French media and politicians are lining up to attack Maryam Pougetoux, president of the student union at the Sorbonne in Paris after she appeared in a documentary about student protests. Maryam is Muslim, and wears the headscarf. It is a dark tale and one that truly highlights the extent of Islamophobia across the Channel.
Jim Wolfreys’ new book, Republic of Islamophobia, subtitled the rise of respectable racism in France, goes beyond listing Islamophobic events and gets to the roots of anti-Muslim racism in the country. It explains why Islamophobia in France differs from its manifestation in countries across the world, why nasty groups such as the Front National can win millions of votes and how the right’s positions and the high level of racism have shaped the country.
Wolfreys underlines the role of the French government in normalising racism He points out how the imposition of neoliberalism in French society fell behind other leading, first-world countries, so the government merged neoliberal ideology with conservative and right wing views, resulting in racism becoming a respectable ideology, especially that of Islamophobia.
This mainstreaming of racism reached greater heights after the 2008 financial crisis. Wolfreys uses statistics and examples to clearly show the correlation between the rise of inequality and decrease in living standards on one hand, and the rise of Islamophobia on the other. This was window-dressed as a defence of the republic, secularism (laicite), a fight for women’s liberation and against communitarians, and a campaign against “the enemy within”.
What the book is great at explaining is how all these different narratives are interwoven. It brings to the forefront the complexity of France’s racism. Sometimes it feels a bit repetitive and overloaded with data, and sometimes fails to simplify concepts, notably neoliberalism.
Nevertheless, this can benefit the flow of the book, its ability to deepen, link and develop the reality of France’s Islamophobia. Clear examples of this are Wolfreys’ explanation of France’s colonial past and the reality it represents today, the questions of what it means to be French, and the national values of France.
A predominant question throughout the book is secularism, which is explored at great lengths. Importantly, the book clarifies the original definition — for the state to have a neutral separation from the church, with individuals given religious freedom. This contrasts to the new definitions, where the individual has to be neutral in public and state-funded institutions.
This has greatly benefited far-right and racist parties while diminishing the role of a left which has been weak in fighting back against Islamophobia. As perfectly put in the book, it has failed to grasp the significance of the black, Arabic and Muslim population as a crucial part of a newly emerging working class.
The book ends on a hopeful note, looking toward a slowly growing movement, led by individuals who face and understand the harsh nature of racism in France and its link with inequality.