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French battle against Islamist ‘separatism’ is at odds with commitment to liberty

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The writer is a professor at European University Institute

At the beginning of October, before the terrorist murders of a school teacher outside Paris and three people in a church in the southern city of Nice, French president Emmanuel Macron launched a crackdown on Islamist “separatism” in France. He announced plans for strict controls on religious and cultural associations, and a ban on home schooling except for health reasons.

The French government will present a draft law designed to “reinforce laïcité”, France’s distinctive version of secularism, and “consolidate republican principles”, in early December. The proposals are based on two assumptions.

First, that jihadist terrorism is fuelled by the spread of Islamism or “Salafism” in France’s poor suburbs. And second that the way to combat it is to promote, or even impose, the “values of the republic”. 

The first assumption is particularly important because it justifies targeting Islamist “separatism” alone, and not other religious communities or secular separatist movements, such as Corsican nationalism. This could lead to decisions that range from preventing Muslim states from sending imams to France, to forbidding doctors from providing certificates of virginity. It might also require public services to report “early signs of radicalisation” — usually no more than a show of devotion such as praying in public. As well as widening the state’s ability to proscribe organisations deemed harmful to the republic, Mr Macron has urged an expansion of existing counter-radicalisation programmes.

The proposals raise two key questions. What is the link between Islamism and terrorist violence? And what are the “republican values” the government wants to protect and strengthen?

My study of those responsible for previous terrorist attacks on French soil show, contrary to the now dominant view, that they were not radicalised by a “Salafi incubation” in the mosques and religious schools of France’s deprived suburbs. Rather, most were radicalised among small groups of friends and relatives, often in a milieu characterised by petty crime and delinquency. They used the internet to find texts and inspiration, and made little or no reference to the tenets of sharia law. They came from the margins of Muslim life in France, not the centre. 

Could the measures now being proposed have prevented any of the terrorist attacks carried out in France since the bombing of the Paris Metro in 1995? The answer, it seems to me, is no.

The second assumption behind the draft law — that reasserting the “values of the republic” is central to combating Islamism — raises two further questions. What are these specific values? And what does it mean to impose them on a society supposed to uphold freedom of opinion and belief?

It is true that there has been a growth in France over the past two decades of what I call “neo-fundamentalism”. By this I mean the transformation of traditional forms of Islam into a system of explicit norms that have an impact on social life, including the wearing of the hijab, calls for the eating of halal food and refusing to shake hands with women.

Neo-fundamentalism has taken root in some of France’s most underprivileged areas, even as the country’s social fractures have deepened. That has also given rise to non-religious protest movements, such as the gilets jaunes. But what is the alternative that “republican values” are meant to embody?

These values were not encoded in the law of 1905 that established the separation of church and state. The values of the republic at that time were secularised conservative Christian values — women did not have the right to vote and homosexuality was criminalised. 

The republican values that President Macron refers to are clearly the liberal values of the 1960s: gender equality, sexual freedom, coeducation and so on. But how do these differ from the values of other European countries? 

What is specifically French about the values the president has chosen to defend is laïcité, or secularism. The draft law would have the effective of reducing the display of religious faith, and not only Islam, in public life, often at the expense of the very liberal values — freedom of religion, thought and speech — that it is intended to protect.

To view these questions, as some critics do, through the lens of racism misses the point. Many secular Muslims are vocal supporters of the fight for republican values. Conversely, many conservative Catholics feel increasingly uneasy with current interpretations of laïcité. And although some are hostile to Islam, they reject the very idea of what Mr Macron calls the “right to blasphemy”. The real issue here, therefore, is what remains of religious freedom in our secularised republic. 



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EU pledges aid to Lithuania to combat illegal migration from Belarus

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EU immigration updates

In the latest sign of deteriorating relations between the EU and Belarus, Brussels has promised extra financial aid and increased diplomatic heft to help Lithuania tackle a migrant crisis that it blames on neighbouring Belarus and its dictator Alexander Lukashenko.

Lithuania detained 287 illegal migrants on Sunday, more than it did in the entirety of 2018, 2019, and 2020 combined, the vast majority of them Iraqis who had flown to Belarus’s capital Minsk before heading north to cross into the EU state. Almost 4,000 migrants have been detained this year, compared with 81 for the whole of 2020. 

“What we are facing is an aggressive act from the Lukashenko regime designed to provoke,” Ylva Johansson, the EU commissioner for home affairs told reporters on Monday after talks with Lithuania’s prime minister Ingrida Simonyte. “The situation is getting worse and deteriorating . . . There is no free access to EU territory.”

The EU imposed sweeping sanctions against Lukashenko’s regime in June, after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then led a brutal campaign to violently suppress protesters and jail political opponents. Lukashenko has ruled Belarus since 1994.

The rising concern over the migrant crossings, which EU officials say is a campaign co-ordinated by Lukashenko’s administration, comes as one of the country’s athletes competing in the Tokyo Olympic Games sought refuge in Poland after team management attempted to fly her home against her will after she publicly criticised their actions.

Johansson said the EU would provide €10m-€12m of immediate emergency funding and would send a team of officials to the country to assess the requirements for longer-term financial assistance, including for extra border security and facilities to process those attempting to enter.

Simonyte said that Vilnuis would require “tens of millions of euros” by the end of the year if the number of people attempting to cross the border continued at the current pace.

Lithuania’s foreign minister Gabrielius Landsbergis told the Financial Times in June that Belarus was “weaponising” illegal immigration to put pressure on the Baltic country over its housing of several opposition leaders. Since then, the flow of illegal immigrants from Iraq, Syria, and several African countries has increased sharply.

Iraqi diplomats visited Vilnius at the end of last week after Lithuania’s foreign minister flew to Baghdad in mid-July. Johannson said on Monday that EU diplomats were engaged in “intensive contacts” with Iraqi officials, which she said were “more constructive than we had hoped”.

State carrier Iraqi Airways offers flights from four Iraqi airports to Minsk, according to its website. Former Estonian president Toomas Ilves suggested on Twitter that the EU could cut its aid to Iraq “immediately until they stop these flights”.

Speaking at the border with Belarus on Monday, Johansson added that the tents provided by Lithuania were unsuitable for families. Lithuania’s interior minister Agne Bilotaite said she hoped the number of illegal migrants would subside in the coming months but that Vilnius was planning to build some housing to accommodate them over the upcoming winter.



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Britain’s wrong-headed approach to refugees

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UK immigration updates

Thanks to the bravery of volunteers who run towards storms at sea to rescue ships’ crews, few British institutions command as much respect as the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. The charity, however, has recently had to negotiate a different kind of storm, over its efforts to help refugees who get into difficulties crossing the Channel from France. Nigel Farage, the former Brexit party leader, accused it of running a taxi service for illegal trafficking gangs. Last week, the RNLI said it had received hundreds of thousands of pounds of extra donations in response.

The RNLI has become embroiled in a now familiar story when the summer months allow more small boats to make the Channel crossing. Compared with the flows to other countries such as Spain, Italy and Greece, only a handful of migrants attempt the journey. That makes the UK’s inability to control the border in an effective and humane way — and shabby treatment of those who do make it across — no less of a scandal.

Britain’s strategy for stemming the flow has relied mostly on paying the French authorities to limit the number of boats crossing and return any that leave to France, while deterring would-be migrants through the unwelcoming environment that awaits them. Just as EU countries are dependent on their neighbours for keeping entrants down — whether Morocco for Spain or Belarus for Lithuania — the UK needs French co-operation to control the mutual border. Diplomatic spats, whether over Brexit or extra Covid quarantine restrictions on arrivals from France, have made that harder.

The UK approach manages to be simultaneously ineffective and cruel. Yvette Cooper, chair of the home affairs select committee, wrote last week to home secretary Priti Patel to complain of unacceptable conditions in the holding facility for migrants who make it to the Kent coast. A recent unannounced visit by MPs found most of those remaining in the overcrowded facility sitting on a thin mattress on the floor, with women and children in the same room as adult men.

Earlier this year, the High Court ruled that “squalid” conditions in the Napier Barracks, a temporary centre set up last year to house asylum seekers during the pandemic, were so bad as to be unlawful. While arrivals have declined since the peak seven years ago, cutbacks have led to a backlog in processing claims, leaving more in a legal limbo.

Since the start of the pandemic Britain has shut down other paths into the country, ending a resettlement scheme. This has ceded the ground to people traffickers. The “push factors” of the risk of violence and torture at home and “pull factors” of higher living standards mean many are still willing to resort to risky and illegal methods to try to reach the UK. Creating a harsh environment for those who make it has done little to dispel the widespread belief among migrants that Britain is a better destination than other European countries, and stem the flow.

That will not stop the government trying. Barristers have warned that a clause in draft border legislation could potentially make it a crime to help asylum seekers arrive in the UK, with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment; at present it is illegal to do so to earn a profit. The Home Office says the clause is aimed at criminal traffickers. But along with a suggestion to set up offshore processing centres, the provision has rightly earned criticism from human rights groups. If the government is unwilling to create safe and legal routes, its only option is to prevent people from coming in the first place. That, ultimately, will mean relying on France.



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Olympic organisers investigate after Belarusian runner seeks refuge

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Tokyo Olympics updates

A Belarusian runner due to compete at the Tokyo Olympics was taken to the airport against her wishes after making complaints about her coaches, according to media reports on Sunday night.

The International Olympic Committee, the Games organisers, said it had asked for clarification from the Belarus team about the status and whereabouts of Krystina Tsimanouskaya, who is due to compete in the women’s 200m sprint on Monday.

Belarus’ dictatorial leader Alexander Lukashenko and his regime are widely seen as international pariahs after he fraudulently claimed victory in last year’s presidential election and then embarked on a brutal campaign to suppress protesters and supporters of his rival, which has seen thousands beaten and jailed. 

Images and video circulated on social media sites by Belarusian opposition activists appear to show Tsimanouskaya at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, where she refused to board a plane and instead sought refuge with Japanese police.

Krystsina Tsimanouskaya took part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed qualifying for the semi-finals © Aleksandra Szmigiel/Reuters

The IOC said it “has seen the reports in the media, is looking into it and has asked the [Belarus] national Olympic committee for clarification”.

Japanese police did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

The Belarusian Olympic Committee did not immediately respond to requests for comment, but a statement attributed to the body suggests she had been removed from competition by coaches on the advice of doctors advice about her “emotional, psychological state”.

Late on Sunday, Tsimanouskaya shared a screenshot of that statement on Instagram with the message: “This is a lie.”

“I am asking the International Olympic Committee for help, they are putting pressure on me and they are trying to take me out of the country without my consent,” Tsimanouskaya said in a video message reportedly recorded on Sunday evening from the airport and posted on social media.

A person close to Olympic officials said there remained “confusion” around the incident, adding they had been told that Tsimanouskaya had boarded a coach to the airport and had gone through the departures area to board a plane to Istanbul, where she then sought Japanese police to ask for asylum.

Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya tweeted that she was grateful to the IOC for its quick reaction. “She has a right to international protection and to continue participation in the Olympics. It is also crucial to investigate Belarus’ NOC violations of athletes’ rights,” she said.

Tsimanouskaya on Friday appeared to criticise her coaches and team management in an Instagram post that said she had been “ignored” and that “people in higher ranks should respect us as athletes”.

The 24-year-old had taken part in the heats for the women’s 100 metres on Friday but narrowly missed on qualifying for the semi finals of the event. She is listed on official Olympics sites as due to compete in the first round of the 200 metres at the Olympic stadium on Monday morning.





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