France’s win at the 2018 Soccer World Cup finals in Russia has certainly caused many to focus on the fact that this French winning team is predominantly made up of immigrants or descendants of immigrants. And interestingly, several are of the Islamic faith.
As one writer, Peniel Joseph, stated: “France’s electrifying 4-2 World Cup win over Croatia represents a victory for Africa and immigrants everywhere. France’s championship-winning World Cup team features no less than 15 players with African roots, including the dynamic 19-year-old forward Kylian Mbappe, who is descended from an Algerian mother and Cameroonian father. The team’s pan-African make-up goes a long way toward helping the world – including European soccer fans who have chanted ugly racist slogans against black players – re-imagine the most popular sport on the planet and what it means to be a citizen.”
The French Muslim presence on the team is also significant. The following seven players are Muslim: Paul Pogba, Ousmane Dembele, N’Golo Kante, Adil Rami, Djibril Sidibe, Benjamin Mendy and Nabil Fekir.
These facts have caused some to question if France stole the World Cup from Africa.
And the irony of all of this glory and joy over winning such a prestigious competition is that while these players are welcomed as heroes in France, thousands of their fellow countrymen and women of African descent and Muslim faith are facing systemic racism and discrimination daily in the very same country.
Peniel Joseph highlights this dichotomy in his article ‘France’s World Cup win is a victory for immigrants everywhere’: “The team’s success is particularly noteworthy because of the way in which anti-immigrant sentiment, especially against migrants with African roots, has roiled French society over the past two decades. In 2005, racial and urban unrest gripped suburban housing projects outside of Paris after [two teenagers were electrocuted] in a substation after being chased by police. And just last month, riots erupted in the French city of Nantes, two hours outside of Paris, after a young Guinean immigrant was shot and killed after being stopped by the police.”
Khaled Beydoun in his tweet states: “Dear France, Congratulations on winning #WorldCup. 80 per cent of your team is African, cut out the racism and xenophobia. 50 per cent of your team are Muslims, cut out the Islamophobia. Africans and Muslims delivered you a second World Cup, now deliver them justice.”
And as Mohammed Iqbal Degia points out: “France’s relationship with Islam and Muslim people goes back centuries. The emergence of European colonial powers saw France maintaining important colonies in Islamic lands in North and West Africa. European and French capitalism, imperialism and colonialism were all intertwined deeply and while European imperialism and capitalism were capitalist ventures, culture, religion, and notions of civilizing the barbaric were all central to the colonial/imperial enterprise.
“Muslims and Arabs were regarded as lesser people incapable of improvement and therefore assimilation into the French way of life. Traits such as religion, family organization, presumed sexual proclivities and dress (fez, veil) were singled out to represent otherness. An entire tradition of “scholarship” stressing the inferiority of Arabs and Muslims was developed in which these barbaric, traditional, irrational people were matched against French modernity.”
So amidst the euphoria over France’s win, the microscopic view of France’s ugly realities is welcomed. Discrimination is institutionalized in the name of France’s secular identity. ‘Liberté’ or liberty is thrown through the window when it comes to religious identity in public especially with regards to the assault on Muslim women’s rights to dress as they wish in public.
Since the late 1980’s, France has had an obsession with Muslim women appearing in public with their hijab, face veil and in more recent times in burkinis at the beaches. The banning of wearing hijabs in public schools to a law in 2004 banning all conspicuous signs of religious affiliation in public schools to the 2010 Act banning the wearing of the ‘niqab’ or face veil in public to the 2016 ‘burkini ban’ in several coastal towns in France have all proven the country’s systematic discrimination against Muslims.
France’s entrenched bigotry runs deep. Mr Degia in his article highlights the case of Rokhaya Diallo. “Most recently, in December 2017, Rokhaya Diallo, a journalist, anti-racism activist and feminist was appointed to a new digital council created by the French President Macron. Diallo’s appointment was short lived though. It was rescinded quickly when members of the government lobbied for her removal because of her anti-racism views and her defence of the hijab. Diallo herself does not wear one but asserts the right of those who choose to do so.”
France’s embrace of its winning team and all the players including the Africans and Muslims must go beyond the team to the wider society. One can hope that France can now see the true value of the immigrants, the diversity amongst them, and how best to utilize the unique talents and skills of the variety of people and strengths to build a better nation.
The players also have their role to play in being ambassadors for and to their French nation – ambassadors by standing up against the discrimination and bigotry meted out to their fellow citizens either in practice or through legislation.
Already these players are proving their value as honourable ambassadors of their country, their African heritage, and their faiths. Some of the players have pledged their world cup winnings to noble and charitable causes. It is reported that Kylian Mbappe, the 19-year-old phenomenal player, has decided to donate his earnings to a charity that gives free sports instruction to hospitalized and disabled children. Ousmane Dembélé, has decided to cherish his roots by funding the construction of a new mosque in his mother’s village in southern Mauritania, his country of origin. The Muslim player’s mother is a Senegalese Mauritanian, while his father is Malian.
Perhaps the former President of the United States of America, Barack Obama, offers the best lessons from this French team when he spoke recently in Johannesburg, South Africa at an event marking Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday. He said that embracing diversity “delivers practical benefits since it ensures that a society can draw upon the energy and skills of all… people. Just ask the French football team that just won the World Cup”.
(Suleiman Bulbulia is a Justice of the Peace, Secretary of the Barbados Muslim Association and Muslim Chaplain at the Cave Hill Campus, UWI. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)