At the Women in the World L.A. Salon on Tuesday night, the panel “Paris on the Brink” examined the scourge of Islamic extremism in Europe and what it means to be a Muslim woman in France today. “They say Islam is violent, Muslims oppress their women, they are terrorists, they are a threat against Western culture. That is the narrative in most of Western media,” moderator Zainab Salbi said in her forceful opening to the discussion. Joining her on stage to challenge that narrative was Samia Hathroubi, a teacher in the suburbs of Paris and the director of Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in Europe.
Tackling stereotypes head-on, Salbi was quick to point out that while both of them were Muslim women, neither of them was wearing a hijab. “I have six sisters, all born In France, but my mother is the only one wearing a hijab. We are the great majority of women in Islam!” Hathroubi said, explaining that the headscarf is not an inextricable part of being a Muslim. “There is no one way to be a woman, so there’s no one way to be a Muslim woman,” she said.
The conversation then turned to the issue of terrorism. No other country in Europe has been targeted by as many terror attacks as France in recent years, so why are so many French youth joining ISIS and being radicalized? According to Hathroubi, radicalization has nothing to do with religion. She pointed out that 32 percent of Islamic terrorists weren’t even raised Muslim. “But they all attended public school,” she argued. “And when they attend public school, on a daily basis they were reading the French motto ‘Freedom, Equality and Brotherhood,’ while in reality, this motto never applied to them.” As a teacher, she witnessed the structural racism that her students faced on a daily basis. In some underprivileged areas of France, she explained, up to 40 percent of young people were unemployed, while the national rate was eight percent. “No matter how hard they try, sometimes they are just ostracized by society.”
Hathroubi had some first-hand experience with Islamic extremism when one of her students “a nice, polite guy” left France to join ISIS. While he didn’t come from a very religious background, he became radicalized on the internet. “He was looking at TV and those videos online and feeling a sense of injustice. He was looking to have a sense of mission in the world, he was trying to save the world.” she said. “Most of the young people are radicalized online and in the very beginning they were trying to save the world — not because they were trying to harm it.”
One person who has been feeding into the fears and prejudices of the French is Marine Le Pen, the presidential candidate for the far-right National Front party. While Hathroubi does not think Le Pen will win the election, she said the controversial candidate has already won, in a way. “Marine Le Pen succeeded at defining the French values as eating pork, drinking alcohol, being white and being Christian,” she claims. While there are 4.5 million Muslims in France, many people living outside of the big cities have never even interacted with a Muslim, Hathroubi says. “When they look at ISIS, at the terror attacks that happen in France, they will think that all Mohammeds, Samias and veiled women are potential terrorists.” LePen is the only politician appealing to those people, and even if she doesn’t win, she has already won the hearts and minds of some French citizens. The process has already started, her ideas are everywhere and have shaped society.”
Watch the full panel above and to see a video of the event in its entirety, click here.