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Opinion: An Education in Fearmongering | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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French Education minister Najat Vallaud-Belkacem leaves the Elysee Palace in Paris on September 3, 2014, after a weekly cabinet meeting. (AFP PHOTO/ ALAIN JOCARD)

The French far-right magazine Minute recently decided to run a cover story decrying the “provocative” appointment of Najat Vallaud-Belkacem—a “Moroccan Muslim,” as the headline of the story ran—as the French minister of education. The editors of the magazine knew very well that this, and the other detestable racist attacks on the newly appointed minister, would position both French law and mainstream opinion—both in the media and in the corridors of power—squarely against the publication (and this is indeed what happened).

This young French minister of Moroccan origin possesses impressive achievements and a resume that have helped her become not only the youngest holder of her current post, but also the first woman to be appointed to the position. Vallaud-Belkacem has also responded to the attacks against her with equanimity and poise—and definite, decisive answers. All this makes supporting her an obvious choice. But it has not deterred members of France’s far right from continuing their racist campaign against her.

The use of scaremongering and hateful language such as “the Moroccan Muslim minister of education” are nothing new for the French far right, which previously used derogatory and racist language to describe one of the country’s black ministers. Strangely, though, at the same time right-wingers are attacking the appointment of a Muslim immigrant to a high official position, others in France have recently been celebrating another Muslim immigrant, though perhaps by overlooking his Algerian origins. Soccer player Karim Benzema was feted after his stellar performance for the French national team at the World Cup in Brazil over the summer. This is a player who, prior to becoming a global star, said in a media interview that he believed people in France saw him “as a Frenchman when I score goals and as an Algerian when I fail.”

So we have a situation where, in the same society, a minister gets attacked for her Moroccan origins while a soccer player is celebrated in spite of his Algerian ones. This ambivalence is not new to France, where the question of the integration of immigrants is a real one, lived out daily by many people, whether immigrants or not.

There is no doubt that the question of racism in France, and in Europe as a whole, is in the end an embodiment of a deep political dispute in which the far right uses all the weapons in its arsenal from hate slogans to scaremongering and alarmist fear of the “other.”

But this issue cannot just be viewed through a racial and ethnic lens; problems which shake any society as strongly as this one does always reveal hidden aspects of that society, including feelings of racism by some citizens toward others, which reflect fear on the one hand, and a shrewd political tactic on the other.

It is true that in Western culture—and, generally speaking, modernity—racism is seen as blameworthy and shameful. But this hardly means the phenomenon is in retreat. The great chasm between legislation and the reality on the ground in these matters is not only a French problem, it is one currently gripping the whole of Europe and the West, especially in light of the rise of the most recent militant Islamist bogeyman, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). People from Western countries have, after all, joined this group, a matter which makes the issue of ISIS an internal European one and makes Muslims living on the continent a source of great concern, even enmity. This is exactly what Minute was attempting to capitalize on when it attacked Vallaud-Belkacem. The magazine’s choice to highlight the ethnic origin of a minister who was previously minister of women’s rights and is currently a member of the French Socialist Party means it is not just trying to find problems with Vallaud-Belkacem’s political record, it is also attempting to play on the terrifying image ISIS presents to the West of Muslim people and Islam—and even of immigrants.

Using ISIS to paint a negative picture of Muslims is the province of Europe’s far right today. Our responsibility, then, is to remove the link between ISIS and our own image, and to say to that European man who said, “I don’t like immigrants, except when they score goals”: Stop doing ISIS’s dirty work.