Lifting the Veil on Islamophobia in France

Islamophobia Awareness is not a Trend

Leila M Ismail, Contributor

When I was an infant, my mom couldn’t get me an e-ticket for a flight from Oakland to Chicago; I had been put on a list.

Evidently, my five-month-old self hadn’t broken any laws or made threats that would validate concerns the airline had, nor had my family. However, there was still an issue: my name. Not my first or middle name, Leila Miranda, but my last name: Ismail. Ismail, meaning “heard by God,” is a well-known name for those who follow or have studied Abrahamic religions. Ismail is the son of Abraham and Hagar, eldest of Abraham’s children. As a result, his name has always had religious connotations. It is extremely common as a surname, being borne by approximately 2.2 million people in 2014, with higher density in Islamic regions.

Thus, the issue at hand in the airport that day was due to my name’s connection to Islam. Any connection to Islam post 9/11 has not been welcomed at a United States airport, no matter how young the offender. So my mom packed our bags for the flight without my ticket and went to the airport. When we arrived, she had to go to a desk and present me, pleading her case that I wasn’t a threat and there was no need to put me on a list. The woman there was exasperated, complaining that she had been dealing with this all week. She reassured my mom that she would handle it and take my name off of the list, but it would be easier for everyone if I didn’t have the name “Ismail” for the flight.  I didn’t go from Oakland to Chicago as Leila Miranda Ismail, but Leila Miranda Stone. That day, a vital part of my heritage and identity was stolen from me for the convenience of an airline and the comfort of those who unjustly believed that Islam equals terrorism. 

However, Islamophobic attacks are not only confined to the United States.

France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe with approximately 5.7 million people. Due to the large size of this population, the Islamaphobic attitudes French Muslims face has a deep cultural and political influence on France on a wide scale. There is no strict narrative on the anti-Muslim sentiments in France. The French government, the French Council of Muslim Faith (FCMF), and the Collective against Islamaphobia in France (CCIF) disagreed on the extent of anti-Muslim attacks between 2017 and 2018. The French Government, looking at police reports, found a decrease (121 to 100 attacks) while the FMCF and CCIF, taking personal reports found an increase (446 to 676 attacks). The data alludes to the fact that the majority of French Muslims in 2017 and 2018 did not trust their policing institutions to protect their safety in freedom of religion. The government found a 54% increase in anti-muslim attacks from 2018 to 2019 and a 53% increase from 2019 to 2020 which still were not as many attacks as the CCIF was reporting in 2017. Notably, the majority of the victims were women. 

Islamophobia in France is not only presenting itself through physical attacks on Muslim individuals, however. The French government is attacking Muslim women’s religious freedom and right to autonomy. In 2010, France implemented a ban on face coverings which made it illegal for citizens and foreign visitors to wear face-covering headgear including masks, helmets, balaclavas, niqābs, and burqas. Niqābs and burquas are garments worn by Muslim women to maintain modesty, a lifestyle their religion calls upon them and their male counterparts to uphold. Thus, these women are not allowed the right to follow one’s religion in public, and if they choose to follow their worship publicly, they can be fined up to 150 euros (174 USD). They are only allowed to wear these clothes at home, as a passenger in a car, and at their place of worship.

Those in favor of this ban argued that there were no anti-muslim intentions, rather, any face coverings impede the ability to identify a person. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, surgical masks have been authorized under that same law, without care for ease of identification. Others argue that the alleged forcing of Muslim women to wear these clothes is sexist, as they are effectively dictating what these women can wear.

The French government defended this law in 2014 to the European Courts of Human Rights by saying it was put in place to achieve “a certain idea of living together.” In 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee found that this ban disproportionately affects Muslim women, and could have the effect of “confining them to their homes, impeding their access to public services and marginalizing them.”

On February 16th of 2021, a bill passed through France’s lower chamber and is now in the hands of the conservative-led Senate. Part of the bill in question plans to ban girls younger than 18 and mothers on school trips from wearing a hijab. There are already laws in place that prevent religious imagery in schools, but this bill has large implications on daily life. It is an apparent attack that can not be hidden behind the guise of identification. 

Those of you that are reading this article most likely do not have the means or influence to change what is happening in France, to Palestinians in Jerusalem, or the Uygur Muslims in China, but you can still do something. The horrors of Islamophobia around the world are being treated like trends, taking up a news cycle for a month or two before losing traction. However, these are people’s lives. Spreading awareness about what is happening to them should not be seen as a passing trend, but a constant effort.