6th Dec 2023


Silencing Muslim voices: France's authoritarian security state

  • Muhammad Rabbani's travel ban is another example of what happens to an individual or civil rights group determined to stand up for justice in the midst of state Islamophobia (Photo: Screengrab/CAGE)
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On 24 July, the US Commission on International Religious Freedom issued an alarming policy briefing on religious freedom concerns in the European Union at large. Amongst the many countries discussed, one features most prominently: France, especially in regard to its treatment of Muslims.

The country is mentioned for restrictions on religious attire, legal treatment of so-called sects, the infamous anti-separatism law, which aims to enforce "French values," and newly-imposed provisions fining religious leaders exorbitant sums of money, threatening to close their places of worship if they provoke people to undermine French law.

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Again, flexible terminologies are used, which can be easily abused by state authorities to put pressure on unpleasant people.

Meanwhile, various intellectuals and civil rights groups have warned of the increasing anti-Muslim tendency within the French government.

The UK-based civil rights group CAGE, which was one of the few shedding light on France's systematic obstruction policy on Muslims, documented how the French government created 101 units nationwide to monitor Islam and Muslims, placing 23,996 Muslim organisations and businesses on a secret blacklist and under strict monitoring, closing 672 Muslim-owned organisations and businesses and seizing €45,572,000.

With this policy, France aligns itself with other authoritarian states, whose leaders such as Egyptian president Abdelfattah El-Sisi are awarded the highest forms of state recognition. And like Sisi's military regime, France intends to on the one hand control the religious infrastructure to make it subservient to its own policy aims, while on the other hand, it cracks down on every independent religious actor in fear of potential opposition emanating from there.

When recently, CAGE's campaign director, Muhammad Rabbani, attempted to travel to France following the fatal police shooting of the teenager Nahel Merzouk, which lead to massive protests all over the country, he was detained in Paris for almost 24 hours and sent back to London.

The government's ministry of interior declared that "given the particularly high terrorist threat, his presence on national territory would constitute a serious threat to public order and the internal security of France."

The ministry further accused Rabbani of being part of a "radical Islamist movement" and "spreading slanderous words" about "supposed 'Islamophobic persecution' and mass surveillance by western governments, including France."

In other words: the critique of France's policies is retaliated with an entry ban.

This extensive use of anti-terrorism legislation bears witness to the increasing authoritarianism that comes with the expansion of the security state. At stake here are several freedoms that the French state would normally claim to uphold and proud itself of defending: freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of travel, and freedom of assembly. But where is democracy, when these freedoms are lost?

And the problem runs deeper: in 2015, the government proclaimed a state of emergency, which allows for exceptional measures and made counterterrorism controls the new normal. These exceptional measures were integrated into the ordinary legal system in October 2017, thus concentrating enormous power in the hands of the government outside of the usual checks and balances of the criminal justice system.

Only in May this year, France's interior minister Gérald Darmanin said during a visit to the US discussing terrorism that "for Europeans and for France the primary risk is Sunni Islamist terrorism." But as the US Commission on International Religious Freedom's report said, European claims to fight terrorism and extremism clearly affect "non-violent activities or expression."

Reference to the defence of national or European values often masquerades as an unbiased way of tackling violence, while in fact discriminating against the most vulnerable groups such as Muslims in Europe.

This way, the fight against terrorism becomes a pretext under which Muslims are discriminated. Counter-terrorism measures have an outstanding impact on Muslims, as studies by the European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) have shown in the past. They target Muslims disproportionately, as the FRA states in its report.

Rabbani's travel ban is another example of what these developments mean for an individual and a civil rights group that is determined to give a voice to the voiceless and stand up for justice in the midst of state Islamophobia that so many in Europe are ignoring.

Author bio

Farid Hafez is distinguished visiting professor of international studies at Williams College, Massachusetts.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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