Rabbani: France does not want the world to be aware of racist and Islamophobic policies within its borders -INTERVIEW

Rabbani: France does not want the world to be aware of racist and Islamophobic policies within its borders -INTERVIEW
# 16 December 2023 13:42 (UTC +04:00)

British citizen Muhammad Rabbani, the director of the "CAGE" organization, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, was not allowed to attend the international conference "Neocolonialism: human rights, peace and security" organized by the Baku Initiative Group at the Geneva office of the UN at the request of France. The French side put pressure on Switzerland to prevent Rabbani, who went to Geneva to participate in the conference, from attending the event. As a result, in the face of pressure from Paris, the Swiss police detained the chairman of the NGO at the border, and he was deported from the country after staying under police control at the airport for about 1 day.

APA interviewed the human rights defender about the repression he was continuously subjected to by France, as well as the details of his detention in Switzerland

Mr. Rabbani, thank you for taking the time to do the interview. What was the situation you faced in Geneva? Have you ever been treated like this before?

When I landed in Geneva, I was not expecting that response, because I had already notified the Swiss authorities in advance, and they had already given me assurances in writing that I would not have any problems entering the country. I was not, in fact, on any of their lists connected to the Schengen area. So unfortunately, as I landed and spoke to the police, they then explained to me that they had decided that I could not be allowed entry, and they were very clear the reason for this denial was based on a request from the French government. At that point, I understood the situation because it was not the first time the French government had intruded upon a private visit that I made. Not too long ago, I visited Warsaw in Poland. At that time, as on this occasion as well, I was due to speak at an international conference, and unfortunately, I was barred. This is extremely problematic because it is interfering with the work of a human rights NGO, and it is restricting the freedom of movement and the freedom of speech. So I do think it's extremely problematic, and therefore, it does need to be opposed, and we are looking at appropriate legal avenues to do that.

I was not anticipating any of this happening. The reason is, that I had already contacted the Swiss authorities through my lawyer a week before visiting, and they had given me assurances that I would not be obstructed. So when the denial of entry was made, it was disappointing, and it meant that my participation at the United Nations HQ, the conference that was taking place there, organized by Baku Initiative Group, I was, of course, barred and prevented from making their contribution. Ultimately, that doesn't impact my organization because we are continuing to advocate for more freedoms and a check on government accesses, such as what we're discussing today by the likes of France but also by other governments.

But it does raise concerns because it goes to the heart of, you know, how can it be correct that nation-states and governments, such as France, are allowed to interfere in the work of a human rights NGO? And if you just, for a moment, have a pause and imagine the scenario to be somewhat different—imagine I was, you know, John Smith working for Amnesty International, and let's say the Russian government stopped me from attending a conference at the UN. You can imagine the outrage that would be made and how it would be received, even by the French authorities. So there is a double standard being operated here, and there needs to be accountability.

How was your stay at the airport? Were you pressured by the Swiss authorities and the police?

So, when I landed at the airport, I went to the passport desk, and I could see that two police officers were waiting behind, waiting for me to arrive at the desk. When I did arrive, the official at the desk looked at my passport and then just handed it over to those two police officers. I was asked to walk with them; they took me to an interview room, and I was held there. It's a very small room; there were two chairs there and really there was space for nothing else. So, I was held there, I was searched, I was questioned, and then filled out a couple of forms. Thereafter, they didn't take much interest in me directly; they were just making inquiries, and they just told me to wait.

So, I waited there for about four hours, maybe five hours. I can't remember. During that period, even though I was restricted, I couldn't leave. I was under lock; I was essentially detained. The police officers who were dealing with me were very pleasant and very professional. It was very apparent that they had no issue or problem, and they were just scratching their heads like I was, trying to figure out what was the cause for this because they couldn't understand why this would be the case. The officer in charge made inquiries with his superiors and then eventually informed me that the decision was now above his authority and he was being dealt with by people who were engaged in foreign countries. At that point, I had no idea that this was France behind all of this.

So, I was reasoning with the police officers that I should be allowed just to walk about a little bit, I had a long flight, obviously coming overnight flight, and I was a bit tired, so I needed to get some snacks and so on. They were understanding, so they allowed me to leave that interrogation room. And I was thereafter in the normal airport area. I was still unable to go anywhere because my passport was taken from me, so my movement was restricted. My encounter with the airport officials, overall, was very pleasant. It was very professional, and cordial, and they reassured me that they are doing their best to establish why this is the case and how they can get me on my way.

Eventually, around, let's say, after about maybe 10 hours, maybe 11 hours, the police got back to me. At that point, they confirmed that they had contact with the French government, and using a protocol connected to something called the Schengen Information System, the French authorities were requesting that I'm not allowed to enter Swiss territory. Unfortunately, the police officers were complying. So, of course, not surprised because I was explaining to the police that Switzerland is known for its neutrality. So, I was advising them, that you shouldn't take a side in this politically. You should remain neutral. And I was secondly advising them that they should give preference to their local national laws over the jurisdiction of European or foreign laws, especially foreign governments interfering in their decision-making. It's not a good look. The two police officers were very friendly, and they smiled and they agreed with me, but they ultimately said, the decision is being made by people who are higher up. So, that's how I found myself continuing in that restricted arrangement.

After another few hours, I was then escorted by two policemen to a secure detention facility for the night. So I stayed there; I was just by myself. There was nobody upstairs. I found that the detention facility was very clean, very well-lit, and certainly very secure. My last encounter with something similar like this was actually in France, and it was a truly horrible place. So, I just needed some sleep. I got some sleep, and then the next morning, I was again escorted by police in a police van, and I was taken straight to the runway. So, I got on the plane on time, went up the stairs into the plane, and was handed over to the captain. So, that's an account of my experience in Geneva.

As you mentioned, you were going to participate in the conference organized by the Baku Initiative Group at the UN Headquarters. What effect could the prevention of your participation by France have on the work of the conference?

Being denied access to the event meant that an important perspective was missing from that event. Many more distinguished and experienced participants talked about very important issues related to neocolonialism. However, I do think a British-based NGO that has experience in monitoring the operation of French policy and legislation when it comes to discrimination, racism, and Islamophobia in France, I think that perspective was important. It would have talked about how neocolonialism works in the modern era, where powerful nation-states in the West, former colonial powers, and how they deal with their minority populations, often drawn from their former colonies. I think that perspective was missing and would have added to the discussion. Nevertheless, I think there will be an opportunity in the future, and once this bar is overturned, we can still bring more light and accountability to France's policies.

In general, can you share the main elements of your planned speech at the conference?

My talk at the conference would have addressed, in particular, France's discriminatory treatment of people from its former colonies. There are several very worrying powers that France has given itself, which often go under the radar, even international institutions and bodies, even respectable human rights organizations fail to draw attention to these excessive powers. One of which I would have highlighted is called the systematic obstruction policy. This power, in just a space of three to four years, has led to the confiscation of millions of Euros from the Muslim community in France. Also, it's led to thousands of investigations as part of a disruption policy that France is operating against Muslim-owned businesses, schools, associations, charities, and mosques. This power has been used to close down several mosques, and it needs to be counted and challenged because it's operating a two-tier legal system—one law for general people who are non-Muslim and French white, and another law for people of color, in this case, people who follow the Islamic religion. So, I would have certainly brought this up at the conference.

Secondly, I wanted to draw links to France, the colonial power of the past, along with Britain and America, and how these powers are aiding and assisting today's colonial projects. In particular, the destruction and devastation that we see taking place in Gaza, are being broadcast live on our screens. It's only happening through the assistance of colonial powers such as France, Britain, and the United States, amongst others, and this has to stop. Other colonial projects, such as in Kashmir, are also being facilitated through the economic and political support of former colonial powers. So, these are important perspectives for the global community, especially people in the Global South, to work together to push back against the effects of colonialism and neocolonialism. These, amongst other points, I would have certainly attempted to highlight.

What do you think France tried to achieve by blocking your participation in the conference? What was the main purpose of Paris?

So, what France ultimately sought to achieve was a silencing of our voices and organization. It sought to shield itself from any scrutiny and criticism, especially in the international arena. France does not want the world, the international community, to be aware that it is implementing a racist and Islamophobic policy within its borders. So, I think that was the goal of France. The problem for France is that even if you stop one speech at one conference, I mean, you can't silence an organization like CAGE. In fact, in today's era, you can't silence anyone effectively because we have the means of social media and open communication channels. So, what happens is it makes France look very bad in the international community because it shows that France is very authoritarian, and it shows that France has something to hide.

How will France's repressive policy against you, as well as this incident, affect your future activities?

This incident ultimately won't affect or impact Cage's work going forward. Cage has several projects and initiatives that it will continue to deliver. We are particularly busy with our response to the repressive crackdown that the French government and all European governments are implementing against Palestine solidarity. So, we are putting together a report on this and will be promoting this very soon. We are also putting together guidance for mosques, charities, humanitarian organizations, and educational organizations on how they can effectively campaign under a lot of state repression. None of that work will be impacted. In addition, there is a documentary in which we are featuring and part of, it's called "Phantom Parrot." That documentary is screening in various film festivals all across Europe. I have been participating myself in that documentary, and we will be continuing to do that. So, the work will continue, and our voice will continue to be heard by many communities, even if France tries to stifle that. Lastly, we are working with lawyers in France, and the lawyers are very confident that they will be able to overturn these restrictions that France is seeking to impose on us. So, I look forward to that, and I'm very positive that we're going to have the outcome that we're looking for