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France’s Islamophobia

Croissants and cartoons:

by Z A Rahman


From the Croissant to the Cartoons: France’s Islamophobic Legacy:

“Seek help in Allah and be patient. Verily, the earth is Allah’s. He gives it as a heritage to whom He will of His slaves, and the (blessed) end is for the Muttaqun (pious).” [1]

What happened recently in France has once again shed the spotlight on France’s “Muslim problem” but for the Muslims in France, they now fear the rise in what has become quite a norm in France for many years, Islamaphobia. One could argue that the problem of Islamophobia started many centuries ago with the Crusades – we know the Persian term ‘Franjistan’ (“Land of the Franks”) was used by Muslims to refer to crusading Christendom of Europe and was commonly used over several centuries in the Ottoman Empire. The Franks were a people who originated from what is today France and of course, Pope Urban II who called the First Crusades, did so from Claremont in France where he called upon Knights there to:

“Destroy the despised, vile race [Muslims].. Infidels [Muslims].. Barbarians [Muslims] for the remission of your sins for the assurance of the Kingdom of Heaven” (ironically, the word ‘infidel’ which is today associated as being used by Muslims, was actually coined by Pope Urban against the Muslims) [2]

During this period, the Muslims came to be referred to as the ‘Saracens’, which had racist connotations as noted in many medieval works depicting Muslims as Black skinned and Christians as White skinned. The OldFrench 11th Century heroic poem, ‘The Song of Roland’ takes the association of black skin with Saracens astep further by making it their ‘exotic feature’ [3].

The word “Islamophobe” in French however can first be documented in 1912 and the word “Islamophobia” in English in 1924. The first concept of “Islamophobia” is created at the end of the First World War by Étienne Dinet and Sliman Ben Ibrahim. In their ‘La Vie de Mohammed, Prophéte d’Allah (1918)’ the authors describe by “islamophobie” official French politics towards Muslim soldiers who are, in the depiction of the authors, inappropriately treated by the nation for their sacrifice in the name of the ‘father land’.

But France’s association with Islamphobia is so ingrained in the psyche and subconscious that not many today know about the origins of one of its most famous patisserie, the Croissant.  To navigate the answer to this however, we must go back to the 16th and 17th Century when Islam was a superpower in the world.

Indeed Islam was a dominant power for much of its history which was reflected perhaps in its most dominant form with the Uthmani Khilafah, the Ottoman Empire which was one of the largest and most influential empires in not only Islamic history, but also world history. Its reach extended to three continents and it survived for more than six centuries.

Today, it is hard to imagine Morocco defeating Spain, Tunisia conquering Italy and Turkey marching up to Vienna, but it did happen in the past when Muslims were the dominant power in the world in what many refer to as the “Golden Age” of Islam.

Sultan Suleiman – 1529 – The Siege of Vienna

The Ottoman Empire expanded most during the reign of one of its finest leaders, Sultan Suleiman who has come to be known as the ‘Magnificent’. In 1529, the Ottomans reached all the way to Vienna, Austria and laid siege to it. This was to be the Ottoman Empire’s most ambitious expedition and the apogee of its drive towards Western Europe. There, Sultan Suleiman came up against his foe and leader of the Holy Roman Empire, Charles V. An Italian poet, Ludovico Ariosto referred to these two men as follows:

Two sons shining upon the globe and two rulers competing for universal supremacy: A Christian emperor in the West and a Muslim Sultan in the East[4].

Sultan Suleiman set off with an army of over 150,000 and in some accounts, up to 250,000 in May 1529 and faced obstacles right from the outset. The spring rain which was a common occurrence in this part of South-Eastern Europe was extremely heavy that year and many large-calibre cannons became hopelessly mired in the mud soaked ground and had to be left behind and as a result, they failed to significantly damage the Austrian defence and with that, the siege ended with the Austrians inflicting upon Sultan Suleiman his first defeat, sowing the seeds of a bitter Ottoman-Habsburg rivalry which lasted until the 20th century [5]. In 1532, Sultan Suleiman tried again though they did not make it to Vienna this time. He died in his tent whilst engaged in battle in Hungary at the age of 70 having spent almost his entire adult life dedicated to the noble deed, often referred to as the sixth pillar in Islam, Jihad, Rahimahullah (May Allah have mercy on him). 

Sultan Muhammad – 1683 -The Battle of Vienna

Such was the manner of the defeat that the Ottomans did not come back for a period of 150 years. But the ‘never accept defeat’ attitude which was such an ingrained feature in the Muslims of the time meant that the air trembled to the beat of the war drums once again, this time under the Sultan Muhammad i-rabi (Mehmed IV) who was known as the ‘Hunter’.

On the political front, the Ottoman Empire had been providing military assistance to the Hungarians (who were Protestants) and to non-Catholic minorities in Habsburg-occupied portions of Hungary whose King, Thököly, sought the help of the Ottomans following raids from the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire. Accordingly, in 1681 and 1682, clashes between the Ottomans and the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire of Vienna took place in what was becoming a prelude for the battle of Central Europe. Sultan Muhammad’s Grand Vizier, Kara Mustafa Pasha had sought payment of the Jizyahfrom the Vienna but they refused and Kara Mustafa Pasha convinced a reluctant Sultan Muhammad to allow him to attack Vienna. The rulers of Vienna managed to seek help from a number of other Christian states which culminated in the formation of the ‘Holy Christian League’ which consisted of the Habsburg Holy Roman Empire, the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Viennese Republic. The Tsardom of Russia would later join. As with the Crusades waged against the Muslims centuries before, this was all initiated by the Pope, in this instance, Pope Innocent XI. They mustered up a force numbering nearly 100,000 of which the largest contingent of 30,000, was from the Polish forces led by King John III Sobieski. A similar number of Ottomans were supported by 30,000 of the fearsome forces of the Crimean Khanate (modern day Crimea), which was an Ottoman protectorate. They also received support from the Protestant Christians of Hungary who enjoyed greater freedoms under the Ottomans than they did under the Catholics of Vienna.

The scene was set and the battle commenced with the Ottomans making significant advancement early on. The motivation was high however on the part of their foes on this occasion as this war, perhaps for the first time since the crusades was being viewed by them as being for the Christian faith. Unlike the crusades of course, the battleground this time was in the heart of Europe. The key portion of the battle was fought on 11 and 12 September. The Polish contingent fought bravely and together with a number of tactical errors on part of Kara Mustafa Pasha, the tide turned such that the Ottomans were forced to retreat.  A desperate Kara Mustafa led his personal escort into the fray, hoping to withstand the Christian onslaught, but could do no more than rescue the flag of the Ottomans. When the battle was over, more than 30,000 Christian forces had been killed – and over 15,000 Muslims. Vienna survived again

The Birth of the Croissant

Several culinary legends are related to the Battle of Vienna.

One of King John III Sobieski’s men who fought particularly well was Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki such that that after the battle in Vienna, the King himself presented Kulczycki with large amounts of coffee found in the captured camp of the retreating Ottoman army and with this, opened the first Coffee shop in Western Europe[7].

Also, it has been documented that the renowned patisserie, the Croissant also came into being in this period. ‘Croissant’ of course means Crescent, as in a crescent moon. To celebrate the end of the battle of Vienna and in an act of mocking their Muslim enemies, bakers (who were said to have played a role in the battle) in Vienna made a pastry in the shape of the crescents they had seen on the battle standards of the Ottomans which featured on Ottoman standards since the 15th Century. One account reads as follows:

“… the baker had the patriotic, humorous idea to give his rolls the shape of the half-moon crescent, the emblem of the Mohammedans”[8].

They called this new pastry the “Kipferl” which is the German word for “crescent” and continued baking if for many years to commemorate the Christian victory over the Muslims. It was not until 1770 that the pastry came to be known as the croissant when Austrian Princess, Marie married King Louis XVI of France [9].

Points to Note:

The origins of the croissant and the caricature of the Prophet in our time, show that the Sunnah (the way) of these nations towards Muslims has always been to mock and ridicule.  You can only create the present with what you inherited from the past and in the case of Charlie Hebdo, they have inherited the mocking legacy of the inventors of the croissant.

Many historians consider the failure of the Turks to take Vienna as the beginning of the decline of the Ottoman Empire—though it still lasted nearly three more centuries. After Vienna, the relationship between Christendom and Islam began to change. For centuries, the Christians had attempted to keep the Muslims at bay and, if possible, to recapture areas, most notably Palestine. Now, as Ottoman power visibly weakened, it became possible to imagine not merely limitations on Muslim power but its eventual elimination.

With the decline of the Ottoman Empire, in 1830, the French, as part of its Colonial project, captured Algeria, Tunisia, and Morocco as well as a number other African states and Syria in the middle east at the end of World War 1 – these were all of course former territories of the Ottoman Empire. With respect to Syria, many in France saw this as the “natural extension of France” in reference to its crusading past. Recruiting posters during WW1 in France even read as:”Pour achiever la croisade au droit” – meaning “Finish the just Crusade, subscribe” [10].

Following WW2, the French committed genocide against the Algerians, a point which Turkey’s Tayyip Erdogan raised in 2011 when he said:

“What the French did in Algeria was genocide. 15% of the Algerian population was massacred during the French occupation from 1945 to 1962. They were mercilessly martyred. If Mr Sarkozy doesn’t know there was genocide, he can ask his father, Pal Sarkozy … who was a legionnaire in Algeria in the 1940s. I’m sure he has a lot to tell his son about the massacres committed by the French in Algeria.” [11]

France’s more recent history is plagued with the targeting of Muslims where one of its main political parties is the Front National, Le pen. The HIijab, Islamic headscarf has been banned in schools since 2004, and veil orNiqab, the Islamic full-face veil has been banned nationally since April 2011. For the far-right, the Islamic headscarf is seen as the symbol of the Muslim invasion of France. And although the far-right is dealing with the dirty work, the left is taking advantage of it. I think that the ideology which is harming Muslims today in France is not only the far-right one, but it is mainly the secularist one defended by the left.

Looking at the wider picture, Europe’s Christendom of course also never gave up on their dream in capturing Palestine and it came into Britain’s rule from 1920 following World War 1 and the complete collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

The Battle of Vienna ultimately proved to be a decisive factor in how the future world took shape. Many seem to think that the troubles between the Muslim World and the Western World in the modern era started with the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers.  It would be more accurate to state however that the pro-war cabal in Western governments were taken off the leash to continue what had started nearly a century ago. The Muslim world has never recovered from the destruction of the Ottoman Empire at the hands of the western imperialists, the origins of which find its roots with the battle of Vienna. Conversely, the western world, particularly France over the same period adopted an approach towards Muslims which one may argue is cannibalistic “feeding” on croissants which of course we now know, symbolised the eating of the Ottoman Muslims. It is perhaps no surprise then that the very same nation was home to a group of people who made it their vision to ridicule Muslims in such a barbaric fashion, now attacks the centre most figure in Islam through grotesque caricatures the Messenger of Allah (sallallahu ‘alayhi wassallam) using a selective application of “free speech”.

Far-right organisations across Europe with Neo-conservatives at the helm of western governments are a chilling echo of the time of the battle of Vienna. In many cases across Europe where the anti-Muslim narrative has come to be recognised as a central most feature of the far-right discourse and with this, we are seeing the re-birth of the Holy Christian League that was formed to defeat the Ottomans before the battle of Vienna. A report conducted in 2013, highlighted the coming together of European far-right organisations across Europe in the same geographical area as in the 17thCentury including France, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Austria as well as others such as Britain with the uniting factor being their hatred of Islam and Muslims [12]. The underlying hate has manifested from the paradigms of empires to the construct of nation states and secular liberalism. The tide, at least perceptively, feels as though it is unrelentingly against the Muslims.

However, the Muslims may learn many lessons from the battle of Vienna but none more so than the fact that victory is not achieved through the strength in numbers of the army or the superiority of weaponry for we know that the Ottomans surpassed the Holy Christian League in both these aspect in that battle. As Allah says in the Glorious Qur’an,

“But those who were certain that they would meet Allah said, “How many a small company has overcome a large company by permission of Allah. And Allah is with the patient.” [13]

And how truthful are the words of Umar bin Al-Khattab (radiyAllāhu‘anhu), who told Saad bin Abi Waqqas (RA) when he despatched the army of to the Battle of Al-Qadisiyyah, he advised him:

“Fear your sins more than you fear the enemy as your sins are more dangerous to you than your enemy. We Muslims are only victorious over our enemy because their sins outnumber ours, not for any other reason. If our sins were equal to those of our enemy, then they would defeat us due to their superior numbers and resources.”


[1] Qur’an 7: 128

[2] Fulcher of Chartres’ account of Urban’s speech, Urban II: Speech at Council of Clermont, 1095, Five versions of the Speech;

[3] Kahf, Mohja (1999). Western Representations of the Muslim Women: From Termagant to Odalisque. University of Texas Press.

[4] http://www.historynet.com/turning-the-ottoman-tide-john-iii-sobieski-at-vienna-1683.htm#sthash.4JDturdW.dpuf

[5] The Balkans since 1453, Stavrianos, L.S.

[6] The Ottoman Empire 1326 – 1699, New York: Osprey Publishing.

[7] Vienna 1683, Millar, Simon. 2008

[8] The Baker’s Book: A Practical Hand Book of the Baking Industry in All Countries, Emil Braun,1902 and  The Bloody History of the Croissant, David Halliday.

[9] Calvel, Raymond. The Taste of Bread: A Translation of Le Goût Du Pain, Comment Le Préserver, Comment Le Retrouver. Gaithersburg, MD: Aspen, 2001. 141; DiMuzio, Daniel T. Bread Baking: An Artisan’s Perspective. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2010. 141

[10] http://www.historytoday.com/jonathan-phillips/call-crusades

[11] http://www.theguardian.com/world/2011/dec/23/turkey-accuses-france-genocide-algeria

[12] http://www.femyso.org/sites/default/files/reportfemysov5.1.pdf

[13] Qur’an 2: 249

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