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In France, Furor Over a Muslim Reality Show Star Reveals Deeper Tensions

Forced to leave a popular singing contest after her controversial tweets resurfaced, Mennel Ibstissem is dividing a nation still grappling with questions of terrorism, immigration, and identity

Marc Weitzmann
February 16, 2018
Courtesy TF1
Mennel IbstissemCourtesy TF1
Courtesy TF1
Mennel IbstissemCourtesy TF1

The story of Mennel Ibstissem is the kind of drama only we French can produce. Since it began earlier this month, the country has been awash in op-eds and blog posts, has seen TV hosts crying and storming off the set, even death threats. But what it reveals about life in France under the shadow of terrorism and the troubled relationship between the country at large and its Muslim population is utterly depressing.

But let us start at the beginning. Mennel Ibstissem is a beautiful 22 year old Muslim girl, born in Besançon to Syrian and Moroccan parents. She became an overnight sensation when she appeared on the French version of the television show The Voice, wearing a hijab and singing a gorgeous English and Arabic language version of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” For a moment, she was the sweetheart everyone loved to love. Then, a website unearthed her tweets from July 2016. Writing in the aftermath of the truck attack in Nice that killed 86 people and wounded over 400, she seemed to suggest that the attacks were a false flag operation and that the government was “the real terrorist.” Also, in 2016 and 2017, Ibstissem retweeted the anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné M’Bala M’Bala, claimed her admiration for Tariq Ramadan—currently in custody and charged with raping two women—and communicated with the Baracka City association, an ultra-conservative Muslim association with a reputation of sending jihadists to Syria. In addition, she shared a video of a speech by the French preacher Hassan Iquioussen, infamous for making anti-Semitic comments and endorsing politicians on the French far right. In the video, Iquioussen spends a half hour raging against “the minority of people who will spread division and misery across the world until the end of time,” a people that “Christianity fought for 2000 years before to lose the war, making Islam the sole remnant shield” of human dignity. Can you guess who these people are?

These incendiary social media posts sparked a fiery debate in France: Should Ibstissem be allowed to stay on the show, or should she be kicked off? And why did the show’s broadcaster, TF1, not check her digital past before placing her in front of the cameras?

Defenders of Ibstissem on the left claimed that she had been ousted by far-right websites, that her pure blue eyes and her voice were the best deniers of the puritanism her hijab discretely implied, and that, above all, her choice of “Hallelujah,” a spiritual song of peace written by a famous Jewish artist was the perfect symbol of tolerance and love. Meanwhile, the Bureau de Vigilance contre l’Antisémitisme, the country’s official body dedicated to combating anti-Semitism, and the families of the victims of the Nice attack were vocally demanding Ibstissem be dismissed from the show.

Which, given the realities of reality TV, presented a problem: Most of the season’s episodes were already recorded, which meant that the show’s producers would either have to reshoot the entire season or edit it, as one Hollywood movie recently did with Kevin Spacey, to remove any trace of Ibstissem.

As these questions were being debated, the media circus went into full swing. The daily ultra-popular TPMP TV talk show served as the main ring for a psychodrama of insults and cries on the subject, its hosts spending the entire week trading barbs for and against Ibstissem. Eventually, those pundits who supported Ibstissem’s removal received death threats, further dialing up the heat. And Ibstissem herself published two carefully crafted statements, claiming she was sorry for her past tweets, arguing that they were old and quoted “out of context,” and promising that they did not reflect the person she now was, a patriotic Frenchwoman who “of course condemned terrorism.”

Such professions of faith, however, proved to be insufficient. On February 8th, in a third and final statement, Ibstissem announced in a video that she quitted the show to appease the tensions. “I have faith in humanity and in the kindness of people,” she wrote. “I have faith in a future filled with love and tolerance. I have faith in my country, France… The sole perspective that my words may have wounded someone hurt me. I therefore took the decision of quitting the show. To my supporters, I say, do not fear… I will make this trial a force to keep on spreading a message of peace and tolerance, far from all these fanaticisms. I keep on smiling and will not submit to fear.”

That should have been the end of it. Yet, France being France, it was only the beginning.

First of all, keen-eyed observers of the affair pointed out that, of the several Arabic-language versions of Cohen’s “Hallelujah” available in translation, Ibstissem selected the one by Muhammad al Hussayin’s, an extreme revision of the original lyrics that turn the song into a nasheed, or a Muslim religious chant. Now titled “Ya Illahi,” or “Oh My God,” al Hussayin’s version scrubbed Cohen’s original of any reference to King David and the bible, not to mention all that erotic talk of “remember when I moved in you / And the holy dove was moving too.” Cohen’s distinctive blend of sex and metaphysics, deeply rooted in Jewish and kabbalistic soil, has been replaced by a story of sin, morbid guilt, and submission to God. Given the common perception among radical Islamists that the Jews have lied on their sacred texts and that their writings must be corrected and replaced with the words of the Prophet, the implications of choosing such a stern version of “Hallelujah” are troubling.

Just, however, when Ibstissem’s critics warmed up to their diatribes, her defenders noted that her questionable tweets aside, her website also features her singing songs by the Franco-Israeli singer Tal, as well as by a wide array of pop stars, from Beyoncé to Bob Dylan. And, on The Voice, Ibstissem chose to be mentored by Mika, an openly gay singer and a strong advocate for gay marriage, hardly positions consistent with the Muslim Brotherhood’s worldview.

Ibstissem’s world, then, seems to be one of multiple versions of herself that contradict each other yet coexist peacefully. But this complex insight itself proved too difficult to some in France, who, having learned little from the last decade’s tribulations, found all the wrong things to admire about the young singer. The ultra far right and professional anti-Semite Alain Soral, for example, has come to her defense, and so has—in Le Monde, no less—a local politician called Abdel-Rahmène Azzouzi, who, in the summer of 2014, as French synagogues were under attack, said in a public speech: “I am an anti-Semite and I live with it.” The left’s other leading newspapers, including Liberation, keep publishing essays in Ibstissem’s support, saying that her beauty and her tribute to Cohen are all the proof anyone should need of her pure intentions. Here we are, then, back where we were after the Toulose murders of 2012, when nothing was more urgent than to present radical terrorists as lost kids. It does not take a genius to see where this regressive path is leading.

Marc Weitzmann is the author of 12 books, including, most recently, Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us). He is a regular contributor to Le Monde and Le Point and hosts Signes des Temps, a weekly public radio show on France Culture.