In France, Institutionalized Islamophobia Threatens Religious Freedom for All

By: Engy Abdelkader

A recent French court decision flouting Muslim and Jewish dietary restrictions serves as a sobering reminder that institutionalized discrimination threatens religious freedom in parts of contemporary Europe.

Earlier this year, a local French mayor announced that his district’s school cafeterias would no longer provide students non-pork alternatives despite rules against bringing packed lunches and a sizable Muslim population.

The Islamic faith prohibits consumption of pork and its by-products or derivatives. Additionally, many Muslims follow religious standards of slaughter known as halal in the preparation of meat and poultry.

Notably, non-pork lunch alternatives have been available to Muslim and Jewish students throughout France since 1984.

In response to the decree, a Muslim group brought a court action requesting injunctive relief to stop the discriminatory changes from taking effect. The court decided last week, however, that such relief was unwarranted citing procedural grounds.

The mayor’s plan is now expected to take effect this October.

Institutionalized discrimination encompasses policies, norms, and attitudes that produce disadvantageous outcomes for a particular group, including religious minorities. Consistently unjust results for and mistreatment of French Muslims frustrates equal rights as well as social, political, and economic status and opportunities.

While the French minister of education denounced last week’s decision, unjust legal outcomes are nothing new. The following cases help illustrate institutionalized anti-Muslim discrimination.

France is notorious for its official restrictions on Muslim religious dress. Currently, the government bans the headscarf (hijab) in educational institutions pursuant to its 2004 Law on Secularity and Conspicuous Religious Symbols.

While these restrictions apply exclusively to students, teachers, and school administrators, a number of institutions have barred Muslim mothers observing thehijab from serving as volunteers or chaperones on school excursions.

Confusion and consternation ensued.

In December 2013, the country’s highest court issued a ruling clarifying that while the law on secularism does not legally apply to such volunteers, school administrators could apply anti-hijab restrictions more expansively if they found the headscarf to be too “disruptive.”

Institutionalized discrimination.

It is significant to note that since 2011, a nationwide ban against the face-veil has also been in effect. A 23-year-old French Muslim woman who opted to relocate to the UK rather than remove her religious attire challenged France’s so-called “burqa ban.” 

In S.A.S. v. France, the young woman argued that she adopted the face-veil as a matter of choice, not due to family or community coercion. She also explained that she was willing to remove her religious attire for security checks as necessary. In effect, she countered two of the strongest rationales undergirding the French law.

The European Court of Human Rights (ECHR)—an international court responsible for enforcing the European Convention on Human Rights—was not persuaded, however. Last summer, the ECHR, which is based in Strasbourg, France, upheld the ban and characterized it as “necessary to a democratic society.”

Interestingly, the ECHR previously ruled in favor of official restrictions on teacher-worn headscarves (Dahlab v. Switzerland, 2001); opposed student-worn hijabs at universities to maintain order and protect the rights of others (Sahin v. Turkey, 2005); supported a ban on Sikh turbans as a legitimate means for preserving public order (Ranjit Singh v. France and Jasvir Singh v. France, 2009); declined to hear cases challenging official restrictions on the construction of minarets (Ouardiri v. Switzerland and Ligue des Musulmans de Suisse and Others v. Switzerland, 2011); and upheld a court’s refusal to accommodate the Jewish holidays on account of the public’s right to the proper administration of justice and the timely adjudication of cases (Sessa Francesco v. Italy, 2012).

Institutionalized discrimination.

To be certain, French restrictions have also had collateral consequences.

In 2008, for example, a young French Muslim woman was fired from her job at a private nursery, Baby Loup, after refusing to remove her headscarf. The private employer cited an internal policy prohibiting conspicuous religious symbols. Fatima Afif challenged the legality of her termination in court.

In March 2013, one of France’s highest courts ruled that Afif had suffered religious discrimination explaining that private employers that do not perform a public servicecannot impose general policies prohibiting religious attire. The court then sent the case back to a lower court.

The lower court picked up on the newly articulated “public service” exception and found that Baby Loup was a business with a “public service mission.” As such, the court found, it was entitled to restrict its employees’ attire. Afif attempted to challenge the finding but the higher court threw out her case last summer.

Institutionalized discrimination.

Rampant anti-Muslim sentiment in France has had adverse impact on Sikhs and Jews whose religious belief practices also require them to observe hair or head coverings and/or dietary restrictions.

Significantly, the UN Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), responsible for monitoring compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), has starkly divergent views from the jurisprudence above.

In Singh v. France, a French Sikh student whose high school expelled him after refusing to remove his “conspicuous religious symbol” alleged religious discrimination. French officials initially banned Bikramjit Singh from class because he observed a keski, a small light piece of material, commonly used as a mini-turban, covering the long uncut hair regarded as sacred in the Sikh religion.

He was later expelled.

The UNHRC found that observing a keski is a religiously motivated act, similar to practicing the hijab or kippah, and not merely a symbol. As such, prohibiting it restricts religious freedom as set forth in Article 18 of the ICCPR.

Article 18 states in relevant part, “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This right shall include freedom to have or to adopt a religion or belief of his choice, and freedom, either individually or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice and teaching.” 

The UNHRC found in Singh’s favor. French restrictions violate Article 18.

Still, institutionalized discrimination provides fertile ground for French injustices to flourish.

Engy Abdelkader is faculty at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service, where she teaches courses on international terrorism and human rights as well as civil liberties and national security.

This piece was originally authored on August 20, 2015 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown's Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.

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