Why populists in some pockets of Europe feel threatened by a hijab

Muslims in Europe should feel no need to seek invisibility to exist

In this video grab image taken on May 2, 2018, Union President at Paris-Sorbonne University (Paris IV) Maryam Pougetoux walks down a street in Paris. - UNEF - a student union is facing criticism after electing to its leadership a veiled Muslim woman. (Photo by STR / AFP)
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“I cannot accept that someone comes to participate in our work at the National Assembly wearing a hijab,” said Anne-Christine Lang, a member of France’s parliament earlier this month. Ms Lang then led a walkout to protest the presence of a Muslim lady in a headscarf (hijab) in the institution. This is not an isolated incident.

Rather, it is the latest deepening of anti-Muslim bigotry in some pockets within Europe's mainstream institutions. This is of concern to anyone who considers pluralism to be a worthy value, not just in Europe. It is not clear that those who do are increasing in number.

Ms Lang is not a fringe politician. She is a member of French President Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique En Marche party.

In 2018, Mr Macron said that the hijab was "not in accordance with the civility of our country". As for Maryam Pougetoux, the lady whose hijab was seemingly so provocative, she is the spokesperson of the National Union of Students in France, who was in Parliament to attend an inquiry into the effects of Covid-19 on young French people.

But a piece of cloth on her head seemed to mean Ms Pougetoux’s presence was an affront to the heart of French democracy, at least in the eyes of Ms Lang – even though French law states that Ms Pougetoux is perfectly entitled to wear the headscarf in that setting.

Already Mr Macron’s party is facing a great deal of criticism for the government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. And engaging in a populist move to deflect the discussion is not unusual in politics. But that is a part of the point: across the world anti-Muslim bigotry is a populist tool that can be used for electoral gain.

La Republique en Marche (LREM) party's elected Member of Parliament Anne-Christine Lang poses as she arrives on June 19, 2017 at the French National Assembly in Paris for the welcoming of the elected MPs following the announcement of the results of the second round of the French parliamentary elections (elections legislatives in French). (Photo by Thomas Samson / AFP)
Anne-Christine Lang of the La Republique en Marche (LREM) party. Thomas Samson / AFP

When Ms Pougetoux was elected, the French Interior Minister attacked her choice of wearing the hijab insisting it was proselytisation. This is a peculiar accusation, partly because proselytisation is not illegal in France. But mainly because in that case every woman who chooses to observe this quite regular Muslim practice would be proselytising, simply by wearing a piece of cloth. It is unlikely that such an accusation would be made of Catholic nuns who, similarly, wear the habit.

It is not only in parts of France, though, that integrating the Muslim presence in European society can sometimes be deemed awkward. There is scarcely a month that goes by when a news story does not to some degree problematise the Muslim presence in Europe.

FILE PHOTO: French President Emmanuel Macron looks on as he attends a news conference at the Pine Residence, the official residence of the French ambassador to Lebanon, in Beirut, Lebanon September 1, 2020. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool/File Photo
French President Emmanuel Macron. Reuters

In the past, we've have had instances such as the Czech President Milos Zeman banning the full registration of any Islamic religious community in his country. And last year, Germany’s integration minister Annette Widmann-Mauz warned that Islamophobia poses a ‘real danger’.

The question then becomes: how should European societies adapt to these instances of discrimination?

This is not to say all of Europe suffers from this problem. But it is particularly concerning that this kind of rhetoric has not abated even during Covid-19, when global society, one might presume, would band together and focus on controlling the spread of the virus and all its socio-economic implications.

On the contrary, Covid-19 has in some parts of the world given rise to its own version of anti-Muslim bigotry: Muslim Britons, for example, are inaccurately blamed for coronavirus outbreaks, while online, the prevalence of anti-Muslim bigotry continues.

At a time when societies need to encourage social solidarity and unity, we find that in some circles bigotry against Muslims is a sought-after political tool. As we near the US presidential elections, we can expect a spike in anti-Muslim bigotry.

The question then becomes: how should European societies adapt to these instances of discrimination?

Perhaps by encouraging precisely what Ms Pougetoux represents. She is a Muslim European, active in the mainstream and exercises her rights unapologetically.

She and others like her represent what populists on the right, but also on the left, fear: Muslim Europeans who feel no need to be invisible in order to exist in Europe.

European Muslims who seek to build social capital in the mainstream, it would appear, are precisely what the far-right is most concerned about – that European Muslims have not just become integrated in society but are integral to it.

As Ms Pougetoux said in an earlier interview: “I hope that certain mentalities will change and that something positive will emerge from this whole story. That people can say to themselves that it is possible to be a woman, a French citizen, to be a Muslim, veiled, a student and to get involved for others.”

That is a nightmare for populists, but a dream for those who truly respect pluralism.

Dr H A Hellyer is a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC