By Leyal Khalife
The novel coronavirus has killed more than 3,000 people so far and infected nearly 90,000 individuals worldwide. Countries around the world have been taking serious measures to restrict the spread of the virus, also known as COVID-19. The UAE had previously advised people to avoid the traditional nose-to-nose greeting amid the outbreak; France recently recommended people stop shaking hands altogether.
On Friday, France's Health Minister Olivier Veran said it's best that people refrain from handshaking to prevent further spread of the coronavirus as the number of cases in the country reached 57 that day. The number of infected patients in France rose to 100 on Saturday. Two patients have died.
The country has since banned large indoor gatherings (of more than 5,000 people) and has closed Paris' famed Louvre Museum with no confirmation on when it will reopen.
France is finally taking things seriously - as other countries are still in denial of the risks - but its recent decision couldn't help but hit a nerve. Why? Because in France, a virus allows for a handshake to be avoided, but one's religious beliefs don't. You're probably confused, so let me explain.
A few years ago, a Muslim woman was denied the French citizenship after refusing to shake the hand of a senior official during a naturalization ceremony. The Algerian woman, who had not been named, said her "religious beliefs" prevented her from shaking the hands of unrelated men.
A government ruling said the woman's decision to refrain from a handshake showed she had "not assimilated into the French community" and thus denied her citizenship. The woman appealed the decision, but France's highest administrative court upheld the ruling in 2018. The Algerian woman has been married to a French man since 2010.
According to the French law regarding naturalization, the government has the right to deny citizenship by judging how well-adjusted an individual is to France's culture. So does that mean France's culture preaches disrespect and discrimination against one's religious beliefs? Respecting culture should be a two-way street and that's the basis for any society in a diverse world. Forcing one to change their religious beliefs for another country is simply out of line. And holding a handshake as a signal of respect to one's culture is quite bizarre, if you ask me. Especially since a virus outbreak had the power to change France's so-called "cultural gestures."
Avoiding a handshake to restrict the spread of COVID-19 - and protect people's health status - is OK in France, but a Muslim woman refraining from a handshake for religious reasons is not? The hypocrisy screams Islamophobia.
And if you've been following the news in recent years, you'd know that France is no stranger to Islamophobia. Last year, over 10,000 demonstrators in French cities took to the streets to protest Islamophobia and the unfair treatment of Muslims in the country. The march was ignited after an 84-year-old former far-right National Rally member opened fire at a mosque in October 2019, wounding two men in the southwestern city of Bayonne.
France has often been seen as intolerant of conservative Muslim traditions. The country banned students from wearing any religious symbols in public schools back in 2004. The niqab was later banned from being worn in public places in 2011; women can be fined up to 150 euros ($172) for donning the face-veil in public. Several French municipalities also attempted to ban the burkini at public beaches in their jurisdiction back in 2016. However, these burkini bans were overturned in court as a violation of an individual's fundamental freedoms.
These decisions have encouraged people to reject Muslims. One example of this intolerance surfaced after the devastating fire broke out at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris last April. Moments after the news circulated, a series of Islamophobic conspiracy theories surfaced online. Some far-right individuals shared photoshopped images claiming Muslims were "laughing" as the cathedral burst into flames. Others shared a fake video, claiming Muslims were "chanting Allahu Akbar as Notre Dame Cathedral burns."
Islamophobia continues to push individuals and countries to team up against Muslims, including those in France. The anti-Muslim narrative has even infiltrated restaurants in the country.
A 2018 investigation led by BuzzFeed News revealed that L'Avenue - a renowned restaurant in Paris, France - has a system in place that aims to keep Muslims away. Four former employees of L'Avenue spoke up regarding the system that was - and still is - implemented at the food establishment in an effort to keep out anyone with "Arabic-sounding names" and veiled women.
Original Headline: 'No handshakes' in France, yet Muslims are denied citizenship for same reason