Journalist Alain Gresh lectures on France and Islam

Photo Courtesy of ||  Journalist Alain Gresh gave a lecture last week on the status of Islam in France. 

Photo Courtesy of || Journalist Alain Gresh gave a lecture last week on the status of Islam in France. 

Patience Kayira ‘20
Assistant Arts Editor


Last week, journalist, author and former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, Alain Gresh gave a lecture on “Islam in France” in Graham Hall. 

Originally from Cairo, Egypt, Gresh emigrated to France in 1962, where he continued his education – initially studying math in college and then eventually switching to political science. Gresh’s lecture provided a history of Islam in France from the 20th century to the current day ending with a Q&A session. 

According to Gresh, “France has a problem with Islam, and it is hard to explain why.” 

For Gresh this problem has always been apparent, and the 2016 ban of the “burkini” – a modest bathing suit that covers the body except for the face, hands, and feet – on some French beaches only confirmed it. Gresh described this event as “a little incident in the village of Corisica [that resulted] in a two-month long debate.”

Gresh used a clip from Hailey Gates’ documentary series episode called “States of Undress.” Hailey Gates, an American journalist who is the host of the Viceland fashion documentary series, filmed the episode in France during the “burkini” debate. 

In the clip, Gates run into the water with a woman in a burkini. The next shot features a group of angry beachgoers saying, “If they don’t like it they can go back to their own country.” Another person insists that the “burkini is a bathing suit.”

Gresh provided some reasons towards France’s hostility towards Islam. For Gresh it comes down to two main ideas: “laïcité,” a 1905 law that instituted the separation of the church and state, and colonialism. 

“As a result of ‘laïcité,’ an anti-religious sentiment became an important feature of the French political system, [...] which makes the question of the scarf a permanent debate in France,” Gresh said. 

In terms of colonialism, France’s involvement in the Algerian War, which lasted from 1954 to 1962, influences the treatment of Muslims in France. 

Gresh said, “the way the Muslim population [in France] is being treated is similar to the way the Muslim population in Algeria [was treated].” Due to France’s strict policies of assimilation, the Muslim population in France faces numerous problems. 

Gresh cited from a sociological study about Arabic names in hiring processes. He said, “When your name is Ahmed or Fatima, you will find much more difficulty in [finding] work or a place to live.” This is is not too dissimilar from the United States, as Jacqueline Howard wrote for the Huffington Post, “job applicants with ‘black-sounding’ names are less likely to be called for interview.” 

In the same episode of “States of Undress,” Hailey Gates interviewed three young conservative college students, who support the idea of “banning wearing the hijab in public.” Supporters of the Front National, an extreme right political party notorious for its xenophobic and islamophobic views, said, “It’s simple, multiculturalism breeds conflict. Islamization has been dividing our country.”  

Alain Gresh’s lecture was made possible through the Smith Lecture Fund, the Dept. of Religion, the Lewis Global Studies Center, the Dept. of French Studies, the Five College French Seminar and the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.