Being Muslim in France

Safya Khan-Ruf - 17 04 17

A string of Islamist extremist attacks in France has only deepened tensions in the country. As incidents of anti-Muslim hatred have become prevalent, they have caused resentment and worry in the French Muslim community.

French society has a particularly complex relationship with its approximately five million Muslims, the largest Muslim community in western Europe at just over seven percent of the population. While French Muslims express dismay at the harassment, ethnic profiling and discrimination they feel they have to endure, many in France perceive these feelings as an exaggeration by a community incapable of integrating into French society.

Feeling Fear

The murderous attacks in Paris on November 2015 and Nice in July 2016 have heightened fears of radicalisation in the country and strengthened notions that Muslims constitute a major threat. Following each attack, Muslims have braced themselves for a backlash of Islamophobic incidents as well as a tough response from government to the terrorism risk.

The latest report from the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) shows over 400 discriminatory acts, nearly 40 attacks and around 100 insults and threats against French Muslims last year.

The last 18 months have seen more than 3,800 raids without warrants on private homes. Marwan Mohammad, director of CCIF, said more than half of the raids had been triggered by reports from  suspicious and worried neighbours.

“The psychological impact on communities is massive. Attack after attack, people tell us, they don’t want to go out in the street, they don’t feel safe. They’ve had it justifying themselves because they are the local Muslim. They just can’t take it anymore,” he said.

Another response from the state has been a helpline to report signs of radicalisation and leaflets telling public employees, such as teachers, how to spot the symptoms. But Mohammad says the ‘signs’ are causing what he calls “devastation” in the community. “You wear a beard, or you don’t listen to music, or you stop going to the club – radicalisation alert!”

Some are also worried about the erosion of civil liberties in the climate of fear. Samia Hathroubi, interfaith activist and a director at Coexister, an association promoting dialogue between the three Abrahamic faiths, says it is crazy to be facing an election under a state of emergency state. “This means gathering in streets is complicated, freedom of speech is complicated…we lost so many battles in terms of freedoms, there was really a backlash,” she says.

Potential allies in the battle against extremism could be the Muslim faith leaders. But France’s complex relationship with religion means that there is little exchange in comparison to the UK. In 2003, the ex-French president Nicolas Sarkozy did create the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). Its mission was to represent the Muslim population at state level, but the initiative had mixed success. Many of the people I spoke to felt the CFCM didn’t represent much of the community it was speaking for.

Iaad Ben Dhia, president of Muslims Students of France (EMF) in Paris, a secular association for students, says: “Some 70 year-old-man that was completely disconnected just chose this and said you represent Muslims. Since it wasn’t created by Muslims, there was no sense of belonging.”

It is impossible to understand the disconnect some Muslims feels towards France without understanding the systematic discrimination they have faced not only on the basis of religion but also on race and culture.

Working class neighbourhoods, the infamous quartiers populaires known for high unemployment rates, crime and violence, house many Muslim families that emigrated to France in the last century from North African countries. Some remain locked in what have been called the “Lost Territories of the Republic”.

It is difficult to discuss the community as a single homogenous mass, though. French Muslims are a varied population with diverse opinions, backgrounds and levels of religiosity.

Samuel Everett, a researcher for the Woolf Institute in the UK, says: “The embourgeoisement [of Muslims] in France is happening. But since we’re always talking about Islam and problems, people stay discreet.”


The term “Islamophobia” has caused controversy in France, with some debating whether it should even be used to describe anti-Muslim hatred and discriminatory acts. Those who dislike the term say the concept was created by Muslim clerics to stifle freedom of expression and shouldn’t be used in a secular country.

Marwan Mohammad at the CCIF contests the origins and says academics have discovered it was a French invention used to designate specific treatment applied to Muslim minorities in the colonial empire. “Semantically it’s there,” he says. “So the choice is what definition we use and what use we make of the concept – let’s clarify the working definition and let’s move to addressing these issues.

But some don’t care about that because the quarrel on the concept is a way to dismiss the fight and the cause behind it.”

Discrimination and stigmatisation

Citizens of Muslim origin face disproportionately high levels of unemployment. Various studies have shown people with Muslim-sounding names are less likely to be called to a job interview. There is also discrimination in employment against people from certain working-class neighbourhoods that house a large proportion of the Muslim community. People say this discrimination extends to housing and education.

But researching systematic discrimination in France is complicated by a lack of available official data. The country’s population census does not take note of race, religion or ethnicity, so collating information is very difficult.

A study funded by the Open Society Institute showed that Black and North African youths were also much more likely to be stopped by police in France’s equivalent to stop-and-search. As the researchers could not access reliable data, they analysed the types of youth stopped around Paris underground stations by police.

Nadia Henni-Moulaï, founder of the website Melting Book that aims to address the lack of diverse voices heard in mainstream media, grew up in a working-class neighbourhood with parents of Algerian descent. She says racist allusions are pervasive in all levels of society, whether “you are a factory worker or a trader”.

Hathroubi says aside from the ethno-religious discrimination, there is a “daily discourse, an elite discourse shaping people’s minds and hearts against all Muslims… it’s coming from the best intellectuals, writers, the political elites, the ones mostly present on TV, the ones who shape the narrative in France”.

Not all of the political elite believes Islam in France equates to a problem but the ones most visible are often the most intolerant to Muslims.

Debates on race and identity have dominated the political and media sphere recently with a core question being whether one can be Muslim and French.

Many ask how you can publicly practise your faith and be a true citizen also integrating French secularism, or laïcité, which prescribes religion’s confinement to a private matter. Rather than believing that those two identities can coexist, some perceive them as competitive by nature.

And the focus of these debates has affected women most. In 2004, France introduced a law banning all religious symbols from schools. The law somewhat ironically excludes some members of the public – young Muslim girls – from public education. These girls have to choose between a part of their religious practice and getting an education. The ban has now been extended to public services and certain politicians are trying to extend it to universities. In theory, the laws apply to all citizens, without regard to religious affiliation. However, they were rolled out after “incidents” involving Muslim women, who seemed to be the clear focus of the attention.

Paradoxically, as more Muslims aspire to, and achieve, better educational attainment and career advancement, suddenly their “otherness” has become more visible. Hathroubi comments that her mother’s small veil was probably not issue decades ago because she had no real impact on society unlike the emerging generations of Muslims born in France. “I look like them, I speak their language, I speak the history, I’m part of the social fabric. And I’m saying I’m part of you but I’m different … They probably thought one day Islam would disappear in us.”

The headscarf and even the burkini have become symbols of the fact that the French identity no longer only belongs to those who have lived in the country for the past few centuries. France has never been more multiethnic or multicultural.

The bans are meant to prevent the widening of French identity by forcing French Muslims to assimilate and integrate.

Mohammad says Muslim women are hampered by the fact that many have bought into the claim that wearing a headscarf means they are submissive creatures needing to be freed from men, or provocateurs imposing themselves in the public space. “If you think about it, these were the two medieval stereotypes for women – the mindless woman or the witch,” he said.

This stigmatisation is reflected in Islamophobia statistics: the CCIF has published a report showing that three quarters of the victims of prejudice are indeed women, whether wearing a headscarf or not.

What complicates matters even further for Muslim women is that their identities intersect multiple types of discrimination. Attika Trabelsi, a member of Lallab, an organisation challenging Muslim women’s stereotypes, says their plural identities in France mean Islamophobia has been mixed with sexism and even racism. “Muslim, Black, headscarf, no headscarf, there are all different degrees of discrimination,” she explains. “That is why other women, atheists, Christians, all sorts volunteer because they recognise themselves in our inclusive type of feminism.”

Since the founding of the organisation last year, Lallab has focused on both eliminating prejudices at grassroots level and making themselves heard in the media. According to Trabelsi: “We constantly talk about French Muslim women without hearing them talk – and when they do have someone on the TV platform, it’s often a person of Muslim culture but who has a very painful past with the religion. We say: we are here, we exist, it is not possible for people to speak in our place anymore.”

The dominating atmosphere, however, has caused many other Muslims to withdraw from the public sphere.


The idea of laïcité is deeply rooted in French history, going back to the revolutionaries that stormed the Bastille in 1789 to overthrow the monarchy and break the power of the Catholic Church. The concept simmered during the 1800s before being set down in the 1905 law separating Church and State that enshrines governmental neutrality and does not endorse any religion.

What sets French secularism apart from Anglo-Saxon models is that, over the years, it has pushed religion out of the public spheres and more recently the public practice of Islam has become increasingly difficult. The 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools is the most famous instance of excluding religion in the public sphere but it is far from being the only legislation that, Muslims feel, targets them. Veiled women have been refused entry to university classes, banks and doctor’s surgeries.

Ironically, when the 1905 law was first passed, an amendment that would have banned priests from wearing their religious clothing in public was rejected. Aristide Briand, author of the separation bill, said that by policing garments, the state would be perceived as “intolerant” and become a subject of “ridicule”.


Nowhere is this all clearer than in the forthcoming French elections.

Groups such as EMF are encouraging Muslims to vote even if they acknowledge it is a ‘least worst’ option. “Go vote for whoever you want but go vote,” says Ben Dhia. One young hijab– wearing woman tells me: “I don’t recognise myself in French politics today. My conviction is that it is important to vote but I don’t have a candidate that addresses my issues. The reality is that I am often instrumentalised in politics instead.”

Yasser Louati, a Muslim human rights activist, believes anti-Muslim political discussion in France is distraction from the real issues facing the country. He says that since politicians cannot relate to voters or produce credible socio-economic projects, they use “Islamodiversion”, as a way to distract. “We can’t save your jobs but we can help you hate Muslims. Every time you have a problem, you can talk about Muslim women wearing headscarves,” he says, ironically.

The general sentiment of being left behind – and outrightly attacked – by all the political parties means many Muslims will not be voting in this year’s election. There is both apathy and distrust for all the political candidates. Those I asked said the political controversies on Muslims in politics were toxic and since the rhetoric of far-right Front National (FN) candidate Marine Le Pen’s had been adopted by all, many found no incentive to keep her out of office.

Though Le Pen has softened her reputation of being “anti-Muslim” by saying she believes Islam is compatible with the French Republic, she (and her party) have a well-earned reputation of instigating hate against Muslims. She once compared Muslims praying in the streets (to protest over a lack of mosque space) to the Nazi occupation.

Yet Hathroubi admits she probably won’t vote and says the differences between the far right and more mainstream groups are unclear. “You shouldn’t be afraid of Le Pen because she has won. We should be more afraid… of all the politicians who have taken her agenda”, she says. Hathroubi feels betrayed by the French left but she understands why Le Pen is so popular today.

“Radical change is only embodied by Le Pen today, it’s crazy to say so but it’s the reality. We don’t have [Bernie] Sanders, we have people who have been there for 40 years… the same political game, corruption, mostly men, white, Christian, nothing has changed,” she adds.

Joe Mulhall, senior researcher at HOPE not hate, explains that in some sense, the rhetoric on immigration and Muslims in France between the FN and centre right is indistinguishable. What separates the two is their different political heritage. He says that makes the Front National a much more fundamental threat to Muslims. “It is a party deeply rooted in fascism and while the rhetoric might be remarkably similar, the realities, if it wins, will be different,” he warned.

These sentiments are not only found in the Muslim community. Abstentionism is expected to be at a record high this year and many boycott groups have formed in France to protest the current political system by not voting.

One member of “Boycottons 2017” in Bordeaux told me the level of non-voters would hopefully have an impact. “Some think the system is broken, others think it’s fine and the candidates are bad,” she said.

This movement has attracted the support of prominent Muslim figures like Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss philosopher and academic, who had repeatedly urged French Muslims to vote in the last decade. He believes the total lack of credible political projects means abstaining, while remaining politically active, is the better choice. He advocates l’abstention active.

But Louati, while frustrated by the elections being dominated by identity politics, says not voting would be worse. “There is no law stating a minimum [number] of voters for the election to be validated. If you boycott the elections you are only giving a highway to those who are mobilised. Those are the right-wing and far right voters. Not the left. You’re just making it easy,” he says. He is calling for casting blank ballots.


Muslims have been present in France for centuries and it is important not to depict the Muslim community as one homogenous body. However, the majority of the French Muslim population today emigrated after France’s colonisation of North and sub-Saharan Africa and became part of the working class. The twin legacies of imperial history and economic exploitation still echo in France today.

In fact, France’s current constitution setting out the political structure, and establishing the Fifth Republic, was designed to resolve the state crisis provoked by Muslim resistance to colonialism. Yasser Louati, a French activist, believes the colonial heritage is still deeply rooted in France. “They raped, massacred, stole and they want us to accept nothing was wrong? The hypocrisy is that they say Muslim immigration is ruining France when Muslims defended the country and helped rebuild it.”

The violent anti-imperialist conflict is not easily forgotten especially as today support for colonialism is still heard among members on the right of the political spectrum. Former French colonists still live in southeast France in large numbers.

For many Muslims, the fact that the French state has still not publicly apologised for colonialism is a factor in the tension in Muslim immigrant families.

Nadia Henni-Moulai has written a book about the Algerian war and she says it’s not really colonisation that causes problems but “the notion that France doesn’t take responsibility. It still sees itself as great country of human rights – and that’s true – but in its past there are things that weren’t glorious. It doesn’t accept looking in the mirror and…recognise faults.”

Looking towards the future

The situation can look quite gloomy for the French Muslim community in a political sense. However, there is a thriving millenial generation of Muslims in France, like Attika Trabelsi, who are finding ways to be heard, even if the initiatives are still new and the Muslim community suffers from a lack of organisation.

Henni-Moulaï observes that despite the brilliant people on the ground, there is some difficulty in bringing different groups together in a more established manner. “I think with time and social media, they can establish themselves more visibly,” she suggests.

Many community projects are still formed through informal networks, which often involve groupings based on countries of origin. Ben Dhia, president of EMF, is optimistic things are changing with the new generations born in France: “I think our generation doesn’t care – we don’t care about nationalities anymore.”

The trend seems to extend further and Louati is convinced young French citizens growing up side-by-side with those of Muslim origin don’t “buy into the Islamophobia of the older generations”.

“Most of the allies we find are people our age because for them is it normal to have an Arab or black sit next to them or that if a woman wants to wear a headscarf, she shouldn’t be bothered about it,” he says.

To understand the situation of Muslims in France today, it is impossible to ignore the country’s colonial past. While the Muslim community faces systematic discrimination based on race, class and religious factors, the people I spoke to were optimistic about the emerging generations and their plural identities.

Henni-Moulaï says: “We, with our hybrid nature, are reinventing France … Today I feel hybrid, I feel French, Algerian, European.”


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