TO SEE THE name of the countries lined up in outrage against French President Emmanuel Macron is also to come face to face with the problem of political Islam. The latest trigger has been his speech that paid tribute to Samuel Paty, the schoolteacher killed in public by a Muslim fanatic for showing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in his classroom. Macron eulogised Paty as only doing what a good teacher should do and affirmed that it wouldn’t deter France from a culture that permitted the showing of such visuals.
Consider what he said and the reaction it drew. In Macron’s words: “We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil. We will provide all the opportunities that the Republic owes all its young people, without any discrimination.We will continue, Sir. France’s schoolteachers primary and secondary school teachers will teach history—both its glories and its vicissitudes… Like you, we will cultivate tolerance. Like you, we will relentlessly seek to understand and to gain an even better understanding of the things they’d like to take away from us.” These are obvious legs that a good society must stand on unless it is beholden to some other otherworldly end in sight.
And now look at the reaction it drew from Islamic countries which had ignored the killing of Paty itself. Turkey’s president effectively called Macron mad, bigoted and needing treatment. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, accused him of being an Islamophobe, tweeting: ‘Sadly, President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, incl his own citizens,… through encouraging the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam & our Prophet PBUH. By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked & hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe & across the world’. Saudi Arabia, according to Al Jazeera, ‘has said it ‘rejects any attempt to link Islam with terrorism, and condemns the offensive cartoons of the Prophet’ amid an escalating row between France and some Muslim-majority nations over Paris’s support for the right to caricature the Prophet’. Several Middle Eastern countries are angling for a boycott of French goods. The Iranian foreign minister tweeted: ‘Muslims are the primary victims of the ‘cult of hatred’—empowered by colonial regimes & exported by their own clients. Insulting 1.9B Muslims—& their sanctities—for the abhorrent crimes of such extremists is an opportunistic abuse of freedom of speech. It only fuels extremism.’
What these countries railed against Macron also share is the idea that blasphemy is a crime and some blasphemies are deserving of death. The Iranian minister might have called Paty’s killing an ‘extremist’ act but in Iran itself Paty would have been legally sentenced to death for what he did. The response to Macron is, in a sense, a defence of the killing of Paty as just retribution. That so many of them should come together is also umbilically tied to why Europe is increasingly getting worried about radical Islam’s intransigence and the assimilation of Muslim minorities. Why, after all, should Turkey or Iran be concerned about what Macron says in and about France if they didn’t think of Islam as something they all had jurisdiction over? Blasphemy is not an Islamic construct. There are things that must not be spoken about in other cultures too but it does not spill over nearly in such extremism into the migrant outlook. Assimilation is a necessary condition to settle in another society and Europe is increasingly recognising that they have a problem over this with radical Islam. A killing like Paty’s then becomes a stark reminder.
France is instituting measures that would make it more difficult for minorities to remain in religious silos. There is domestic politics involved. Politics however reflects issues that have become imperative.
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Early October, Macron had given another speech where he listed the manner in which Muslims weren’t assimilating their society’s values. He said: “What we must tackle is Islamist separatism. A conscious, theorised, political-religious project is materialising through repeated deviations from the Republic’s values, which is often reflected by the formation of a counter-society as shown by children being taken out of school, the development of separate community sporting and cultural activities serving as a pretext for teaching principles which aren’t in accordance with the Republic’s laws. It’s indoctrination and, through this, the negation of our principles, gender equality and human dignity.”
Global political Islam might have numerous warring factions—Iran and Saudi Arabia would destroy each other if possible—but over core beliefs and blasphemies, there is unison. As a minority, these core ideas can come into conflict with modern secular nations. In Macron’s argument: “And in this radical Islamism—since this is at the heart of the matter let’s talk about it and name it—a proclaimed, publicised desire, a systematic way of organising things to contravene the Republic’s laws and create a parallel order, establish other values, develop another way of organising society which is initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take it over completely. And this is gradually resulting in the rejection of the freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blaspheme, and in us becoming insidiously radicalised.”
France, under Macron, is instituting measures that would make it more difficult for minorities to remain in religious silos. A Guardian article said: ‘The measures include placing mosques under greater control and requiring that imams are trained and certified in France… Associations found to be pushing ideas contrary to republican ideals could be ordered to disband, and €10m (just over £9m) of public funds would be used to finance higher education studies and research into Islamic culture and civilisation.’ Home schooling would be discouraged and children would have to be compulsorily educated together in schools. After the killing of Paty there has also been a crackdown on networks that foment radical Islam in France. A BBC article said: ‘The French government’s general crackdown on radical Islamism, in response to the beheading of the history teacher outside Paris this month, has been rapid and tough—a blizzard of inquiries, closures, plans and proposals that have sometimes been hard to keep track of.’ “Fear will change sides,” President Emmanuel Macron is widely quoted as telling his Defence Council last week.The government has announced more than 120 searches of individual homes, the dissolution of associations accused of spreading Islamist rhetoric, plans to target terrorist funding, new support for teachers, and fresh pressure on social media companies to police content more efficiently.’
There is domestic politics involved. Macron has seen his own popularity dipping and the far right leader Marine Le Pen’s increasing on the back of a clear Islamophobia plank. Elections are going to be in the first half of 2022 and he doesn’t have much time to ensure a victory. Veering rightwards is necessary to prevent the gulf between him and Le Pen widening. Politics however reflects issues that have become imperative and, for Macron, the clash of civilisation is now not at the borders of the continent but within his country. And if he wanted any affirmation of it, on October 29th, a man shouting ‘Allahu Akbar’ killed three, including beheading a woman, at a church in Nice.