It has become a recurrent, frantic ritual for French society to explode into a heated debate about one of its Muslim citizens. And it’s seems that it is doing so with alarmingly increasing frequency.
The controversy surrounding the election of hijab-wearing Maryam Pougetoux as the head of a student union at the Paris-Sorbonne IV University had not died down before another one blew up. This time it is a Muslim artist who is at the eye of the media storm.
Medine, a French-born rapper of Algerian descent, provoked angry reactions in France when he announced that he will be performing at the Bataclan Concert Hall in Paris on October 19 and 20. Some people in France thought it was outrageous that he, a practicing Muslim, would have a concert at a venue where 90 people were murdered on November 13, 2015 by terrorists who claimed they were acting in the name of Islam.
Almost immediately the hashtag #PasdeMedineauBataclan (No Medine at the Bataclan) appeared, while Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front party, tweeted: “No French person can accept that this guy pours out his filth at the scene of the Bataclan massacre. We have had enough of complacency or worse, the incitement to Islamist fundamentalism!”
This, of course, is not the first time in which Le Pen exludes from “the French people” category people like Medine and his audience.
Her tweet was accompanied by a picture of the cover of Medine’s 2005 album “Jihad”. That was her “proof” that Medine would “promote jihad” in the very spot where a deadly attack presented as an “act of jihad” took place.
Moreover, Le Pen, like all the others who rushed to slander Medine, did not look at the meaning that he ascribes to the word “jihad”. The subtitle of the album reads: “the greatest battle against oneself” – which is a different, more widespread interpretation of what “jihad” means.
In a country overpowered by an anxiety about terrorist attacks and discomfort with a growing Muslim population, it is easy for far-right politicians like Le Pen to whip up tensions.
A narrative about “Medine the jihadist” speaks much more to the popular fears and the latent Islamophobia of the French majority than one about “Medine the artist”.
But the issue did not stay within the boundaries of far-right politics. Members of various parties, including President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist La Republique En Marche (Republic on the Move), called on the presidency to ban the concert.
A lawyer representing the families of the victims of the 2015 attacks demanded that the Paris police ban Medine from performing at the Bataclan.
After the terror attack, it was decided that the concert hall should reopen and resume its activities. Since the place did not become a memorial, why should politicians or the police have a say in who performs there? Is the Bataclan now bound to put up only artists who appeal to the French majority?
Medine has had to explain his controversial texts several times in the past. In January 2015, he released a song titled “Don’t Laik” (wordplay between the English phrase “don’t like” and the French word “laique“, meaning “secular”) which attacked those he considers “ultra-secularist proselytising propagandists”.
His lyrics have metaphorical lines like: “crucify the laicards as in Golgotha”. For him, the people he calls laicards – unlike laiques (secularists) – are extremists.
Just a week after the release of his song, France was hit by a series of terror attacks, including the killing spree at the office of the controversial magazine Charlie Hebdo and the anti-Semitic attack on a kosher supermarket.
In light of these attacks, Medine’s text was subjected to much criticism. He went on to explain: “I wanted to talk about how a republican value like secularism is manipulated today, whereas in its spirit and its letter, secularism was made to bring people together.”
Nonetheless, the controversy has stuck to him and has become today the pretext for national outrage.
This is not the first time that a Muslim person who is visible in the public sphere is asked to leave it. Apart from the attacks on Pougetoux, earlier this year, Mennel Ibtissem, a contestant on the show The Voice, was publicly bullied. Her hijab, a headscarf worn by many Muslim women who feel it is part of their religion, and decision to sing in Arabic provoked public hostility and scrutiny. Her social media accounts were combed for “suspect” statements and such, of course, were found.
Some of her old posts where she expressed conspiratorial views about the 2016 terror attacks in France were widely circulated and she was forced to apologise and quit the show.
Even if we disagree and disprove of what she posted, we must still ask: Why does the emergence of visibly Muslim people on the French public sphere provoke such large-scale debates, sometimes involving high-level political figures?
I have known Medine for several years. In 2017 we spent several days in the same group at a symposium organised in Bangkok by Dr Virginie Andre, a Deakin University political scientist who is looking for ways to counter violent extremism.
This initiative was intended to facilitate dialogue between various actors in the fight against radicalisation.
So Medine is genuinely committed to fighting extremism, but is not really seeking publicity for it. He has already gotten used to all the negative attention.
Back in 2001, shortly after the 9/11 attacks, he designed t-shirts saying “I’m Muslim, don‘t panik.” He could not be more on point.
The focus on his Muslim identity led his detractors to look for religious, or even, extremist subtext in his lyrics. Medine, however, is an artist who likes to play with words and polysemy in the tradition of French chansonniers, like Georges Brassens, whom he calls an inspiration. He should be able to use his talent and freedom of speech to question our society, even if it makes some people uncomfortable.
His fans, so used to his punchiness, were not fooled by the dirt thrown at him. The upcoming concerts of the “irreverent” Muslim rapper at the Bataclan are already sold out.
To his followers, Medine is just a gifted artist, not a politician.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.