France, Secularism, political correctness and antisemitism

A couple of articles in the last couple of days highlight two opposing phenomena related to France’s Muslim community: one leading to Islamophobia and the other leading to Muslim Antisemitism.

A veiled Muslim French woman and child

Having separated Church and State long ago, France is now struggling to separate Islam and the State in a peaceful manner, and not really succeeding (hat-tip: Reality):

Riots broke out over a full-face Islamic veil. A woman may have lost her unborn baby in another confrontation over her face covering. Tensions flared over a supermarket chain’s ad for the end-of-day feast for the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

France’s enforcement of its prized secularism is inscribed in law, most recently in a ban on wearing full-face veils in public. Meant to ensure that all faiths live in harmony, the policy instead may be fueling a rising tide of Islamophobia and driving a wedge between some Muslims and the rest of the population.

Yet ardent defenders of secularism, the product of France’s separation of church and state, say the country hasn’t gone far enough. They want more teeth to further the cause that Voltaire helped inspire and Victor Hugo championed, this time with a law targeting headscarves in the work place.


Women who wear Muslim apparel “are no longer safe,” said Mohera Lukau, a 26-year-old mother of three living in Trappes, a town south of Paris known for its large immigrant population, high unemployment and women who wear long robes or hide their faces behind veils.

Police clashed last week with crowds protesting the arrest of a man who allegedly attacked an officer after his wife was ticketed for veiling her face in public. Dozens of cars were set afire in two nights of unrest in Trappes and an adjoining town. A 14-year-old boy suffered an eye injury.

Weeks earlier, a man allegedly assaulted a pregnant woman and ripped off her veil— one of two separately accosted in the Paris suburb of Argenteuil. She lost her baby days later, although the link with the incident remains unclear. Insults have been unleashed on women wearing Muslim headscarves, with investigations or court cases in three attacks in Reims and three more in Orleans.

Interior Minister Manuel Valls has denounced “a rise of violence against the Muslims of France.” At a dinner breaking the Ramadan fast at the Grand Mosque of Paris, he insisted that Islam and the French Republic are compatible. But he signaled the belief by some French people that Muslims want their own rules, denouncing “those who want to make France a land of conquest.”


People tell Lukau, who is of Algerian origin, “If you’re not happy, leave, go home,” she said. But, she pointed out, she was born in France.

Most French people are baptized Catholic, but church attendance has been in decline for decades and secular ideals run deep. With the growth of France’s Muslim population, lawmakers have increasingly turned to legislation to try to stifle public displays of Islamic faith.

In 2004, lawmakers passed a law that bans “ostentatious” religious symbols in public schools, a measure clearly directed at Islamic headscarves.


But it is not just veils that have raised controversy. A local official in Nimes, in southern France, posted on his Facebook account an ad by the Carrefour supermarket chain publicizing “oriental” dishes for the nightly breaking of the fast during Ramadan — with the comment, “Our Republic, is it still secular? Everything is on the way out.” After an outcry from Muslims, the post was quickly removed.

“Why, when there are Catholic feasts, is no one upset? Why, when there are Jewish feasts, is no one upset? Why, when there are Chinese feasts, is no one upset? Why, when there are Muslim feasts, is that upsetting?” asked Abdallah Zekri, the Nimes representative of the French Council for the Muslim faith. “Muslims are French citizens and live in France.”


While several European countries embrace secular values, France has been at the forefront of enforcing them, with the separation of church and state enshrined in law since 1905. But France is also home to the greatest tensions over them. Some defenders of secularism say the country needs to be educated about keeping religion out of public life — and needs one more law to protect secularism in private companies.


Defenders often evoke Voltaire, the 18th-century Enlightenment philosopher whose writings condemn religious fanaticism and espouse tolerance. Or Victor Hugo, who advocated education free of the grip of the then-powerful Roman Catholic Church.

But the concept is meant to protect religion from government, as well. Many Muslims say that France’s obsession with secularism is trampling on their rights and more moderate advocates for secularism agree, arguing that the 1905 law is being twisted. Conceived to ensure freedom of conscience, it is doing the opposite, they contend.

This article gives a fascinating insight into the problems of separating religion and state, and how the rigid application of the law of separation, intended to protect citizens from the State, eventually leads the State to harm civilians, at least on the legal front.

I have a lot of sympathy for the French who are trying to defend their staunchly secular state from the effects of an aggressive Islamism imposed upon them by a huge Muslim minority. However the French appear to ignore the fact that separation of Church and State is intended to remove or prevent the creation of an official state religion, not to prevent private citizens from carrying out religious rites as long as they don’t impinge on other citizens’ rights.

In that respect, French law is correct to ban face veils but I think they are wrong to ban headscarves altogether (if that is indeed what has been happening). I am not a Muslim, but as an Orthodox Jew I keep my hair covered. Would I get into trouble in France too?

A poster of the exhibit ‘Phantom Home,’ by Palestinian photographer Ahlam Shibli, outside the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris

On the other hand the French seem extraordinarily liberal towards Muslims when it comes to Muslim antisemitism. Besides overt acts of physical violence against French Jewish citizens, culminating in the terrible murder of a Rabbi and two children in Toulouse last year, the French National Museum, the Jeu de Paume, is hosting a horribly antisemitic display (“terrorist chic”) of photos by an Israeli Bedouin woman: (hat tip: Brian Goldfarb):

This Summer the French National Museum, the Jeu de Paume, once famous for its display of Impressionist paintings, is hosting an astonishing photography exhibit, Phantom House. The work of an Israeli Bedouin woman, Ahlam Shibli, it assembles an eclectic series of photographs that depict a number of different groups whose homes are really not theirs, or who do not have homes—people who “live under oppression.” These include Bedouin “Trackers” who enlist in the IDF, “Palestinians” living in the Galilee and Jordan, Polish children in orphanages, Middle Eastern LGBTs who live in Western countries, the French of Corrèze during the Nazi occupation, and, in by far the most elaborate of the exhibits, the Palestinian families of “martyrs” who “resisted” the “occupation,” standing with the pictures, posters, and graves of their “disappeared” relatives.

The exhibit has elicited predictable controversy. These alleged “martyrs” who “took control of their own deaths,” the object of loving devotion by their families, are actually mass murderers who killed themselves in order to murder as many children, women, civilians as they could. Like so much of the Palestinian narrative, these photos give no place to the “other” except as faceless colonial oppressors.


Outraged objections poured in. The museum’s response was to post a notice that insisted that this was not propaganda and quoted the artist insisting that she was “not a militant, not judgmental.”

Of course, all of this is nonsense. […] The artist is decidedly judgmental, presenting her fellow Bedouin who serve in the IDF as pathetic sell-outs to a colonial regime (they appear strikingly comfortable and secure with themselves in the photos), peppering her exhibit on French victims of the Nazi occupation with comments on how they turned around after liberation and became colonial oppressors in Indochina and Algeria. The unalloyed admiration for the “resistance to occupation” of the Palestinians, juxtaposed with that of the French resistance to the Nazis, plays on a common, if grotesque, theme of Palestinian propaganda—that the Israelis are the new Nazis and the Palestinians the new Jews.

How can the French, who know what Nazi occupation was like, compare their experience to that of Palestinians in the West Bank?


The answer takes us back to the beginning of the Second Intifada, known as the Al-Aqsa Intifada, on Sept. 30, 2000, when Charles Enderlin, the French-Israeli correspondent for France2 broadcast a news story on how the Israelis targeted a father and son, killing the son and badly wounding the father. The story rapidly gained mythical power in both the Muslim world and in the West. For some Palestinians, Al Durah became “the martyr of the world” and an inspiration to suicide bombers seeking to revenge his death; in the capable hands of Osama Bin Laden, he became a call to all Muslims to join the global Jihad.

In France and beyond, Europeans embraced this story as a liberation from Holocaust guilt. The respected French news anchor Catherine Nay spoke for many when she noted, “This death annuls, erases the picture of the boy in the Warsaw Ghetto.” …


What might have been a brief disorientation, damaging but limited, has become a disastrous commitment to this new paradigm, even as the evidence for its deleterious effect on France (and, more broadly, Europe) multiplied. In 2004 and 2005, Spanish and English citizens found out that they, too, could be considered legitimate targets of Jihadi wrath. Several months later, in response to a false report that French police had killed two young French Arabs, the suburban “sensitive zones” erupted in rioting and vandalism, while the police stood aside lest intervention lead to photographs of police killing Arab youth and inspire suicide terror attacks.

Those French who, ignoring the plethora of minor subsequent incidents, might have thought their problems were more or less on a path toward resolution were shocked anew in 2012, when a young French-born Algerian Jihadi, Mohamed Merah, after killing three French Muslim soldiers, went to a Jewish school and deliberately killed three children and a father. Why? “To avenge those Muslims in Palestine murdered by the Israelis,” he said.

For the Jihadis, the war against Israel is part of a larger war against the West, […] And yet, few French tread this path of inquiry […].  On the contrary, French commentators insisted, the riots in 2005, for example, had “nothing to do with Islam,” and the code word for Muslims who misbehave violently is “jeunes.”

Instead of awareness, a school of “lethal journalists” became dominant in Europe (and elsewhere)—information specialists who take Palestinian war propaganda (lethal narratives about the IDF as child-killers) and spread it to unsuspecting (and often gratified) audiences in the guise of news reporting.


Thus, cognitively disoriented by both their media and their academics to such a degree, it is altogether possible for the curators at the Jeu de Paume to put up an exhibit celebrating mass murderers—and to believe that, in so doing, they were siding with the innocent and “speaking truth” to Israeli “power.” And so they raise war propaganda that targets their own culture to the level of high art.

There is a lesson in here for all Western civilized countries. Bending over backwards to appease Muslims for fear of being0 accused of Islamophobia will not in the end save you from being attacked by those very same extremist Muslims (sometimes called “Islamists”). And yet imposing an aggressive secularism while banning all displays of religion can also backfire.

Western civilization needs to find the correct balance between separation of Church and State, private liberty, while putting political correctness out to pasture once and for all.

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2 Responses to France, Secularism, political correctness and antisemitism

  1. Sarah AB says:

    It’s my understanding that headscarves are not banned except for those working in public sector jobs, and that there is now a move to stop people in the private sector wearing them too in some instances. A mother was prevented from accompanying her child on a school trip because she was wearing a headscarf too. France is not so rigidly secular that it doesn’t mark Christian festivals as public holidays, so to complain about a company marketing meals which might appeal to those celebrating Eid seems ridiculous.

    The exhibition sounds sick.

    • anneinpt says:

      Thanks for your input about the headscarves Sarah. The news reports never make things completely clear (now there’s a surprise).

      I agree that many of the anti-religious rules which mainly affect the Muslims are ridiculous. After all kosher food is permitted, and no one complains about matzos on Passover, so having special meals for Eid seems perfectly acceptable.

      I think the French are reacting to what they perceive as aggressive Islamism, and taking things too far in the other direction.

      And yet, as the Tablet article shows, there is a large dose of PC-ness which allows Muslim antisemitism to run riot. Both reactions are wrong, each one going too far in its own direction.

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