France’s Iconic “Moderate Muslim” Becomes Target of Islamophobe Aggression

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In the decade since 9/11 forced the world to update its views of Islam and look for ways to dissuade its practitioners from drifting towards extremism, Western societies have placed a high premium on the moderate Muslim: those modern, sensible examples of how Islam can be practiced and honored harmoniously within predominately non-Muslim communities. French writer and anthropologist Dounia Bouzar has been iconic of that “moderate Muslim”, authoring books and articles on how mutually acceptable compromise can be found when Islam and Western societies do clash. Now, however, that effort has landed Bouzar in the uncomfortable position that moderates of various kinds have found themselves in over the ages, when their centrist positions made them targets for extremists to either side.

This week Bouzar discovered a car and motorcycle she owns had been vandalized by suspected militants of extreme-right groups who presumably resent her efforts to make Islam an integrated, uncontroversial part of France’s social landscape. In addition to considerable damage done to both vehicles, the perpetrators gouged Crosses of Lorraine into the metal—symbols traditionally used by French neo-Nazi groups. They also affixed stickers with a red “No” symbol over minarets, and left a tract titled “Resistance”, containing the threat “The time will come when Islamo-collaborators must account for themselves”. That aggression from probable extreme-rightist activists follows denunciations and warnings Bouzar has received over the years from hard-line Islamists, who resent her calls for French Muslims to practice their faith in a manner respectful of women’s rights, other religions, and French society’s secular principles in the public domain.

Bouzar’s humanist brand of Islam–yet one that remains faithful to of the religion’s true tenants and strictures–earned her a place on Time’s 2005 Heroes list. Her work since then includes books on how to resolve conflicts involving Muslims, like her 2009 sociological study Is There Room For Allah In The Workplace?,  offering employers ideas on how, why,  when, and when not to compromise with employees on observance issues. Yet despite her efforts to find common ground between Muslims and wider French society—and her feminist defense of women within Islam–Bouzar is no kuffar-appeasing Uncle Tom. For example, despite being an outspoken foe of the burqa as a male-imposed means of dehumanizing and enslaving women, Bouzar just as ferociously opposed the law France passed last year banning the garment. She argued individual rights—including what one decides to wear or not—outweighs the law’s stated goal of seeking to protect the honor of women why might wear the burqa it weren’t banned.

Just as significantly, Bouzar has said legitimate French hostility to what the burqa represents has been blown far out of proportion to the number of women in France who wear it: no more than 2,000—in a nation of 64 million people—based on the government’s highest, probably inflated estimate. And that, she argues, has been part of a growing and increasingly uninhibited Islamophobia being voiced by politicians and pundits in France’s ongoing discussion about the country’s Muslims. That Islam-wary note grew even louder during the controversial “debate on national identity” the government staged last year—a culturally defensive stunt that ultimately benefited the extreme-right National Front party by appearing to vindicate some of its long-held themes.  Despite that, President Nicolas Sarkozy and fellow rightists are now going back to that some well in a more pointed manner by calling for a national debate on Islam in France.

Did that new initiative give Islamophobes a green light to attack moderates like Bouzar? Doubtful. But the increasing ease with which mainstream politicians and commentators now point a guilty finger at Islam on virtually any topic has created an unhealthy environment in which hard-core secularists on the extreme left have joined forces with Arab-hating neo-Nazi groups in a mutual effort to erase Islam’s visibility—or even presence—in France. The fusing of such dark forces should have Sarkozy and other French leaders rushing to embrace moderate Muslims like Bouzar to find a common way forward for France and Islam—not talking down to them in a manner that leaves them looking like even better targets for extremists.