Islam Became A 'Problem' In France When Muslims Became French

For decades, France did well in accommodating the religious needs of Muslims — on the condition they went back to their country of origin. Now, demands to express one's faith are often labeled: separatism.

A march against Islamphobia in Paris
A march against Islamphobia in Paris
Hicham Benaissa


PARIS — There is a new bill before the French National Assembly that calls for "reinforcing the respect of the principles of the Republic," and fight against Islamist "separatism." We already know that among the key aims of current amendments would be to restrict — in the name of secularism — the expression of religious affiliation within different sectors of social life. It may apply to those who work in public services, hospitals and universities, and could impose the principle of religious neutrality on all public sector employees.

The strategy of combining laïcité (a strict French concept of secularism) with France's principle of neutrality is not new. However, the current bill could make people think that the more religious convictions are neutralized, the better one can defend the original 1905 law establishing the separation of Church and State.

A 2004 report by center-right politician François Baroin, entitled "For a new secularism," contributed significantly to establishing the consensus on which the major political views of the future will have been based ever since. Baroin did this by specifically favoring an expansive vision of the principle of neutrality from the 1905 law. This came well before the terrorists attacks that have struck France in recent years. The consensus that has been established is as follows: Secularism would overcome a new problem due to the "new" presence in France of an Islam asserting itself in different areas of social life.

But let's ask ourselves: Is the question of religious expression practiced by a certain number of Muslims in France really "new"? No. We know, for example, that in the 1970s, companies such as Renault or Peugeot set up places of worship for Muslim workers because they saw them as a strong element of social regulation.

As for politicians, Paul Dijoud, secretary of state for immigrant workers from 1974 to 1976, said: "Companies will be invited to set up places where prayer can be practiced and timetables corresponding to the schedule of these prayers. During the Ramadan fast, companies should, as some already do, arrange working conditions compatible with the physical condition of Muslim workers. Finally, company managers must be attentive to the need for cafeterias to allow the Koranic rules involving food to be respected."

If it seems obvious that this kind of talk would cause a scandal today, the question should be: Why has that which did not seem to be a "problem" at the time become one today? In other words, what is really new about the current situation?

This lie consisted of making people believe that the presence of Muslims on French soil was temporary.

The political decisions that characterize the fate of Muslims in France throughout the 1960s and 1970s is that of the myth of return. A "collective lie," said the great Franco-Algerian sociologist Abdelmalek Sayad. This lie consisted of believing and making people believe that the presence of Muslims on French soil was temporary, that their fate could only lead them to return to take their rightful place in their homeland.

The myth of return was so strongly inscribed in the minds of the time that a whole series of political initiatives were created: the Teachings of Language and Culture of Origin (ELCO) and aid for return, with the allocation in 1977 of a stipend to do so. There was even the forced return of North African workers to their native land, as unsuccessfully envisioned by former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Here is what we must therefore keep in mind: If allocating prayer rooms or arranging working conditions was not a problem then, it was because the presence of Islam on French soil was perceived as temporary. Let's put it another way: If the religious expressions of Muslim men and women are perceived as problematic today, it is because we know that they are here to stay. Islam gradually became a "problem" as Islam became French.

At the same time, the social profiles of Muslims in France have diversified. The first generations of Muslim immigrants, who came mainly from the rural and working classes, and were largely illiterate, were assigned to the most difficult work tasks in France. Nevertheless, they formed a block of workers who were absolutely necessary for the functioning of the French industrial system. Their low-cost labor served the interests of employers and growth policies. Under these conditions, the development of the religious aspect seemed to be the least that could be done.

On a Renault assembly line in 1975 — Photo:© Berretty/Rapho/Eyedea/Musée de l'histoire de l'immigration

Now, the context is one of mass unemployment and the children of Muslim workers, born on French soil, have irreversibly distanced themselves from their original conditions, if only through school, but also, for some, through work. So much so that they have risen to positions of responsibility that were inaccessible to their parents' generations.

We have arrived at the following paradox: When the children of immigrants cross the class barrier, they emancipate themselves from the economic and social conditions assigned to their cultural and religious "origins."

Today, there is a management class within France's Muslim population, asked to remain in the symbolic place that has traditionally been reserved for it. The tool of secularism, reduced to its sole principle of neutrality, appears, in these circumstances, as a powerful legal means by which to render invisible the growing diversity of the French population, including its religious diversity.

This is an old question, but it is one that is being seriously renewed today: Can the Republic continue to think of itself as reproducing the "same," only citizens who are identical to one another?

*Hicham Benaissa is a sociologist at Le Centre national de la recherche scientifique.

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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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