The World Today for August 17, 2021

NEED TO KNOW

FRANCE

Weaponizing Secularism

Ever since French officials banned Muslim women from wearing face veils at schools in 2004, the French have debated the limits they can place on Islamic dress and expression in order to preserve the secular nature of French culture.

There is little sign the debate is going to end anytime soon.

French lawmakers recently approved a so-called “Islamic separatism” bill that aims to prevent Muslim communities from creating parallel theocratic societies within the West European country. As Foreign Policy magazine explained, the proposed law would regulate mosques more closely, ensure the neutrality of public servants and enact other measures.

“It is against people who in the name of a wrong or reconstructed vision of a religion behave in a way contrary to the republic,” said French President Emmanuel Macron.

A series of extremist attacks created a climate conducive to the bill, reported Radio France Internationale, including the beheading last year of a French teacher, Samuel Paty, who showed his students a cartoon of the Prophet Muhammed that many Muslims believe is blasphemous.

These days, almost 45 percent of French citizens believe Muslims are a threat to their national identity, wrote Time magazine. Around 42 percent of Muslims in the country feel as if they have been discriminated against. Sixty percent of women who wear a headscarf said they had been victims of discrimination. France has an estimated 6 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Europe.

To date, the European Court of Justice has been inclined to support European states that seek to suppress religious identities. As Al Jazeera explained, the court recently ruled that employers can prohibit forms of “political, philosophical or religious” expression in the workplace, for example.

Muslims have decried the trend as Islamophobic.

“We are seeing a justification of a breach of freedom and fundamental rights in the name of security – a weaponization of secularism,” French legal scholar Rim-Sarah Alouane told the Guardian. “It’s a deformed legal monster, which aims not only to contain Muslims but to erase them from the public sphere.”

Other forces might be at play. Macron assumed office five years ago as a centrist and reformer. But he has moved to the right as he approaches reelection next year when his main rival will likely be Marine Le Pen, the nationalist candidate who rails against foreign influences tainting France.

Countries like Britain, where technically the church and state are allied, have managed to have thriving societies without telling people what they can wear on their head or regulating their houses of worship, noted TRT World, a Turkish public broadcaster.

Even so, other European countries such as Belgium and Germany have similar measures regulating headscarves or veils or mosques. Others in Europe periodically – usually around election time – consider rules that disproportionately impact their Muslim populations.

Regardless, no one expects these issues to go away anytime soon.

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