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France Starts Facing Up to Anti-Muslim Discrimination "Intolerance Toward Islam" Under Scrutiny

France Starts Facing Up to Anti-Muslim Discrimination

by Sylvia Zappi

One ought to speak of phenomena typical of "intolerance towards Islam", instead of Islamophobia. But the string of violent events, such as hostile reactions to the debate on Islam’s place in French society, is very real indeed. Such are the conclusions of a study drawn by the Commission national consultative des droits de l’homme (CNCDH), which should be published in its March 2004 Annual Report. Le Monde has acquired a copy of the report.

According to France’s CNCDH, for several months now acts of violence have been aimed at Muslim religious symbols, while "hate books" and certain mass media have targeted Islam. The CNCDH, an organization providing policy analysis to the Prime Minister, is made up of representatives from public administration and different associations [French NGOs according to the 1901 law]. Faced with recent racist acts, it has sought to determine whether a specific type of discrimination is now affecting Muslims in France.

The study was drafted by Sarah Benichou, former vice-president of SOS-Racisme [an anti-racist association founded in 1984]. Its results were harshly debated during a CNCDH assembly on Friday, November 21. Some associations, like the Mouvement contre le racisme et pour l’amitie entre les peuples (MRAP– Movement against Racism and for Friendship among Peoples), or the Ligue des droits de l’homme (Human Rights League) were critical of the first version. In their view, it tended to deny the phenomenon of "Islamophobia" and explained it through the international context that blames Islam itself for this stigmatization. Strongly amended but eventually validated, the study’s final version recommends using the term "Islamophobia" with "utmost precaution". Among the other reasons evoked, there is an insistence on preventing any amalgam between the terms "Arab" and "Muslim" when the current expression of intolerance in France is most often confused with an anti-Maghrebin racism.

For the first time, the CNCDH has nonetheless highlighted the specifics of anti-Muslim racial discrimination. The authors have sought to define this emerging phenomenon. What the latter points to is "unreasoned fear and total rejection of Islam as a religion, way of life, community project as well as culture." This hostility, fed by international events like the Algerian civil war, the GIA (Groupe Islamiste Armé) terrorist actions in France in 1995, the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and 9/11, has been "reinforced with the mixed-up use of terms such as Muslim, Islamic, fundamentalist, Islamist and terrorist," the study asserts. These amalgams wield disgrace on anyone who is a rigorist practitioner of Islam by suspecting them of practicing political Islamism.

"GOING INTO ACTION"

The report goes on to portray the acts of violence that have been committed against Islam. According to the authors, they are hard to number since the Ministry of the Interior has never made such discrimination a specific category. Nor are the facts related to discrimination listed by any community organizations, as is done regularly with anti-Semitic acts. However, the study does cite certain "actions", such as anti-Muslim tracts distributed by the far-right, attempted torching of places of worship, verbal or physical violence aimed at public figures linked to Islam, anti-Muslim graffiti and, last but not least, statements made by some celebrities in public.

While awaiting the 2003 statistics, the study lists several examples of serious violence committed in 2002: Molotov cocktails thrown at the mosques of Mericourt (in the Pas-de-Calais region) and Chalons (in the Marne region), on April 25 and 27, and on March 24 against the Ecaudin mosque (in the Rhone region) ; a letter bomb was sent to an association seated at the Perpignan mosque (in the Pyrenees-Orientales), on April 9; an Islamic religious sculpture was profaned in Lyon, on April 24; attempted torching of a place of worship in Rillieux-la-Pape (Rhone), on December 27; anonymous tracts distributed during the presidential campaign [held in April 2002 which had set far-right racist candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen against incumbent president Chirac]. As for 2003, three facts can be pointed to: profaned tombs in the Haut-Rhin region in July, torching of a place of worship at Nancy, and profanation of an Islamic square in the Meuse region in March. These are only examples that, in the CNCDH’s view, "fall well under the real number [of racist acts committed against Islam]", especially as far as verbal insults and lighter forms of violence is concerned.

The report brings attention to how certain French Internet sites broadcast explicitly racist propaganda toward Islam. It also highlights speeches made by elected officials, foremost of which is the mayor of Nice, Jacques Peyrat, for whom "mosques cannot be conceived of as existing within a secular Republic", and notes the publicly manifested reticence every time a mosque is built in France. The CNCDH has denounced the "media-inspired amalgams" that explain Islamist terrorism by "singling out Islam as its sole ideological cause". Sensationalist images, headlines and commentary, "demagogic and paranoiac in tone", feed "conspiracy fantasies" and have multiplied over the last few months in the media. The study makes special mention of statements made by Claude Imbert, a columnist from the weekly Le Point, who recently declared himself an "Islamophobe" (see Le Monde, November 5).
Ultimately, the CNCDH considers such hostility toward Islam as "little acknowledged and feebly fought against". It recommends up-grading the course content taught in religion classes at both elementary and high schools, and "is favorable to having places of worship be made more visible". Most of all, the CNCDH stresses the importance of "waging a strong public policy battle against all types of racial discrimination."

Article by Sylvia Zappi, Le Monde, November 25, 2003

Translated for CounterPunch by Norman Madarasz (nmphdiol2@yahoo.ca)