ISTANBUL, Turkey — Leaving a lucrative job in investment banking for arduous social advocacy work isn’t a common career path. But Marwan Muhammad, who did just that, is fighting an uncommon fight, even by the standards of today’s unpredictable world.
As director of the Centre Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), he says the “crisis” of French national identity, often blamed on Muslims and Islam, has been manufactured by politicians on the right and left to distract from dealing with France’s serious socio-economic problems.
Unemployment in France currently stands at ten percent, one of the highest rates amongst the 28 EU states. A quarter of students are dropping out of, or failing, high school. National debt is nearly 100 percent of the country’s GDP.
Yet for the previous 24 months, the media and politicians have focused far more attention on what Muslim women wear on beaches (when armed police aren’t forcing their removal), and what Muslim pupils should – or should not – eat in school canteens.
Muhammad spoke to TRT World during a recent trip to Turkey, where he was giving workshops on how to counter Islamophobia in Western Europe. He believes that such training will continue to be necessary, regardless of who wins the French election.
How long has Islamophobia been a problem in France?
MM: The starting point of modern Islamophobia in France goes back to the early 1980s. From that moment on there was an initial drive to construct a “Muslim problem.” There were a number of specific incidents. There were a number of strikes in car factories. Among the workers, among the unions, many people were of Muslim faith: Turks, Arabs and people of African descent.
Two particular politicians, Gaston Defferre and Pierre Mauroy, from the governing Socialist party at the time, thought it would play in their favour to frame these strikes as [being] motivated by ethnic and religious demands, rather than socio-economic requests from the workers. It was the first instance of political expression of Islamophobia, where politicians found there was a premium associated with stigmatising Muslims on that basis. Since then, it hasn’t stopped.