Tunisian Imam’s deportation on flimsy grounds depicts rising intolerance in France amid warnings of threat to secularism

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Tunisian Imam Mahjoub Mahjoubi.

By Our Correspondent

NEW DELHI – The recent expulsion and deportation of a Tunisian Imam, Mahjoub Mahjoubi, from France after his arrest on the flimsy grounds of allegedly disparaging the French flag has triggered a major controversy, as the Imam was residing in the Ettaouba Masjid compound in France for the last 38 years and has five children, all of whom are French citizens.

Imam Mahjoubi was arrested and deported from the town of Bagnols-sur-Ceze in southern France to Tunisia on February 22 on charges of making hateful speech and sermons which the authorities claimed were against French values. The episode involving his arrest and expulsion within 12 hours has brought to light the rising intolerance in the French society, anti-Muslim biases prevailing in the government structure and threat to French secularism.

The 52-year-old Islamic cleric was accused of having described the tricolour, without saying he meant the French flag, as of “no value of Allah”. Imam Mahjoubi, who serves at the Masjid and also runs a construction company, claimed that it was a slip of tongue, for which his residency permit should not have been cancelled. He said his family, including his youngest child getting treatment for cancer, depended entirely on him.

The expulsion order revealed the French government’s poor understanding of Imam Mahjoubi’s ideology and its mistaken impression that it could lead to discrimination against women, identity withdrawal and tensions with the Jewish community. “Instructions were given to issue a ministerial expulsion order against this radical Imam who made unacceptable remarks, and he was the subject of a home visit and an arrest. Without the immigration law, this would not have been possible. Firmness is the rule,” the Interior Ministry said in a statement.

Imam Mahjoubi has filed an appeal for interim relief on February 28, giving the Paris administrative court 48 hours to render its decision on his expulsion. The Imam’s lawyer, Samir Hamroun, said he had sought a direction to allow his return to the French territory while awaiting the legal procedure on merits. “One of his children is suffering from serious cancer and his wife, who presides over the family company without generating any income or profit, and his children are currently left to their own,” he said.

The Paris administrative court, competent to hear the case, has acknowledged the receipt of the brief sent by the lawyer. The court has to pronounce its decision within 48 hours after hearing the parties. If the court rejects the appeal, the Interior Ministry may refer the matter to the Council of State.

Imam Mahjoub Mahjoubi

Imam Mahjoubi said his deportation was an arbitrary decision and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin was using his case to create a buzz around the immigration law. Darmanin had said that the expulsion was a demonstration that the recently approved immigration laws would make France stronger. The law toughening the migration conditions has been seen as part of the French government’s response to the rise of the rightist ideology in the opinion polls.

Imam Mahjoubi, on the other hand, has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and defended his statements, alleging that they were misconstrued and emphasising that he never intended to show disrespect to the French flag. He said he had not insulted the Jewish community or the French flag and he was only referring to rivalries between football supporters of different Maghrebi countries during the recent African Cup of Nations.

The human rights defenders in France have denounced the procedure which has targeted the Imam without any tangible reasons. The court’s judgment on Imam Mahjoubi’s plea will make a reflection on the state of affairs in France, including the religious tolerance, rights of Muslims and the freedom of speech and expression.

Imam Mahjoubi has declared that he would fight to return to France where he had lived for 38 years. After being deported to Tunisia, where he is staying at his in-laws’ house in Soliman, situated 30 km east of the capital, Tunis, the Islamic cleric said if the French courts do not grant him justice, he would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights.

Muslims comprise about 9% of the population of France, but they have been facing religious discrimination in all walks of life. The discrimination felt by French Muslims stems in large part from France’s unique approach to secularism, blowback from recent terrorist attacks, and the stereotyping of Muslims in public discourse. The Muslim population of the European country faces increased economic disadvantages and a lack of representation across multiple levels of French society.

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