A French perspective on a British debate
October 22, 2015 — Comment
Written by Yasser Louati
An edited version of a speech given by the director of the Collectif Contre l’ Islamophobie en France at the joint IRR/CCIF seminar ‘Securitisation, Schools and Preventing Extremism’
For me as a teenager, the UK was the place to be. Growing up in France in the ‘90s, we Muslims saw the UK as a place of absolute freedom where your religion wouldn’t be a brake on your personal success, where you wouldn’t face as much discrimination as we were facing in France. And for me, I was definitely looking to live in the UK, for the simple reason that I come from a country where women can’t go to school, and now can’t go to work, the day they decide to wear a headscarf. When they put a piece of cloth on their head, it’s a social death sentence. Unfortunately, I am starting to see a trend here, and this is not a good sign when the Brits start following the French, really it’s not.
‘A sacred space’
The Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) is a human rights organisation based in Paris that specialises in fighting Islamophobia, primarily by assisting its victims and collecting data on cases connected to Islamophobia – be it discrimination, hate crimes or hate speech. But today I really don’t want to speak to you as a Muslim person or as the representative of a human rights organisation, I just want to speak to you as a parent. Some of you are already parents, might become parents. For me, school has always been a sacred place and I always had the idea that school should be protected from ideological battles and that our children are handed over to teachers who take over when we are away working and making a living. The teachers, the men or the women in the classroom, are actually second in charge of our children’s education. And unfortunately that ideal is being shattered. Since I joined the CCIF we are now experiencing an alarming rate of violence against children since they launched the so-called War on Terror. And in this respect I think it is crucial that for us we start connecting the dots, because what you are facing today in the UK might end up being what we are facing right now in France.
Taking up cases
As you all know, Paris was marked by violent terrorist attacks at the beginning of January. A newspaper was attacked, a Jewish supermarket was attacked, a policeman was killed. The terrorists made no distinction between the Jew, the Muslim, the Christian and the atheist. To them it was all about taking people’s lives. The very next day after the first attack, a child, maybe you heard, his name was Ahmed, he was 8 years old at the time, and his case made headlines because he was asked, during the time when everyone said ‘ Je suis Charlie’ by his teacher if he was Charlie. And he said ‘no I am not’. And then he was asked ‘why’ and then he said ‘because Charlie is an evil man because he insulted my prophets’. And then he said something like, ‘I think the terrorists were right’. But when he was asked later what a terrorist was, he said ‘I don’t know’. But that did not keep his teacher from sending him to the principal, who got very angry about the child’s behaviour. What then happened to that child is the subject of a legal challenge. The school principal denies the claim that he started banging the boy’s head against the blackboard. He blames the boy’s father for escalating the situation by coming to the school and ‘acting aggressively’. The child was also diabetic. The school principal denies the charge that he refused Ahmed access to his insulin unless he walked into every single class and apologised to every single pupil in those classes.
However, the case itself caused almost unanimous outrage among ordinary citizens. Ahmed, who was also questioned at the police station, now suffers from nightmares and bed-wetting. But the story did not move the Ministry of Education, which sided with the teachers and gave some kind of political statement that they were just following procedure. So if our schools are places for crushing the personality of our children, what are they becoming?
A week later the mother of another child named Elias, who was about 6 years old, received a phone call. The school principal was quite aggressive with her, asking if she had any ill-feeling towards the school, if she was feeling some kind of aggressive sentiment towards the establishment. And she said, ‘Why do you ask me all these questions?’ Then the school principal said, ‘Well, do you think I should report you to the local education authority?’ She later discovered that her son had been bullied and made to play the part of a terrorist during a dramatic staging by the school of the January killings.
But that case, now being dealt with by the CCIF, did not move the Ministry of Education, that a 6-year-old child was made to feel like a terrorist.
Not long after that in Poitiers, the local education authority issued a circular with specific guidelines to detect potential terrorists. I wrote down the signs to look for and here they are: shaved heads, clothes down to the ankles, the absence of tattoos, a dark mark on the forehead, unshaven beards, loss of weight, anorexia, public expression of political opinions, interest in the history of Islam. That caused an embarrassment for the Ministry of Education, but that was about it. They did not say, ‘We are pushing too far, this is too much.’
Expelled for wearing long skirts
This kept happening week after week, and actually my predecessor, Mrs Elsa Ray, I really salute her courage for dealing with all that on a daily basis. Then we had the story of Sarah which first became known not in France but in the UK after the Independent reported the story and it was subsequently taken up by the Guardian and the New York Times, who all wrote about the case of a young girl expelled from school for wearing a long skirt. But Sarah’s case was not isolated. When the case broke in the newspapers we were called up by a paper asking us if we had any similar cases of long skirts, and by the end of May we had over 130 cases of students being expelled from school for wearing a long skirt. Why? Because long skirts were identified as a religious statement. As you all know France passed a law in 2004 banning conspicuous religious signs, i.e., Muslim religious signs. And that girl Sarah made headlines and everybody spoke about her.
The first case I dealt with when I came to the CCIF as a spokesperson took place in Montpellier in the southern part of France. We had three girls, I think of Moroccan descent, and they were kept isolated from school because they were wearing long dresses and long skirts. For several weeks, they couldn’t go to class, they just went to a special room and stayed there for hours. I think one of them went through depression because she couldn’t understand what was happening.
The discrimination against the girls because of their dress code and their religion became apparent when a fourth girl joined the bunch. That girl was not of North African descent, she was of Spanish decent so she looked European but she had converted to Islam. It was only after she was seen a few blocks away from school taking off her headscarf, that the teachers and the school staff made a connection between her long skirt and the headscarf she was taking off a few blocks away. So it was okay for her to wear a long skirt as long as she could not be identified as a Muslim person.
A few weeks later Béziers, in the southern part of France, made headlines, and there we have a mayor, Robert Ménard, a former head of Reporters Without Borders subsequently elected as mayor on a Front National ticket. Ménard did a live interview on television saying, ‘I have been counting every single Muslim child in my city. And I have a personal file where I have their names and their ages.’ Again there was outrage, social media spoke about it openly, but instead of public office holders condemning it and the Justice Department doings its work, we only heard something like ‘maybe it’s about time to start having accurate statistics’.
A teacher reported by his own students
But to show how this atmosphere is not only affecting children, a high school philosophy teacher, named Jean François Chazerans, did not implement the minute of silence that all schools were expected to observe after the January attacks. Instead, seeing his students arguing and using violent language like ‘we should kill them and shake them down like dogs’, he said, ‘Let’s have a debate on the issue’. For doing this, he was reported to the school board by his own students, who said that he refused to implement the minute of silence. So what happened to him? He was sanctioned, suspended, he spent eight hours being interrogated before they decided to impose upon him a compulsory transfer to another school. Just because he preferred to engage his students in a debate rather than obeying a dogmatic order. You have to be Charlie, you have to remain silent.
Speaking of Charlie, I don’t think I would ever be heard saying the ‘Charlie Hebdo attacks’, because in January the newspaper was attacked, but a Jewish supermarket was attacked, policemen were attacked, so I would want it to be remembered that Charlie Hebdo was not the only victim of terrorists. As I said before, people make no distinction when they kill those citizens. So to me it is just the January attacks.
Ever more repercussions
Let’s continue with what is going on in our schools in France. The mere suspicion of radicalisation, based upon your dress code or your Facebook account or whether your father or husband has a beard, is enough for you to lose custody of your own children. We had a story in France of a Muslim mother who lost custody of her children, including a baby. Why? Because the husband was a devout Muslim with a beard. And he was on no watch list whatsoever. He just had a beard. And this suspicion was based on spying on people’s Facebook accounts.
I can go on, but I don’t want you to think that I am making all this up. Even yesterday, as I was travelling on the train from Paris, I received an email from the IRR with another report about a student being called into the principal’s office for so-called ‘apology of terrorism’. Let me tell you that what happened in this case is that one of the teachers went on a student’s public Facebook account and started taking screenshots of his Facebook page. Why? Because there was his name, and Arabic script. And for that teacher this was enough to arouse suspicion, this was a sign of radicalisation. And the student called his mother and then unfortunately for the teacher, and luckily for the child, his sister intervened and actually proposed to sue the teacher and to present the case to local authorities. Then the teacher kind of backed down and tried to calm things down. It didn’t work, especially as he tried to give her, instead, the details of the hot-line for government anti-radicalisation services.
So my question here is: to which society do you want to belong? A society where schools are no longer a sacred place where children are protected and teachers respected for what they do, where all children reach their potential? Or do you really want to implement the ideological agenda of the very same people who impose upon you austerity measures and deny you the right to work in decent conditions?
Secularism and securitisation
Unfortunately in France we have a dogmatic approach to laïcité and now the relationship with minorities is only looked at through the security lens. It’s no longer about social cohesion, it is not about promoting the interests of the child, it’s just about, as the New York Times said, the majority imposing its will and its view of the world upon minorities.
So let’s make a brief analysis. France is home to the largest Muslim minority in Europe, by far. At the same time France has implemented the greatest number of Muslim-specific laws: in 1994 we had the ‘ministerial circular’ giving the right for principals to expel girls wearing the headscarf; in 2004 we had the law banning the headscarf; in 2010 we had the law banning the full-face veil. Then we had the ban on Muslim mothers accompanying their children on school trips while wearing a headscarf. Then we had the ban against nannies wearing the headscarf, then we had a new law banning self-employed nannies from wearing the headscarf even if working from home. At the same time, France is the number one exporter of foreign fighters. And it has one of the biggest Muslim minorities. Isn’t there a problem? It has the greatest number of laws targeting that very same minority, at the same time it’s exporting the greatest number of foreign fighters. I am not a statistician but I do ask questions about the way we function.
Now my question to you teachers and academics and community workers and representatives is, who is willing to break the bond with children and break the trust of parents? Who is going to do that? If we cannot hold our schools sacred and protected from the ideological battles of adults, what’s going to happen tomorrow? If you want to know how much freedom you’re going to have tomorrow, just look at how much freedom minorities are losing today. Just think about it. What’s happening today to minorities will happen to everyone tomorrow. Because today minorities are vulnerable, but once a law is passed it affects everyone. Thank you for your attention.
Read Bill Bolloten’s speech ‘Education not surveillance’, here
Read the IRR’s press release: ‘Prevent duty “heavy handed and discriminatory“‘
IRR News story: Charlie Hebdo backlash – the unredacted story
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.
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