A recurring theme throughout Arab literature is exile. Being far from home, far from one’s family, one’s land, or one’s country. In the 60s, my family left our homeland, Tunisia, in order to find a better life beyond the sea, in France. Like us, millions of Arabs had left their nations before. But there’s a key difference for those who went to France, and those who went elsewhere.
Effectively, unlike Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian countries (where many Arabs have also resided), France does not aim to be a multicultural country; France is built on universalism. Universalism is the idea that what is true to me is necessarily true for someone else.
This ideology has influenced French political discourse in a way one can’t find elsewhere in modern times. What is not like us, is wrong. Of course, the accusation of racism is still considered as something highly negative. Therefore, the public discourse that was yesterday castigating Arabs nowadays condemns Islam.
In France, hijab is a very taboo subject more than anywhere else. An example of this is how Decathlon, France’s leading sports clothing retail store, has been forced to cancel its release of a sports-friendly hijab.
More recently, a young mother has been publicly attacked by an MP, she was accompanying her son’s school trip to the regional parliament when representative Julien Odoul asked the assembly’s president to force her out (as her presence was an assault on laicité and proof of the country’s ‘Islamisation’).
This polarised society has led the French-Arab community down a path to schizophrenia, forcing each and every one of us to take a side. On the one hand, acculturation is demanded from us, forgetting our family history, our language, our traditions. But in order to integrate, we need not only to prove that we are French enough, but that we are also more French than the French.
On the other hand, the first question someone asks from us is always “what are your origins?”, and we are therefore always sent back to our “community” in word if not in deed (this happens in a country that considers communitarianism to be an attack on the Republic).
Out of the 11 children my grandmother has had, only two have accessed high-responsibility jobs. One of them lives in Paris, she works in finance and has integrated in the way society demands. She does not speak Arabic and even lectures me for doing so on the phone in the street. She has not gone to Tunisia since the 90s and quite literally loathes anything that sounds like a tie to the Arab world.
She was highly displeased when she learned that I pursued Middle Eastern Studies, even more so when I took the decision to move to Tunisia for a year in order to study literary Arabic. She considers it a fact that having served as a parliamentary assistant at the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People will work as a ‘marker’ against me.
The other grandchild moved to the United Kingdom after her studies and has a career in education. She goes back to Tunisia frequently and is considering studying Arabic in order to improve her knowledge of her origins.
Connection with the outside world is key in realising how deep institutionalised racism is in France truly is. I have myself, once upon a time, been in my aunt’s position of fighting hard to be accepted but, at the end of the day, finding I’m only one more Arab.
Learning English was a turning point in my life, making me realise that I should not have had to renounce my identity to be accepted by the country that I live in. It was new, not having to feel that my identity – which is the most intimate thing to my being – should be a subject of public debate.
In essence, we find elsewhere that racist ideas are simply labelled as racist: in France, it’s merely polemical. Eric Zemmour is one of France’s most famous polemists (because, yes, in France it’s considered a totally normal career path), who suffered (or maybe enjoyed?) several trials for racism, Islamophobia, and even defamation.
He has, for example, called to ban foreign names and to give a choice to Muslims between Islam and France (as he considers jihadists “good Muslims”). Effectively, in recent years a phenomenon has arisen in the public discourse, whereby “Arab” is heard more and more rarely and has found its de facto replacement in the term “Muslim”. Perhaps this is an attempt to distance prejudice against migrant communities from accusations of racism.
In France, where laicité is one of the founding principles of the state, sweeping statements about Islam is not seen as a form of prejudice but really as a matter of opinion, as it is only a religion (representing the vast majority of France’s Arab community).
A few years ago, during a televised debate on national French television, one of the speakers explained that the French opposed hijab as it would be used by Arab men to tell the French “don’t touch my girl”. The French position would therefore be different to the English or the American one, as English and American racists in his analogy do not marry outside of their communities (he cited Pakistanis in the UK).
Meanwhile, the French (who are not racist in his eye) want to marry these veiled girls, but according to his analysis, every veiled woman is forced to wear the hijab by a male relative. Moreover, the analogy rests on the description of Arabs as violent, controlling and racist towards a French man who just wants to love freely.
This narrative is today the predominant one in France: women are either forced to wear a veil by sexist Arab men, or are themselves agents of the Muslim Brotherhood (today used as a way to describe any Islamist ideology, with every movement asking for protection against discrimination on racial or religious grounds being described as “Islamist”).
But the use of the religion as a way to divide Arabs (only in Muslim-majority regions: the same policy was, for example, not used in Lebanon) from the rest of citizenry didn’t start today. During the colonial era, French authorities decided that Muslim inhabitants of Algeria should be allowed to vote only once they unveiled “their women” and renounced the Muslim personal code (religious rulings on marriage, inheritance, etc.) in favour of the general one.
In such uncertain times, it should be understood that every idea has a right to be discussed and respected as long as the framework for this discussion is not firmly rooted in another person’s dehumanisation.