During her performance on The Voice France, Mennel Ibtissem, a 22-year-old student from Besançon, France, melted the hearts of the judges, audience and viewers with her heartwarming rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.
The singer of Syrian origin (she was born in Besançon, France), wearing a light blue headwrap, sang in English and Arabic. Ibtissem was invited to stay on the show and to join singing star Mika’s team, a musician with whom she had always dreamed of working.
But within days of her stunning performance, Ibtissem underwent pressure from social media communities to withdraw from the show. The problems arose when some of her old Twitter messages from a few years ago resurfaced. In her old tweets, Ibtissem challenged the national framing of the terrorist attack that killed 86 people in France in 2016.
In the wake of the July 2016 truck attack in the city of Nice, Ibtissem tweeted: “Here we go, it’s become a routine, an attack a week, and, as usual, the ‘terrorist’ takes his ID with him. It’s true that when you’re plotting something nasty you never forget to take your papers with you.”
In another tweet, she talked about the 2016 Normandy church attack in which two ISIS terrorists attacked participants in a mass at a Catholic church in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray in northern France and killed 85-year-old priest Jacques Hamel. She wrote: “The real terrorists are our governments.”
She also posted tweets in support of the controversial professor of Islamic Studies, Tariq Ramadan. Her support of Ramadan may have spurred many conservative and right-wing adherents in France to label Ibtissem the epitome of the soft Islamicization of France and Europe in general.
These posts generated so much anger and discontent that the nationally known boxer, Patrice Quarteron, compared Ibtissem to “cancer,” and called her a “hypocrite and conspiracist.” Despite her apologies over the old tweets, she failed to quell the controversy.
Ibtissem’s story reveals how deeply Islamophobia is rooted in the consciousness of many people. Like many young teenagers of her generation, Ibtissem may have made mistakes. She apologized.
Instead of focusing on her stunning performance from an artistic point of view, the social media public dragged her through the mud. It became clear, through hundreds of tweets, that many people did not accept this young Muslim woman. Instead they called her outfit “suspicious” and made it clear that they did want her to become an eminent artist representing France.
Obviously, she had an impressive voice or the judges would not have selected her as a finalist. She was also an example of the “diversity” that the producers of the show said they wanted.
It seemed that Ibtissem knew she would have to minimize her connection to Islam before she performed. When she sang, she tied her head scarf in a glamorous way. It seemed to symbolize an exotic fantasy of “the East.” But it wasn’t enough. As soon as her old tweets were discovered, the far right did all it could to prove that Ibtissem was disloyal to the nation.
Within the social media discourse, she was found guilty of having a bad influence on the show and on French teenagers. Instead of taking into consideration the context of her tweets, or that she may have made those comments without enough knowledge as a young person herself, she was publicly humiliated.
Ibtissem’s glamour was relabelled “veiled” as soon as her remarks were divulged.
An unfair media trial
Ibtissem’s case speaks volumes about how social media trials have become influential and cruel. We are condemned before being judged. We are overwhelmed and insulted. We are pronounced guilty before being heard.
When one is of Arab and Muslim origin, when one presents herself with an external sign of belonging to Islam — with a pretty scarf on her head, for example — social networks and media outlets turn into bulldozers that crush everything in their paths.
Ibtissem’s case is in some ways similar to that of the professor she tweeted about: Tariq Ramadan. Ramadan is one of the most prominent Islamic scholars in Europe.. He was accused of rape and sexual assault in November 2017 in the midst of the #MeToo movement. Although the case is with the courts still, many French media outlets have presented the allegations as facts and some have “reported” lies about Ramadan.
Chandra Muzzafar, a Malaysian academic and social activist, said that both the authorities and “the French media’s coverage of Tariq Ramadan reflects a larger problem. Dominant French society does not take kindly to those who have the courage to criticize its bias against Islam and its followers.”
Nowadays, the climate in France is one of fear. President Emmanuel Macron said he doesn’t want to live in “a France of suspicion.” Undoubtedly, suspicion and fear lurks online and screams at the slightest provocation.
France, the nation of Descartes and Voltaire, has missed an opportunity to reconcile its historical and political complexities with its cultural and religious diversity. Ibtissem could have become the new face of a république that openly cherishes pluralism and the heritage of its Muslim citizens.
Ibtissem could have been a symbol of a new France that accepts Islam as a French and European religion that is part of its identity. Instead, she’s become a symbol of France’s inability to move beyond its paranoid fear of the Islamicization of Europe by its own citizens.