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Syrians in France face the uncertain fallout of political tensions around caricatures, Islam and migration

After the recent beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty and the ensuing cultural backlash against Islam in France, Syrians have felt increasingly unsafe in France.

11 November 2020

AMMAN — “I feel that things are changing [since the death of Samuel Paty]. As my second appointment with the asylum services in Paris is approaching, I started thinking: how will I go to Paris [for my interview]? How will I take the train alone? Will something happen to me there?” Huweida Omar said.

Omar, a 45-year-old Syrian refugee who survived the Assad regime forces’ siege of the city of Madaya in the countryside of Damascus, had reached France with her child in 2019 in search of a safe home. Yet she feels increasingly unsafe since the murder of the school teacher Samuel Paty, which exacerbated media and political tensions around Islam and immigration – threatening to impact Syrian refugees in the country. 

Political tensions following a succession of terror attacks

Paty was murdered near his school in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, a suburb of Paris, by a Chechen refugee, for showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on freedom of expression. The murder resonated strongly in the context of the Charlie Hebdo massacre trial that has been ongoing since September. In 2015, eleven journalists from the satirical magazine were killed by Al-Qaeda-affiliated shooters after publishing caricatures of the Prophet. Charlie Hebdo re-published them on September 1 to coincide with the trial’s opening, a move condemned by Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which led to rising tension between Turkey and France.

Paty’s beheading sparked outrage across France, including spurring public figures to denounce the French government’s complacency towards “radical Islam.” In response, President Emmanuel Macron made a speech reaffirming his “determination to curtail Islamists.” The government also ordered a series of police raids on “radicalized” individuals and threatened more than 200 foreigners with mass expulsion.

However, these statements and measures must be read in their broader context, according to Loujain Haj Youssef, the editor-in-chief of Paris-based Radio Rozana.

“Europe is experiencing a critical economic downturn due to the [COVID-19] pandemic, as well as its traditional struggle to integrate migrant workers and a high number of refugees. [President Macron] ‘s failure to achieve political achievements prompted him to open new fronts against radical Islam (…) It is an attempt to win important victories ahead of the next presidential elections,” Haj Youssef told Syria Direct.

A backdrop of rising Islamophobia

Since Paty’s murder, Sama al-Homsi (a pseudonym) has experienced a “fear of walking around because of [possible] racist incidents,” she told Syria Direct

Several attacks have recently targeted Muslims, including the stabbing of two veiled women and the beating of two Jordanian siblings. These are part of a more significant trend. 

According to the French Consultative National Commission for Human Rights (CNCDH), attacks against Muslims between January and September 2019, increased by 26% compared to the same period in 2018. Anti-muslim acts increased by 54% in 2019 with 91 threats, 55 attacks on property and nine attacks against persons. This report is based on figures sent to the CNCDH by the French Ministry of the Interior as part of the drafting of the annual report on the fight against racism in France. However, these numbers are largely underestimated, given that many incidents go unreported or are difficult to prove as  specifically islamophobic.

Further, in 2019, 35% of French people expressed a “negative opinion” of Islam, according to CNDH, a 6% increase from the previous year.  This prejudice fuels sentiments against Arabs of all religions, as “Arabs are first perceived as Muslims. This is not the case of Black people, despite the fact that many of them are Muslim as well,” according to the CNCDH.  

Alia, a non-Muslim Syrian refugee who arrived in France four years ago, does not face islamophobia, “but I do feel like people are more alerted than before when I speak Arabic in public places,” she told Syria Direct. So “I told my parents not to speak Arabic on the street because they live in a town that is not very friendly to migrants.”

The role of the media

Events “do not directly impact the opinion of people. It is how political, social and media elites frame these events,” the CNCDH 2019 report warned.

Social media, according to Haj Youssef, “contributed to [spread] alarming news that serves the propaganda of political parties and the rise of Islamophobic discourses.”

The same opinion was echoed by Nadia, a 57-year-old Syrian lawyer living in France since 2016. “The killing of the teacher is a hideous thing, but it should be covered in a way that does not increase people’s fear. The media, in my opinion, worsens the situation,” she told Syria Direct

Since arriving in France in 2019, Muhammad Samer (a pseudonym) has been performing Friday prayer in the mosque near his home in the city of St-Etienne in central France, Around 3,000 Muslim families live nearby, he estimated, constituting a third of the city’s population. 

Although he is happy in this community, Samer fears that the French media reaction “whenever some Muslim commit radical acts, could deprive us of our freedom and lead to [the closure of] our mosques,” he told Syria Direct. In the aftermath of the murder of Paty, “there was an influx of exaggerated reporting from French media day and night, which led us to be afraid,” Samer added. “I felt that I would be subjected to an assault as soon as I went out into the street. However, “life is as it was, with your French neighbor greeting you as he used to do previously.”

Seventy percent of Islamophobic attacks target women

Like Samer, most Syrians interviewed by Syria Direct did not personally face racism in France. In the case of Huweida Omar, however, there was one incident when “an old lady approached me in the market and said: since the arrival of veiled women in the country, France was ruined,” she recalled.

Omar’s negative experience is compounded by the fact that she wears the hijab, a visible marker of her religious identity. According to the French Collective against Islamophobia in France, 70% of victims of Islamophobic attacks are women, a majority of whom are veiled.

Under a century-year-old principle of separation between religion and politics, French civil servants are not allowed to display religious signs – including a simple headscarf. 

Over the past twenty years, this principle shifted from guaranteeing the neutrality of the state and its servants to governing individuals and their ability to wear religious signs at work, in school or in the street. Certain types of coverings (the niqab) are now forbidden in public places and headscarves are forbidden in schools. 

Omar feels worn out by negative perceptions around her hijab. “The women responsible for us [in the NGOs] tell us that the hijabis will only be able to get a job as cleaners. I am a teacher, but in France, no one will believe this due to my hijab. The first thing [people] told my friend who is a doctor was that she needs to take off the hijab to work in her sector.”

Consequences for asylum-seekers

Since the murder of Paty, France witnessed a stabbing attack by a Tunisian migrant in Nice that resulted in the death of three persons.

For Syrians in France, the political fallout of the current situation is difficult to predict. “The recent wave of events does not bode well for us,” Muhammad, a Syrian newly arrived in France, said. While he did not immediately feel affected, he fears that “if the behavior of political parties remains the same, and there are more [terrorist and racist] attacks, our lives here may be greatly affected.” 

This could take the form of more restrictive asylum policies, according to Alia, who said access to asylum has already significantly decreased since 2016. For her part, Haj Youssef foresees “a more strict policy regarding granting entry visas to France and an increase in the deportation of refugees to countries considered safe.”

This report is part of Syria Direct’s project promoting gender equality, supported by the Canadian Embassy to Jordan’s Canada Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI). It reflects minor changes made on 12/11/2020 at 1:00 pm.

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