“you cannot ban women or exclude them from practicing sports on the basis of their faith and the FIFA realized that and the French have to come to terms with us.”–Brother Tariq
Nabila Ramdani: Well, we have heard, as you quite rightly pointed out, Francois Hollande, during the presidential debate, saying very specifically that they will be under his presidency, if he were to be elected and that is the case now, there will be no privileges for Muslims and that frankly was a statement that shocked the Muslim population in France because they are not asking for privileges but they are asking for equal rights and for the respect of their religion.
This is while, in 2011, the Iranian team was disqualified because of wearing headscarves moments before kick-off in the 2012 Olympic qualifying match against Jordan. According to FIFA, more than 29 million women and girls around the world play the game.
Despite the recent decision, female soccer players in France will not be allowed to wear headscarves while playing in international games and domestic competitions. The French Football Federation says it is obliged to “respect the constitutional and legal principles of secularism which prevail in our country and which feature in our statutes”.
In the meantime, some French airports reportedly have begun to ask headscarf-wearing women to take off their scarves for security reasons.
Press TV has conducted an interview with Nabila Ramdani, a journalist and writer on Islamic affairs, to further shed light on the issue. What follows is an approximate transcription of the interview.
Press TV:Â Thank you so much for being with us today. We heard these differences between what the FIFA is deciding, welcoming now the fact that Muslim women participating in the Olympics, they can wear headscarves; in France, still something which seems to be an exception and still they are very, very keen on saying that this is not only in France that it should be done but everywhere. We have seen since the headscarf affairs at the European level, the French being very strong on this that this should be a European policy.
So what is happening? How do you see the causes of all these measures that are at the end against the Muslims and not only the radicals, as it is said?
Ramdani:Â Well, the International Football Federation has made it abundantly clear that it is allowing for women, sportswomen, to wear the headscarf, overturning a 2007 decision. France’s position is to resist that decision and the crux of the argument is really the protection of secular values.
Now this is a very important point because politicians in France have come to reinterpret the very meaning of the secular concept in fact in a very misleading way, meaning to the suppression of expression belief when in fact secularism is about allowing the expression of various beliefs within a tolerant and indeed a respectful society.
So with France resisting the FIFA decision, it is actually showing that he has a very staunch and indeed disingenuous interpretation of the very concept of secularism.
Press TV:Â But how do you see it? When we talk about laicite [secularism] very often when it came to the sports issue for example what we heard also in France is, Oh! It has to do with security. This was also the argument that was used by the FIFA before saying that this has to do with security.
Now they are saying there is no question of security, we can go ahead with it and France is saying, yes, there is a question of security and there is something we have to distinguish to separate between religion and sports; now it is not only between state and religion; it is between religion and sport.
Is this something which is specific for France or do you see, with this new interpretation, what you are saying is that it is a new interpretation of what the secular system should be?
Does it have to do with Islamophobia? Or is it something which is deeper in the French psyche?
Ramdani:Â I think that FIFA realized, as was said in the introductory segment to this program, 29 million women and girls play the game around the world. So it has to become more inclusive of all these women and there I say the security argument is fallacious because you can handle security checks in a manner that does not go against the concept of modesty which is involved in Islam.
So it is very important to really assert that very strongly because you cannot ban women or exclude them from practicing sports on the basis of their faith and the FIFA realized that and the French have to come to terms with us.
Press TV:Â So it could be even counterproductive to see you cannot play and in fact at the end it is discriminatory towards women just not to be able to participate and it was exactly the same situation when it came to schools, just in fact the argument was and the conclusions were exactly the opposite of what was said, excluding women or girls from attending schools when they are wearing headscarf.
Now I have a question about the very specific situation in France because you are talking about the French position; is it the French position or are we dealing with political trance? Because if we look at the last presidential election before President Hollande became the new president, the perception was in for example one of the debates that they had on the primetime TV debate just before the second round, was on one point they agreed, which was the situation about laicite and protecting the secular state from any attempt of what they call communitarianism or what is the Muslim presence and saying we are going to be very tough on these.
As if on this, it is not a question of Right or Left. So whatever the president, the policy is going to continue. Is this true? Or do you see things that could change or are changing in France since the new president is in charge?
Ramdani:Â Well, we have heard, as you quite rightly pointed out, Francois Hollande, during the presidential debate, saying very specifically that they will be under his presidency, if he were to be elected and that is the case now, there will be no privileges for Muslims and that frankly was a statement that shocked the Muslim population in France because they are not asking for privileges but they are asking for equal rights and for the respect of their religion.
The tone was set by former President Nicolas Sarkozy not only under his presidency, but when he was interior minister.
There is no doubt that Sarkozy’s policy has to be put in the context over wider ascendancy of Islamophobia in Europe and the rise of the far-rights nationalists and Sarkozy was very much a populist president and when he was interior minister, he set the tone effectively when he called young people of north African background ‘scum’, who needed to be washed away with a power hose.
And then he embarked on a series of anti-Muslim measures including the so-called Burqa ban, effectively not allowing women to cover up in the public domain and under the pretext of liberating them; he effectively put them under house arrest.
And it carried on with an onslaught on Halal meat, with the lack of mosques, hence needing to people praying on the streets.
And that set of policies implemented by Nicolas Sarkozy, including a highly divisive national identity debate, which allowed bigots in France to post comments on government websites and very strong anti-Muslim comments on government websites.
At the end of the Sarkozy’s presidency, it led to the ascendancy of the National Front, with one-fifth of the population ending up voting for Marine Le Pen who still is the leader of the National Front in France.
Press TV:Â So the populist party and the far-right party, but one thing which is important because you said Sarkozy paved the way to this situation but before him even with the Left Party, the Socialist Party; in the 80s, we had exactly the problem that started, in fact everything started in the 80s, in fact before he was in charge.
So the point is that he is following in the footsteps of a policy that was there, even before we were talking about the very strong populist presidents in other countries in Europe and as we are talking about other countries in the Netherlands, even in the UK or in Austria or in Northern European countries, like in Sweden, in Denmark today, it is still specific that we have something which is coming from France.
Some people are saying, when we deal with French Muslims, they are saying this country they are all racists and in fact they do not like Algerians because of the old colonial…, the past, they do not like Islam. So is there something specific in the French laicite? What are the causes of what you are describing right now?
Ramdani:Â Well, there is no doubt that the root causes are perhaps the wider European concepts and this attempt to root out the Muslim legacy within Europe, turning it into a Judeo-Christian club which is historically wrong of course.
But more specifically in France, and I go back to the concept of secularism, it has come to mean the suppression of religious expression and that is the fundamental problem because French politicians are hiding behind this excuse to vent the prevalent anti-Muslim sentiments.
What the difference between the 80s and Sarkozy’s era is that Sarkozy made it more brash perhaps using more inflammatory language; he was much more of a provocative president and his cabinet ministers. It was no surprise to hear them come up with racist comments frankly on the regular basis.
Press TV:Â They normalize these kinds of speeches and it was something which was clear. So now with the new president, because very often Sarkozy was the figure that was really portraying this anti-Islamic rhetoric and normalizing it in the way he was talking about these Muslims and even though sometimes he tried to distance himself from what was done by his own party.
Now if we look at what is happening in France with the new president, with the Socialist Party, where we had signals that things could change and especially because the Socialists were always talking about the fact that, ‘we are close to the suburbs and close to the people’, do you see changes? Or do you hope that something could change? Or are we going to see in different ways and terms and words that are used exactly the same policies?
Ramdani:Â Well, Francois Hollande who is a Socialist new president clearly seems reluctant to address growing Islamophobia in France and there have been early signs of him not willing to tackle what is an essential problem in France at the moment.
For example he refuses to reverse the so-called Burqa ban; he has an overwhelming majority in parliament; this is a clearly anti-constitutional measure and a highly discriminatory as well.
Press TV:Â He was supporting it, even he said, ‘I did not vote but I am supporting the fact that it should be back’.
Ramdani:Â In fact, the Socialists abstained from the vote, with many Socialists being against the Burqa ban and others effectively keeping quiet about it because of that sacrosanct concept of secularism.
But he also refuses to introduce Halal meat in canteens for example, when other faiths have access to meat sacrificed according to their own rituals.
He refuses to allow Muslim woman to swim to have women-only sessions in pools when other women have access to that kind of things.
Press TV:Â What does he mean? All these measures that he is refusing to change what was done by the previous president and his party, what does it mean? Is it exactly the same vision, exactly the same? Is this Islamophobia?
Ramdani:Â Very much, sir, we would argue so, because I think more crucially when the appointment of his interior minister is very telling, Manuel Valls is somebody who, before he became interior minister in this new cabinet, was mayor of the city of Evry which was dominantly populated by young people from Arab backgrounds or African backgrounds and he infamously banned the sale of Halal meat in local supermarkets, for example; he infamously said as well that his city needed more white people around.
So this has to do with planning policies and I think what is also very indicative of Francois Hollande’s refusal to tackle Islamophobia is the appointment of a new women’s rights minister who was born in Morocco and then grew up in France and made it through the meritocratic system in France and who set objectives for her ministry and her objectives are very clear, they are very noble and idealistic.
She, for example, wants to tackle prostitutions not just in France but on the European scale, which is a bit idealistic; but also to tackle domestic violence and one wonders if she is minister for women’s rights, surely this includes Muslim women as well who are the most discriminated against and who are frankly waiting for this new socialist government to do something about their day-to-day lives.
The Muslim vote was crucial in electing Francois Hollande; it really made a difference to getting him elected.
Press TV:Â Maybe because they were against Sarkozy.
Ramdani:Â But also they believe in Socialist ideals of …
Press TV:Â Do you think that the majority, because this is something which is an important point for the future?
My sense is talking to French Muslims and people on the ground and that they do not really trust the socialists because they have seen during the 80s policy that were not really tackling social justice, equal opportunities in schools or in the job market. So there is a mistrust towards the socialists.
So mainly Hollande won because the great majority of the people were voting against Sarkozy; this is one of the understandings of what happened.
So do you see, in the future, the French Muslims supporting the socialists? Do they have a future with him?
Ramdani:Â Well, there is no doubt that Sarkozy was an incredibly unpopular president. He was in fact the most unpopular president in the whole history of the French Republic and he stepped up his Islamophobia in an attempt to hang on to power, leading in the presidential race.
That was not enough for him to be reelected but Muslims do expect from a Socialist government to deal with the day-to-day discrimination against Muslims in particular when it comes to employment opportunities, housing opportunities; really things that affect their day-to-day lives and there is a sense that Islamophobia will actually increase with the negative social effects in the wake of economic austerity measures.
Press TV:Â So, one thing, one last question, but it is not an easy one. If you look at the history and we look at what is happening now, the reality is that there is truly a specificity with France when it comes to dealing with the old colonized people coming from Algeria and this is something which is still in the psyche and in the collective psychology and with Islam.
So when you look at whole thing, you can see years after years and then president after president, it is always the same policies; the changes are very more cosmetic than anything else.
What could be the future for the French Muslims? What could they do in fact now to change something which seems to be rooted in the French psyche?
Ramdani:Â Well, as you said, it is a very difficult question, but I think it has to come from the top. It has to come from a political will to try and appease what is the biggest Muslim community in Europe.
For example, Algeria celebrated this year its 50th anniversary of independence; one would expect the gesture from the French government to acknowledge a very savage legacy in Algeria.
On the opposite, you had exhibitions in France praising this very bloody legacy; so that it is not conducive to appease relations between not only the Muslim community in France and the politicians and the political class, but, you know, young people from North African background in general.
So that would have been a very easy gesture from politicians to make to bring about more social cohesion.
Press TV:Â That is not going to happen from the state, it is not going to happen from the top. So what could be done as a bottom-up strategy? Is there something that the citizens could do?
Ramdani:Â Well, the problem is you talk to Muslims who were born in France; they feel French through and through and the core problems is that they are being denied the French citizenship.
They are always being looked at as the alien, as the foreigner and that is a very daunting situation and it does not help to make them more inclusive.
So again, I think, the solution is political; it has to do with implementing very forcefully anti-discrimination laws.
You cannot get away with discrimination in civilized countries like the UK, for example. Why can you get away with this in an equally civilized society like France?
Politicians need to be held accountable because they are the ones who are giving the example of what should not be done when it comes to their relationship with Muslims.
Press TV:Â But the point is that by promoting these policies they are winning the election. So if they win the elections with the popular support, what could be the role of the Muslim citizens?
Ramdani:Â Well, Muslim citizens are increasingly more politicized and their vote count and so they can vote in and out people.