A burning mosque is an obvious starting point for an assessment of Islamophobia in post-Charlie Hebdo France. Muslims in Auch, close to Toulouse, saw theirs all but destroyed by arsonists at the end of August. François Hollande condemned the hate crime — one of many in the country since January’s terrorist atrocities in Paris — insisting all “should be able to practise their religion freely and safely”.
Since the attacks, the pattern for spreading hate has become a familiar one: every type of media is nowadays awash with attempts to link terrorism with all of the 6 million plus French citizens who are Muslims. These intensify when the government issues wily pronouncements about this sprawling “enemy within”. Demonic acts of “revenge” flow straight out of the invective. Little is made of the fact that overwhelmingly peaceful followers of Islam are as scornful of barbaric organisations like ISIL and Al Qaeda as they are of any form of violence.
All three Charlie Hebdo killers were experienced criminals who had been placed under observation by the security services. As is the case with all of the recent terrorist acts in Europe, agents had dropped their guard before the Paris ones started. That known law-breakers are likely to commit more crimes is a given, but this is no excuse for rabble-rousers to exploit the handiwork of a handful of psychopaths for propaganda reasons.
Such constant deceit ensures that all Muslims are considered legitimate targets. This warped notion has seen Islamophobic incidents in France increase by 23.5 per cent in the first six months of 2015 compared with the same period last year, according to a report by the Collective against Islamophobia. Physical assaults against Muslims have also gone up by 500 per cent and verbal abuse by 100 per cent during the first half of this year. In the first two weeks alone after the Charlie Hebdo shootings, France’s interior ministry recorded more than 100 anti-Islam offences. These started just a few hours after the killings, with grenade, gun and arson attacks on mosques across the country. Since January, the government has registered more than 50 similar acts of vandalism against Muslim places of worship.
Swastikas and “Death to Arabs” were also daubed on walls splashed with pigs’ blood, while imams received death threats. The now fire-gutted Auch mosque was one of many that received strips of bacon through the post. Stickers have been placed on cuts of halal meat in supermarkets reading “France for the French” and “Faced with the invasion, and regaining strength”. These concerted campaigns to scare Muslim communities with offensive literature often mushroom into physical attacks. There has been a surge of them against women wearing a simple headscarf. Muslim schoolchildren have been plucked out of class and blamed for “siding with the terrorists”.
In mid-January, Mohamed El Makouli, a Muslim from Beaucet, was stabbed to death in front of his terrified wife by a neighbour shrieking: “I am your god, I am your Islam”.
Despite being the victims of such barbarity, ordinary Muslims are cynically slotted into the state security agenda at every opportunity. When a government agent used the media to issue an evidence-free warning about a possible “9/11-style attack” in France, and the resulting “civil unrest”, he made sure to add: “There are a lot of alienated and angry fourth-generation immigrant kids in the suburbs and the prospect of radicalisation is increasingly likely.”
According to this Orwellian thinking, all Muslims from neglected housing estates, where they experience discrimination in almost every aspect of their lives, are potential terrorists. Such a view has been accompanied by vastly expanded surveillance and routine infringements of basic civil rights.
Stigmatising statistics are pumped out constantly too: latterly, these have included estimates about the number of people the French government “believes” want to fight with ISIL in Syria or Iraq. Even the sensationalist guesswork throws up relatively small numbers, but this has not stopped the incriminating headlines in the media or hateful posts online.
So it is that anti-Muslim prejudice has become chillingly commonplace. Beyond the Armageddon-style scare stories, Muslims are regularly portrayed as violent undesirables. In July, details of a fight between rival girl gangs in a park in Reims, eastern France, were manipulated into a fantasy about a 21-year-old woman reportedly being punished by “Muslim police” for showing too much flesh in public.
Irresponsible journalists wrote about the alleged aggressors coming from “housing estates with large Muslim populations”. Substitute the word “Muslims” with “Jews”, or any other religion, in such damning language and there would be criminal complaints. Esther Benbassa, the Europe-Ecology party senator, compared the vilification to the kind of sentiments whipped up by the Nazis in the 1930s. “We’ve got to stop leaping on every incident,” she said.
Allies of former president Nicolas Sarkozy, now in charge of the opposition Republican party and a master in stigmatisation, now speak openly about a “Fifth Column” of Muslim misfits.
Charlie Hebdo itself continues to stir up the vitriol too. Those of us who objected to obtuse “jokes” about Aylan Kurdi, the drowned three-year-old Syrian refugee, appearing in its latest edition were told we were too stupid and uptight to “get” the satire. “Muslim children sink” was one of the punch lines. It was meant to appeal to clever secularists, according to the experts in the magazine’s humour, but vicious racists (and there are many in France) found the crass references to a dead Arab child just as funny.
The “Je Suis Charlie” consensus was allegedly about tolerance and respect: a chance for all French citizens to adhere to the most idealistic of French values. Instead, its emphasis on a corrupted version of “free speech” has seen it used to divide communities. It is a thoroughly immoral game and — as the sharp rise in the physical violence against Muslims and the destruction of their places of worship make abundantly clear – a hugely dangerous one too.
Nabila Ramdani is a French-Algerian journalist and broadcaster who specialises in Islamic affairs and the Arab world
On Twitter: @NabilaRamdani