A historical perspective

Secularism, ‘white backlash’ and Islamophobia in France

Authored by: Olivier Esteves

The Routledge International Handbook of Islamophobia

Print publication date:  February  2019
Online publication date:  February  2019

Print ISBN: 9780815353751
eBook ISBN: 9781351135559
Adobe ISBN:


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The aim in this chapter is to provide of analysis of how French laïcité (which many French like to believe does not translate into English) started to be redefined in the late 1980s at a time when, in France and abroad, public opinions grew restive with Islam and their Muslim populations (i.e. Satanic Verses, first headscarf scandal in France, etc.). From neutrality of the State and freedom of religion, laicité got to be more and more construed as secularisation (i.e. the general notion that religion ought not to be ‘too visible’ in public space) and as freedom from religion, which some French associate with ‘laïcité de combat’ in history, i.e. when, in the early 20th century the French government and society emancipated themselves from Catholic Church’s historic stranglehold. This vast and worrying misunderstanding means that for Muslims, to reach equality of treatment under laïcité is often apprehended, by many non-Muslims, as a form of preferential treatment, which allows drawing parallels between Islamophobic feelings and White Backlash feelings in other countries. In this respect, the evolution of the 1980s is key to understand the turning point that allowed this misunderstanding to set in. Some work by Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad provides very useful insight into this issue (despite the fact that he only debated laïcité in a few pages). Also, archival research at Roubaix’s national labour archives will prove key to understand how feelings evolved towards certain claims made by Muslims in the labour market (i. e. prayer rooms on the work premises, etc.). Lastly, some excerpts from fieldwork with Muslim social workers, imams or local figures on how they apprehend this misunderstanding will be examined.

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