Today, April 5th, Nicholas Sarkozy’s ruling party will hold a national debate on the role of religion and secularism in France. Even though it is being framed as a discussion on France’s doctrine of laïcité (secularism), many believe that it is singling out Islam. Among the topics that will be examined in the debate is overcrowding in mosques, serving halal meat in school cafeterias, and whether patients should be allowed to request doctors of a certain gender.
Islam is the second largest religion in France, with approximately 6 million Muslims. This community has been the focus of much controversy, the most recent being the soon-to-be-enacted ban (April 11th) on the burqa. According to this ban, anyone wearing a face covering will be fined 125 euros, ordered to attend citizenship classes, or both. Critics argue that this ban affects such a small number–3000 women to be precise–that it is simply an attack on Islam.
Many see today’s national debate in France similarly: just an attack on Islam. Moreover, some suggest that Sarkozy is using this issue to bolster his chances in the next presidential election.
Some have already spoken out against the debates. Twelve leaders of France’s main religious groups issued a joint statement last week against the debate. The leaders questioned whether the state should be holding a debate on religious identity and they said it will lead to the stigmatization of the French Muslim community. Also, the French Prime Minister François Fillon, despite Sarkozy’s wishes, has said that he will not participate.
For me, these debates reflect a growing sentiment of Islamophobia. One can’t help being instantly reminded of Peter King’s hearings on the radicalization of Muslim Americans. While the focus of the debates and the hearings are quite different, the motivation to question the role of Islam society seem to be very similar. Moreover, it appears that this one community is being singled out. The focus should not be on highlighting the differences and questioning the ability of Muslims to adhere to their faith and be French or American; rather, there should be recognition of the fact that Muslims have been a part of both societies for a long time and the vast majority have demonstrated their commitment and loyalty to their nation.
As Tariq Ramadan mentioned in his book What I Believe, when Muslims are asked whether they are first Muslim or their nationality, the question itself is problematic because it is asking them to choose between two realms that are not comparable. Notably, this question never seems to come up with respect to other religions.
What do you think of the French debates on religion and secularism? Should Muslims be concerned? Should there be a focus on Islam to the exclusion of other faiths? Do these debates indicate Islamophobia? Please share your thoughts below.