Samia Hathroubi is a prominent female activist working on interfaith issues, discrimination and pluralism. Born in a Tunisian family on the outskirts of Lyon, Samia was the only brown, Muslim ‘immigrant’ in her class and learnt about being the ‘other’ very early on.
When I met Samia two years ago in Paris for an article, she was director of Coexister, an interfaith youth organisation in France but she now works on a larger scale, as a coordinator for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in Europe. She tells me about the project she’s embarking on to explore Muslim-Jewish relations across continents.
Samia, what have you been up to in the last two years?
Well, I’m travelling a lot! I have a foot in academia, as I’m doing a Masters. It is about the sociology of religion and how Muslims are getting onto interfaith platforms as well as the approaches of pluralism within Islam through a Western perspective. The MPhil will only focus on France but I’m hoping to turn it into a PhD after, which would include the UK and Germany.
My other foot is still in interfaith. I work for the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in Europe. I was director but it was too much, so now I’m the coordinator for Europe and I organise on Muslim-Jewish dialogue – I award grants, connect people and make things happen. We are actually starting a new project that I will run, which will map Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Europe, the United States and Canada. I will spend six months travelling around, documenting and researching. We’re going to make a website, and also create a campaign around it, it’s all very exciting! I think it will be the first time someone will be travelling and meeting people in all these countries to map out what is working when it comes to networks between Muslims and Jews.
How much crossover are you expecting to find between these countries?
Sure, the settings are different, the relationships between the two communities too. Germany for example finances religious communities, while that is not the case for most of France. Meanwhile pluralism is anchored into the American mindset. But I don’t want to rate things and go around saying, ‘this is the best idea, this is not good’. I want to see the different challenges people are facing and look at the ways they are trying to move forward and answer the question of plurality within society – how can we live in a society that is becoming more and more pluralistic? Especially as that’s not going to change!
Why focus on Muslims and Jews?
Muslims and Jews are two of the most significant minorities but look at the opposition. We’ve already seen far right efforts to divide these two communities. We’ve also seen the rising levels of islamophobia and antisemitism. The levels of hate crime are good indicators of whether democracy and pluralism is working or not.
The far right is getting increasingly organised – it’s really jeopardising democracy and multiculturalism in Poland, for example. Meanwhile, in France you have the niece of Marine Le Pen, Marion, who announced a leadership programme for the far right and she was invited to the US by people around Donald Trump. These people are getting connected and becoming more organised and changing the agenda. It’s not only this crazy Nazi guy that looks frightening – they’re changing the narrative and they’re attracting many people.
If we don’t create a movement of people who are champions of pluralism to fight this – if we do not work together, we will fall together.
When I met you, you worked with Coexister, are you still involved?
No, I’m no longer linked to Coexister, they are mostly working in France and they’re about engaging young people in interfaith while I’m now on a different wave. I want to look beyond Jews and Muslims too, that’s not my only target. I want to see how refugees in Germany are living and how people of North African descent are faring in Malmo or Stockholm.
What do you think about the state of interaction between Muslim and Jewish communities?
If it’s only dialogue and people coming together and talking, it’s not enough. It can’t be more of the same. I think if people don’t understand that it’s also about moving forward, about fighting divisive groups and building coalitions, there’s going to be a huge problem.
Many great things are happening and I always say the more, the better. But at the same time, when you see an organisation that hasn’t moved further than just talking together in 10 years, it’s not enough. That’s also what I want to see by travelling to the US. I’ve been talking to this Harvard scholar and she asked me about the movements and actions of Muslims and Jews together in the political arena in Europe and I had difficulty finding any.
It’s a different setting, I know. But I want to meet those people doing great things, interview them, document it and see what can concretely be put out there for other people to use. Because it’s hard when you are working alone for a small project in your country. So how can these people influence others, share new ways of working and new content? That’s my goal!
Have you heard of Nisa-Nashim in the UK?
Yes, it would be interesting to meet them. It could be a good model for women in France. They’re empowering women in their own communities and I mean, on the Muslim side – and even the Jewish – they say ‘we want more women to the table’ and the government also is putting pressure on them, but it’s still difficult to see a woman at the forefront today.
We need to think about this more to restructure and organise better. There must be something done to get a greater diversity of women but also of other minorities such as black people. We keep on saying that politicians in France are male, white, fifty. But in Muslim organisations, it’s mostly men, over 40 and Arab. We can’t blame others if we play the same game. We have to be honest with ourselves.
What do you think about the events happening in France with the yellow jackets?
Muslims are part of those most struggling from the economic situation in France; a lot of them are supporting the movement, many are part of it. [President] Emmanuel Macron launched a national debate with online questionnaires and town hall meetings to run for the next three months. When Macron asked the French people questions, the main issue was not migrants or laicité [the policy/idea of French secularism]. People say they want fiscal justice and equality. People are not stupid and they don’t want to drive 30km to access a hospital. I have never been a huge fan of him, and I wasn’t wrong, what could you expect from someone who used to be Minister for Economy and dismantled the rights of workers?
What are you keeping an eye on in the coming year?
What I’m afraid of is the fracturing of the different progressive forces in France. To what extent will the far right be able to take the real struggles of the people and make the agenda not about tax dodgers but about the poor guy trying to make ends meet while being brown?
I’m not surprised the yellow jackets arrived in the French context. People don’t feel represented by anyone. We saw it in the last elections, I wasn’t comfortable then, I didn’t know who to vote for.
Have you been keeping track of the European elections?
I’ve always been a huge fan of the European Union, I think our fate is to live together and get stronger together. But I know I speak the European language, I’ve been part of European events and I’ve seen how Europe could benefit many people. That is not the reality of people who only see EU regulations, things like needing to change your windows. I think the EU is not a viable political creation if it’s only an economic lobby – if we keep moving forward like this – it’s going to be killed. We laughed a lot at this UK figure, Michael Farge –
Yes! He was against the EU and in the end he won! I think we shouldn’t laugh too long about Le Pen and the people who are in parliament who are trying to kill it from within. Macron and [Angela] Merkel are not part of the solution either, they are the worse advocators for the EU because they represent neoliberalism, and an unjust economy and it’s not very sexy.
Do you see any positive changes?
I’ve worked with many Muslim groups, the results of a lot of the changes I’ve seen in organisation and structure will only be seen in the future. The last five years have been very intense. The rise of Islamophobia has made everyone understand we need to move forward. There’s also a question of demography; there was a generation of people coming to France, who made a better life for themselves and who now witness that the supposedly representative Muslim organisations are not working so they want to get involved. There’s also a lot of local movements that are becoming more national. I’m a bit optimistic but I have to be.