After another tragedy, France should be combating terrorism, not criminalizing Muslims

People outside the Basilica of Notre-Dame de L’Assomption in Nice, France, pay their respects on Friday to those killed during a knife attack at the church a day earlier. (Daniel Cole/AP)
People outside the Basilica of Notre-Dame de L’Assomption in Nice, France, pay their respects on Friday to those killed during a knife attack at the church a day earlier. (Daniel Cole/AP)

Once more, France has been struck by tragedy. A knife attack on Thursday at a church in Nice — by a man who later reportedly shouted “Allahu akbar” at police — killed at least three people. Less than two weeks earlier, the horrific murder of a teacher had spread rage and emotion across the country. The alleged killer, a Muslim teenager who was offended by the cartoons of the prophet Muhammad that Samuel Paty shared in his classroom, beheaded the teacher near a school in a Paris suburb on Oct. 16.

It is the responsibility of any government to address such atrocities and the context that allowed them to happen. But what has happened in France since Paty’s murder is different. Instead of working to bring the population together, the government has chosen to adopt reactionary language and direct its rhetoric toward criminalizing and stigmatizing France’s Muslim population.

A couple of days after the killing, Gérald Darmanin, the interior minister, proclaimed “a war against the enemies from within”. He then launched a series of police operations and raids against Muslim organizations and individuals who, in his words, “were not linked with the investigation but to whom we are clearly willing to send a message”. Darmanin also announced his intention to immediately disband several anti-Islamophobia organizations, labeling one of them an “enemy of the republic”. The minister then went further, saying he was “shocked” to see halal and kosher sections in supermarkets, because he apparently finds them divisive.

Setting a climate of suspicion in a moment of major tension is irresponsible. Using the national emotion to target political opponents is even worse.

Yet that is what happened to “Observatoire de la Laïcité” (Secularism Observatory) rapporteur Nicolas Cadène, who learned he might be removed from the position from the media. After repeatedly opposing Islamophobic policies, the observatory has been criticized by those who have repeatedly tried to single out Islam and Muslims. The office of Prime Minister Jean Castex seized the opportunity to declare that the institution “should evolve so that it can be possible in France to defend [secularism] without being branded as Islamophobic”. There is now momentum for the government to disqualify all those who are accused of being too soft or complacent.

This has also become prevalent in academic settings. The education minister, Jean-Michel Blanquer, has opposed what he termed “intellectual complicities with terrorism”. He said that so-called “Islamo-leftism . . . wreaks havoc in university” and in organizations such as UNEF, a prominent students’ union whose vice president is a Muslim woman. The union promptly responded in a statement that it was regrettable a person who was supposed to lead “the institution of knowledge” had “sunk into ignorance and hatred”.

And the response is not just limited to the French government. I myself was violently targeted by an odious accusation from by a well-known philosopher during a television debate. He identified me as a “Black Muslim woman” and shockingly accused me of bearing responsibility for the terror attack against Charlie Hebdo, which caused national trauma in 2015. He said I “armed the hands of the killers” because I co-signed an open letter criticizing the magazine’s editorial decisions years before the killing.

This rhetoric has accelerated after the Nice attack. Former prime minister Manuel Valls, who has often expressed his support for French President Emmanuel Macron, stated in an interview that we were “at war against political Islam”. Christian Estrosi, the mayor of Nice and a well-known figure of the right, said it was “time now for France to exonerate itself from the laws of peace in order to definitively wipe out Islamo-fascism from our territory”.

Valérie Pécresse, another right-wing leader, said that “our Muslim fellow citizens should raise alongside with us their voices to state loudly that this is not in their name”. The “us vs. them” language was disturbing enough, but adding that Muslims should demonstrate they have nothing to do with the terrorist is extremely problematic. Dozens of Muslims have been killed in other attacks in France, so it is up to the whole nation to fight back. Now, more than ever, we need to stand together.

The goal of terrorists is to break our society, and the government is offering them a perfect opportunity to make their point. Nothing good will come from a country in which one of the largest minority groups faces constant suspicion. Resentment is the breeding ground of violence.

By focusing on these public displays, the government has not put enough work into the adoption of a broader long-term strategy to oppose extremism. Their words make headlines, but combating terrorism requires time and information. This does not draw immediate attention and votes — but make the difference in the long run.

When he was a presidential candidate, Macron said, “the illness is to revive those debates (about Islam) ever since there is an attack; we should denounce that”. Now, as he is likely weighing the impact on his reelection chances, his position is calibrated to appeal to far-right voters. Yet his words after Paty’s murder — “this is our battle, and it is existential” — could have been the signal for a push in a totally different and more inclusive direction.

Rokhaya Diallo is a French journalist, writer and filmmaker.

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