Islamophobic Hegemony in France: Toward a Point of No Return?

By: Marwan Mohammed

May 13, 2021

Islam, Secularism, and the Culture Wars in France

In 1926, when the Italian Fascist authorities imprisoned Antonio Gramsci—a journalist, intellectual, and founding member of the Italian Communist Party—they wanted to neutralize a revolutionary thinker whose influence was growing. The prosecutor, whose indictment indicates that “we must prevent this brain from functioning,” could not have imagined that Gramsci would take advantage of his imprisonment to write Cahiers de Prison, his major work in which he analyzes the failure of proletarian revolutions anticipated by Karl Marx, proposing a stimulating approach to the notion of hegemony: It is not only by constraint that bourgeois power maintains itself but also by its cultural influence on the representations and social action of the masses.

If Gramsci’s jailers did not anticipate the revolutionary seeds they were sowing, Gramsci himself could hardly have aspired to have his thought feed the conquest strategies of bourgeois, conservative, and racist political forces. In France, this notion of hegemony—even if it continues to irrigate revolutionary thought—is at the heart of the rise of the right in recent decades. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy declared at the dawn of the 2007 presidential election: “I have adopted Gramsci’s analysis: power is won through ideas. This is the first time that a man of the right has taken on this battle.” On the extreme right, Alain de Benoist, one of its most radical theorists, described his “cultural war” as “right-wing Gramscianism.”

In France, this notion of hegemony—even if it continues to irrigate revolutionary thought—is at the heart of the rise of the right in recent decades.

In France, this “cultural war” is waged in part against the Muslim presence. This rejection is not new. It asserted itself at the time of the advent of Islam, expressed itself with virulence during medieval conflicts, and experienced a new boom with colonial and imperial conquests. This anti-Muslim archive was renewed in the last century with decolonization movements and the immigration of millions of workers, whose descendants are now French. 

From the beginning of the 1980s and in an accelerated manner 20 years later, an ever-growing part of the French elite participated in the construction of a “Muslim problem,” as my research shows. First, when the left came to power, they denounced “holy strikes” in the automobile industry to disqualify workers, mostly of North African origin, who were fighting to keep their jobs. Then, it was terrorist attacks involving Shiite movements in the mid-1980s. As early as 1989, it was the wearing of headscarves by high school students that initiated a series of public controversies, which are still ongoing and can be considered a good indicator of continued Islamophobic hegemony. 

From the beginning of the 1980s and in an accelerated manner 20 years later, an ever-growing part of the French elite participated in the construction of a 'Muslim problem.'

Secularism then became the main political battleground where the status of the Muslim minority was at stake. Until 2004, legislators refused to touch the secular consensus inherited from the Law of 1905, which guarantees, among the attributes of freedom of worship, the right to wear a religious sign in public spaces and institutions. The duty of neutrality applies to public authorities and not to citizens. 

The Law of March 15, 2004, which prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, marks a philosophical and legal turning point, with the advent of a neo-secularism that challenges the equality of religions by targeting Muslims, in particular, and freedom by extending the duty of neutrality to citizens. Prohibitionists were active but in the minority in the 1990s. This reversal stems from repeated campaigns to demonize women wearing headscarves, targeting their presence in all spheres of social life: work, leisure, university, public space, and media. Their construction as a “problem” relies on the permanent association between religious signs and “Islamism” to sometimes make the link with terrorism. 

The Law of March 15, 2004, which prohibits the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, marks a philosophical and legal turning point.

After the 2004 law, other rules extended the requirement of neutrality to employees of private companies. In 2010, the concealment of the face was prohibited in public spaces through a law targeting the wearing of the niqab. Later, a 2012 ministerial circular allowed mothers wearing a religious sign to be prohibited from accompanying school outings. 

In 2021, senators pushed for more prohibitions as they amended the bill strengthening the “Republican principles” of France. These senators have also voted to ban the wearing of religious symbols by minors in public; to ban the “burkini,” a bathing suit covering the entire body, from public swimming areas; and to ban prayers in universities, except in chaplaincies. The Senate has also made it possible to ban private schools in the name of the “interests of France,” to refuse a residence permit to foreigners who reject the “principles of the Republic,” and even to prevent candidates deemed “communitarian” from running for office or receiving reimbursement for their campaign expenses. The prohibitionist rush of right-wing senators—always justified in the name of “Republican principles”—has yet to be validated by the parliament and the presidential majority. 

The restriction of freedoms and the marginalization of Muslim women wearing a headscarf is only one aspect of this radicalization of Islamophobia in France. This fundamental movement is supported by a majority of the French media, and it finds many extensions in the functioning of cultural spaces. This hegemony of Islamophobic ideas and practices, to take up the Gramscian dichotomy, is supported as much by political society as by civil society. There are still spaces of resistance—actors, media, or institutions that oppose this groundswell. However, they are systematically attacked by the conservative press and by the government. 

No other Western country goes so far in demonizing and criminalizing Muslim visibility in society through a disciplinary transformation of the principle of secularism.

This is the case of critical studies in universities, which are the target of virulent campaigns of denigration and defamation, accused of Islamo-gauchisme and sometimes of complicity with terrorism. Similarly, autonomous anti-racist movements, often led by victims of racism, are demonized or even wiped out, as was the case with the administrative dissolution of the Collective against Islamophobia in France. This association had never been challenged by the courts despite regular demonization campaigns targeting it. A number of left-wing parties are also targeted and divided over the place of minorities and the issue of Islamophobia, whether it is the notion or those who fight it. The anti-racist progressivism of the left used to constitute a structuring norm of public debate until the end of the twentieth century. It is now cornered and on the defensive, as the reversal of the balance of power; the inversion of facts, like when anti-racists are accused of racism by the extreme right; and Islamophobic hegemony are now remarkable. 

We must be concerned about the liberticidal drift of the conservative French elites, especially since certain federal bodies such as the police and the army are deeply imbued with extreme right-wing ideas. A text signed by dozens of army officers, including retired generals, recently called for taking up arms against “the suburban hordes.” We must be concerned about the Islamophobic consensus that has taken hold and the campaigns of intimidation that target those who study and denounce it. No other Western country goes so far in demonizing and criminalizing Muslim visibility in society through a disciplinary transformation of the principle of secularism.

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