When 11 journalists from the controversial French magazine Charlie Hebdo were shot dead in January this year, for cartoons that blasphemed the Prophet Muhammed, it rocked the world. At the time, I commented that it was watershed moment, much like the 9/11 attacks. The rise in Islamaphobia that we’ve seen since 9/11 has intensified, with different groups feeling a ripple effect.
In a documentary to air tonight on BBC 3 “A Nation Divided? The Charlie Hebdo Aftermath”, journalist and comedian Shaista Aziz travels to France to explore what life has been like there for Muslims since the attacks earlier this year.
Shaista spoke exclusively to me about her experience.
“I wanted to explore what was really behind the Je Suis Charlie hashtag. At first when people aligned themselves to this, it was very much in favour of free speech. But it became a tag that really divided people. In making this film, I wanted to deconstruct what that was about, and what life has been like since the attacks”
What she found, in some cases, was startling.
“Some French Muslims have felt like they have been rejected by mainstream France. They say they have been forced, in some cases, to disown the French part of their identity. They are Muslims- but not French Muslims. The concept of “country of origin” has become a real issue. Second generation immigrants are not considered French so instead they identify with the faith or the heritage of their parents- because some sections of France won’t accept them.”
“In a country where secularism is the cornerstone, and is there to protect minorities, we’re actually seeing the rise of religious discrimination; with many being pushed away from mainstream society. One young man said he ‘felt locked out’ of France ‘with the key thrown away’.”
“One woman I spoke to, (who doesn’t wear the hijab), says she is unable to find a job because of her Arab name despite being highly educated and well qualified. She changed her name on her CV to a French one and the job interviews started pouring in.”
“Sadly, women face the brunt of discrimination. Because France believes religion should not be visible in public life, the hijab is banned from government offices, public buildings and schools. Therefore women who do wear the hijab elsewhere- particularly in the poorer, more racially diverse suburbs suffer discrimination because they wear a visible religious symbol in a secular state. For example, one girl I spoke to has been excluded from school for four years now because she refuses to give up her headscarf- she is missing out on an education.”
“Ultimately, there are two key issues at work in this debate: identity and race. Identity has become a hotly contested issue in French society, with issues around race- and secularism underpinning it.”
I asked Shaista how the events in Paris back in January might have impacted British Asians.
“There are different factors at work in the UK which that mean life is different for us here. British Muslims in the UK are better integrated into society, compared to those I met in France. Secularism has caused deep issues in France that we are not seeing here- France certainly has some fault lines that need mending. However the general narrative around Islamaphobia and the negativity around Muslims is seeping into the consciousness here. People are sick of hearing about Muslims in the news constantly- I know I am!
As a result, we are starting to see more visible inter-racism amongst Asians. Of course this will have an impact on the British Asian community, going forward.”