremacy.  Schools don’t separate children because girls are assumed to be inferior, but because it is believed by some educationalists that girls and boys perform better in single sex environments. Similarly to those who believe students of the opposite sex can be a distraction in co-ed classrooms, some Muslim groups believe this applies in lecture halls. One doesn’t have to condone this view (which I don’t) to accept its right to exist.

Neutral state

If secularism means anything, it means the neutrality of the state on religious matters. Separate but equal access to a lecture is no more or less discriminatory than separate but equal access to education more broadly. As Baroness Warsi quite rightly points out, “there are certain boys in our political system who have spent their whole life being segregated from girls as they were educated, some of the best schools in our country are segregated.”

The question does arise, why – when some of the UK’s leading schools, including some state schools – continue to offer separate educational facilities without encountering mass protests, why Muslims organising separate seating in an educational facility, does.

The assumption is clear – any differences in the treatment of men and women by religious folk is indicative of assumed male superiority and can therefore be denounced as an affront to women’s rights. This ignores the fact that feminists, both secular and religious, hold a variety of views on the manifestation of true equality, some preferring the notion of equality in difference, the not-particularly- religious notion, advanced by Aristotle among others, that “justice consists not only in treating like cases alike but also in treating different cases differently”.

Treating men and women identically doesn’t always mean treating them equally, since each might have specific needs. One Muslim scholar of the Quran, Asma Barlas, argues that “sexual equality in procedure often may ensure rather than obliterate sexual inequality in outcome” and believes the Quran advocates a model of equality which can be conceptualised not as blindness to sexual difference but rather as responsiveness to it.

Don’t ban segregation

It is entirely possible, as some Muslim feminists do, to argue that spatial separation of men and women in the context of prayer or ritual acts, is underpinned not by an assumed male superiority, but by conventions which seek to ensure men and women reach full and holistic emancipation on their own terms.

Universities UK’s guidance was not about the rights or wrongs of segregating an event by gender, rightfully steering clear of this important discussion in order to allow, as a free society should, the full expression of a range of distasteful, illiberal and even offensive views. It’s a lesson Muslims are regularly lambasted with. This means that although as a Muslim, I oppose the segregation of lectures along gender lines, even side by side, I’m glad British universities have upheld their commitment to securing free speech and promoting debate, which is exactly what university is about. It is now up to Muslims internally to push forward with greater gender equity, increase female representation and challenge sexist views which bend theological interpretations to fit their patriarchal desires. Banning segregated seating will do nothing to resolve the misogyny which at times underpins it.

More worrying to me is that this kerfuffle over segregation actually masks far more concerning issues, namely the erosion of freedom of expression and the policing of political and religious expression on British campuses. No distinction is currently being made, even in the UK Universities publication, about academic freedom verses the use of university premises for third party or student events, for instance. Even guest speakers to academic events may now be vetted. Segregation is surely a side issue in the face of the picture emerging from this document of our universities, our bastions of free thinking and free expression, in flight on the back of increasing  securitization and deprivitization. Our universities are undergoing profound changes which will have long term implications for academic freedom and free speech – that, not segregation is the real story.

Written by Myriam Francois

December 12, 2013 at 20:23

Huff Post: Rowan Atkinson Is Right – We Need More Free Speech – But We Also Need More Responsible Speech

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This post was originally published on my Huff Post blog, here

Comic Rowan Atkinson has reignited debate over free speech this week through his campaign to ‎reform Section 5 of the 1986 Public Order Act which outlaws “threatening, abusive or insulting ‎words or behaviour that is likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress”. Specifically, Atkinson ‎believes, and I share his concern, that the term ‘insulting’, in addition to the phrasing “likely to ‎cause”, are far too subjective and as such, threaten free speech. That the law has already been ‎used in Kafkaesque fashion, is well illustrated by the case of the Oxford University student ‎arrested for asking a policeman: ‘Excuse me, do you realise your horse is gay?’ and pertinently, by a ‎‎16-year-old boy held for holding a placard reading ‘Scientology is a dangerous cult’. (For the record, ‎yes I would still be defending his right had the placard read “Islam is a dangerous cult”). Civil ‎liberties campaigners, Liberty have stated Section 5 “can have serious implications on peaceful ‎protestors and others exercising their freedom of expression, as someone who uses insulting ‎language that might distress another were they to hear it could be guilty of an offence.” ‎

The concern lies in a scenario where meaningful criticism can be curbed under this banner, where ‎accounting leaders through peaceful protests, or any other language or behaviour that might be ‎deemed ‘insulting’, could be curtailed. While we should be able to say something which might be ‎perceived as insulting about someone’s religion, more importantly surely is the fact we should be ‎able to say something insulting, or even act ‘insultingly’ towards those who enact regressive ‎policies, who threaten the NHS, who cut support for the disabled and vulnerable, those who make ‎higher education unobtainable for the majority. As things currently stands, the poor phrasing of ‎Section 5 joins a host of other worryingly vague limits placed on free speech which, rather than ‎protecting minorities, carry the seeds of state censorship.‎

However, in the words of Spiderman (and possibly someone else!), with great power, also comes ‎great responsibility. The right to insult means we should have the right to express our views ‎without fear of prosecution, even if they happen to insult someone. What it surely doesn’t mean is ‎the obligation to intentionally trample upon people’s sensitivities. One might express a view which ‎might be deemed insulting by someone, but surely the objective of seeking to insult them, for ‎insult’s sake, is simply egregious. It shouldn’t be illegal, but it should be deplored. In real life, ‎people who walk around insulting people for the sake of it are called idiots. They’re not lauded as ‎the human embodiments of free speech.‎

Should we have the right to say things to one another which might be deemed insulting? ‎Absolutely. Should we define the European ‘creed’ as the obligation to insult one another – ‎definitely not. None of us want to see free speech used as an excuse to go back on hard fought for ‎tolerance, for bigots to have free rein to spout racist/homophobic/sexist/islamophobic/etc tirades ‎unchallenged, just as much as one might not wish to see such statements prosecuted or censored. ‎It is possible to believe in the need for clearer, less restrictive legislation whilst also calling for more ‎empathy and understanding of the experiences of those minorities who will inevitably be on the ‎receiving end of some of the less palatable free-speech. ‎

The concern is that the free speech debate actually masks an underlying concern that religion in ‎general but Islam in particular, represent an inherent threat to the secular liberal worldview. From ‎this perspective, insulting Islam and Muslims represent not merely a right to free speech, but an ‎obligation to confront values assumed to be incompatible. According to a YouGov poll, more ‎Britons (43%) than Americans (39%) believe in a fundamental clash of cultures between Islam and ‎the West, and this has bred the sadly widespread view that not only are religious people not ‎worthy of protection but that their ‘pre-enlightenment superstitions’ must be derided at all costs, ‎including the cost of our social cohesion. There surely is some irony in discussing the ‘issue’ of the ‎integration of Muslims, if they’re deemed inherently incompatible by virtue of that religiosity. As ‎with all minorities, the two-way process of civic integration requires broader society to ‎acknowledge the particular sensitivities of those we regard as our democratic equals. It doesn’t ‎mean minorities will never be insulted, it just means there won’t be a concerted campaign to insult ‎them. When comedians or satirists choose to mock the most marginalised and disenfranchised, ‎rather than the powerful and the corrupt, it poses much more significant questions than ‘can we ‎insult Islam’. It raises rightful concerns over the use of such arguments as a smokescreen to ‎obscure some of the crudest forms of racist vilification. In some cases, rather than representing ‎the best of the European tradition of satire, such material can be located within a tradition of racist ‎representation.‎

When the way we discuss minorities impacts their life, through discrimination and sometimes even ‎violence, there is a responsibility upon us all to ensure the vilification is not afforded a credence ‎which bolsters the hate-mongers. Studies of hate crimes suggest a link between negative ‎representations of minorities and their targeting by violent individuals or groups. Protecting the ‎psychological and physical wellbeing of fellow citizens is as about as axiomatic as any value gets. To ‎do so should not require further ambiguous legislation but rather a shift in our perception of ‎Muslims – as an integral part of our society, their grievances are, like the grievances of any ‎minority, our grievances. Freedom of speech may well be a central British value, but so is live and ‎let live. It’s a mistake to assume they’re mutually exclusive, but it’s also complacent to assume that ‎either is immune from erosion.‎

Written by Myriam Francois

October 19, 2012 at 13:41

The Frontline Club: “Defending Islam and free speech”

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Here is the podcast of a debate I participated in at the Frontline Club on Wednesday 3rd of October 2012 on “Defending Islam and free speech”. Or you can watch the video here 

The discussion looked at the on going protests in Muslim communities across the world, what has fuelled them and the underlying tensions that these events have exposed.

With:

Maajid Nawaz, co-Founder and executive director of Quilliam, founder of Khudi and author of Radical: My Journey from Islamist Extremism to a Democratic Awakening. He was formerly on the UK national leadership for the global Islamist party Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT). Twitter: @MaajidNawaz

David Aaronovitch, writer, broadcaster, commentator and regular columnist for The Times. He is author of Voodoo Histories: The role of Conspiracy Theory in Modern History and Paddling to Jerusalem: An Aquatic Tour of Our Small Country. Twitter: @DAaronovitch

Myriam Francois-Cerrah, writer and journalist. She is currently a post-graduate researcher (DPhil) at Oxford University, focusing on Islamic movements in Morocco, and teaches Middle East politics. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman, The London Paper, Index on Censorship, The Cherwell,The F-word and others. Twitter: @MFrancoisCerrah

Kirsty Hughes, the Chief Executive of Index on Censorship – an international freedom of expression non-governmental organisation. She is a commentator on European and international affairs and has worked at Chatham House and written for Friends of Europe and the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels. Twitter: @IndexCensorship

Tom Holland, an award winning and bestselling author of Rubicon, Persian Fire and Millennium. His most recent book In the Shadow of the Sword was accompanied by the Channel 4 documentary Islam: The Untold Story. Twitter: @holland_tom

http://www.frontlineclub.com

Written by Myriam Francois

October 4, 2012 at 18:17

The case of Hamza Kashgari: When political oppression masquerades as the defence of Islam

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This piece has also appeared on the “Index on Censorship” website, here and the Huff Post Blog, here

The case of Hamza Kashgari has entered a new and deeply worrying phase as Malaysian authorities have deported the 23-year-old journalist back to Saudi Arabia, where he currently risks execution. There has been widespread and rightful opprobrium of the Saudi government’s response but few seem to question the official Saudi line that their indignation at alleged blasphemy is behind the call for the death penalty. Specifically, the government claims Hamza’s tweets, in which he appeared to express irreverence for the Prophet, is the source of its vendetta.

The tweets represented an imaginary conversations with Prophet Mohamed, in which Hamza expressed both admiration, reproach and confusion around his person: “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you”, he stated. Few have questioned whether the charges are actually a front to stifle discussion over broader political issues, which Hamza raised in other tweets and writings. According to Hamza himself, he is part of young generation of Saudis who are increasingly resentful of the state’s intransigence and seemingly willing to risk official wrath in expressing their views. “It’s not logical that, if someone disagrees with the Saudi government, that he should be forced to leave the country. Many of those who have been arrested are fighting for simple rights that everyone should have — freedom of thought, expression, speech and religion.”

We shouldn’t be duped by the feigned umbrage –the masquerade of religious offence is a poorly constructed artifice to continue to limit the basic human rights of Saudi nationals, including freedom of speech and gender equality. Fostering a climate of fear and oppression is the best guarantee of compliance and Islam is traditional rallying cry for the masses, ensuring public support at a time of broader upheaval. The Monarchy is particularly concerned about dissent at a time where the region has been rocked by protests which have seen longstanding despots ousted and others relinquishing political concessions to avoid instability. One of Hamza’s tweets was an acerbic critique of the hornets’ nest of the status of women in the kingdom, which the monarchy is keen not to see stirred up, particularly in the wake of the on-going campaign by Saudi women to challenge a longstanding driving ban. It is entirely likely that Hamza’s tweet that “No Saudi women will go to hell, because it’s impossible to go there twice” along with his broader critiques of the regime, are at the real root of the government’s fury.

Saudi Arabia loves to present itself as the defender of Islam and justifies much of its unacceptable legal and political repression through the prism of religious exceptionalism. The reality is that fewer and fewer Muslims look to Saudi Arabia as reflection of Islamic values and many more support the young generation of Saudis’ struggle for basic human rights. The current controversy is an opportunistic attempt to rouse Islamic sentiment for a profoundly illegitimate dictatorship, whose shameful abuses of power cannot and should not be masked by the ill-fitting ‘defence of Islam’. All Muslims love and believe in honouring Prophet Mohamed and the best possible way to reflect that love it to uphold the model of tolerance and mercy which he preached. If Saudi Arabia executes Hamza, it will be in the name of perpetuating its fundamentally un-islamic political oppression and nothing to do with the compassionate model of the Prophet, whose name they claim to be acting upon.

Written by Myriam Francois

February 12, 2012 at 21:31