On October 2, before a distinguished audience of ministers, politicians, officials and prominent citizens, French President Emmanuel Macron, delivered an hour-long address in the town of Les Mureaux, about 40 km from Paris.
Titled, “Fight against Separatism”, the speech coincided with the trial in the town of those accused of perpetrating the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ murders in January 2015. This was an attack by two Muslim extremists on the offices of the newspaper that had published derogatory cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. Twelve persons were killed in the attacks and several were injured.
This attack had been followed by extremist assaults in Paris in November that year in which 130 persons were killed, and then the Bastille Day attack in Nice in July 2016, when an individual in a 19-tonne truck had mowed through hundreds of revellers and killed about 80 of them. Since March 2012, France had experienced 36 serious or very serious attacks by Muslim extremists in which nearly 300 French citizens have been killed. Besides this, between 2014-16, about 1600 French Muslims had joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria. Macron, after assuming the presidency in May 2017, had committed himself to ending the scourge of Islamic violence.
In a speech in February 2018, Macron had spoken of creating an “Islam of France” – an Islam that would be anchored in national values of secularism and cleanse the faith in France of the influence of radical expressions that had, in his view and that of most observers, had led to the gruesome attacks on innocent French persons in the name of the Islam. His speech on 2 October was the fulfilment of this commitment.
Macron’s speech of 2 October
At the outset, Macron celebrated France’s laicite – its secular order, based on a law of 1905, that firmly enjoins separation of church and state which, by removing faith from the public sphere, has fostered national unity. While the speech was supposed to deal with “separatism”, it only referred to Muslim “separatism” – Muslims, numbering about six million, are the largest minority in France and constitute about nine percent of the total population. They are more than the other three minorities – Protestants, Jews and Buddhists – combined.
Muslim “separatism” was described by the president as a “political-religious project” that deviated from the values of the Republic and sought the creation of a “counter-society” through the rejection of national principles relating to “gender equality and human dignity”. Wedded to the ideology of radical Islamism, the project’s adherents, through terrorism, sought to create a parallel order in the state and finally take over the country completely. They would thus deprive the nation the rights provided by laicite – “freedom of expression, freedom of conscience and the right to blaspheme”.
Macron accepted that some of the “separatism” was due to the failure of state order that had led to ghettoization, creating a “concentration of abject poverty”, poor educational facilities and obstruction to social mobility. Since the Republic had failed to fulfil its responsibilities in crucial areas, many of the marginalised had been allured by Islamic organisations that had provided welfare services, including education, teaching of Arabic, sports and care for the elderly.
Macron also agreed that France’s colonial past had left behind unresolved issues that continued to foment discord between different sections of the French community and raised problems in shaping a cohesive national identity. He pointed out that the separatism engendered by the colonial legacy had been strengthened by “taboos we ourselves have maintained”, possibly an oblique reference to the racism that informs most encounters between France’s white community and its Muslim compatriots.
The rest of the speech was about radicalisation and the need to combat it firmly, using the full coercive force of the state. As part of his long-term plan to confront and eradicate extremism, the president set out five pillars:
one, more strict laws and more effective responses to threats from extremist violence;
two, better monitoring of associations to identify those that preach separatism;
three, ensuring that schools conform to the secular norms of the Republic, and ending private home-education that cultivates radical beliefs;
four, forging an “Enlightenment Islam”, ie, an Islam that is compatible with Enlightenment values, so that the faith “structures itself” to become a partner of the Republic, particularly in the acceptance of France’s core principle of laicite, and,
five, making citizens fear the Republic through tough laws and rules and also love France by inculcating in them the sense that it will “enable everyone to build their own lives”.
The most controversial remark in this long harangue was that “Islam is a religion that is currently experiencing a crisis all over the world … this crisis is linked to tensions between forms of fundamentalism [which is] leading to a very strong hardening”.
The speech provoked widespread criticism from prominent Muslim leaders and street demonstrations. However, what encouraged public agitations was the news that a school teacher, Samuel Paty, had shown the old cartoons caricaturing Prophet Mohammed to his students during a discussion relating to free speech and expression. This led a young Chechen to publicly behead the teacher on October 16.
At the Paty memorial at the Sorbonne on October 21, Macron followed up his earlier remarks with a second speech. He contrasted the intolerance and violence of Islamic terrorists with the cherished values of the Republic, values that had been upheld by Paty as a teacher as he had pursued his duty to “make Republicans”. He condemned the extremists as pursuing a “conspiracy of folly, lies, conflation, hatred of the other, hatred of what we are deep down”.
Macron then completed his address on a high note, declaring: “We will defend the freedom that you [Paty] taught so well … We will not disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil.” He concluded that education in France will “increase understanding of our nation, our values and our Europe. We will continue to fight for freedom … because in France the Enlightenment will never grow dim.”
Macron’s speech of October 21, which seemed to be condoning the caricatures about the prophet, unleashed a storm of protest from Muslim leaders and public demonstrations: in Bangladesh, 50,000 people took to the streets to condemn Macron. Turkish President Erdogan described Macron as “mentally ill” and called for a boycott of French products. Malaysia’s former prime minister Mahathir Mohammed thought the French president’s attitude “very primitive”.
The Saudi foreign ministry condemned the offensive cartoons and asserted that intellectual and cultural freedom had to be a “beacon of respect, tolerance and peace” and should reject acts and practices that “generate hatred, violence and extremism” and undermine co-existence.
Public support for Macron came from the UAE: its minister of state for foreign affairs, Anwar Gargash, criticised the “politics” fomenting the furore and blamed Erdogan for manipulating “a religious issue for political purposes” to promote his interest to “become the leader of Sunni Islam”. He also noted that Macron was opposing Turkey’s ambitions to dominate the Mediterranean.
The atmosphere in France and some parts of Europe got further heated with two more heinous attacks. On October 29, a Tunisian migrant, Brahim Aouissaaoui, stabbed three people to death at a church in Nice. He had arrived in France only a month earlier, thus suggesting that he had already been radicalised.
Soon after this, on November 2, a 20-year old resident of Austria who was of Macedonian origin, with an earlier record of support for the Islamic State, randomly shot at late-night guests in restaurants in Vienna; he killed four persons and injured 23. He had been arrested earlier and jailed in April 2019 for trying to join the ISIS in Syria.
Thus, the Nice and Vienna attacks, coming so soon after Macron’s two speeches, have generated a robust discussion in France, Europe and other parts of the world about the president’s insistence on untrammelled free expression, his upholding of laicite, and his understanding and prescription about the challenges that France faces from Islamic extremism.
The rightwing in France has usually portrayed Macron as soft on terror: the mayor of Nice has called for a war on terror, while another politician has declared that “France is no longer free! … We must annihilate the Islamists.” From the far right Marine Le Pen congratulated Macron for accepting her view of Islamism as the enemy, but then doing nothing to combat it.
Several commentators have been sharply critical of Macron on different counts. Not surprisingly, Arab origin writers have been particularly strident in their comments. Khalid Hajji, in Middle East Eye, said Macron lacked “clarity and discernment” in picking up a fight with “Islam”, when the real issue is how to balance respect for faith with the right of free expression. Nabila Ramadani wrote in The Independent that Macron had aligned himself with Europe’s hardcore racists who viewed Muslims as “backward, moronic and – most terrifyingly of all – irrevocably savage”.
Amira Abo el Fetouh pointed out that Macron’s campaign against Muslims was “the product of racism rooted deep within French psyche”; thus, the present-day crisis was not about Islam but “French values”. Ramzy Baroud said the “true culprits” in the ongoing contentions were Macron’s failures to handle popular dissatisfaction with his rule; hence the diversion into targeting France’s “most marginalised and impoverished French Arab and African communities in the name of fighting for the ‘values’ of the Republic against ‘Islamic terrorism’.”
Macron also has his defenders. John Lichfield has written in Politico that to describe Macron as the culprit is “dishonest and dangerous”, given that France has suffered the most in Europe from Islamic terrorism. Nick Ottens has said in Atlantic Sentinel that Macron is “the most liberal president France has had since the 1970s”; in the face of the severest provocations from extremist violence, he has been remarkably restrained and that his approach to the problem of radicalisation should be viewed not piecemeal but as a composite package.
The Israeli writer, Tsilla Hershko, writing in The Algemeiner, believes the anti-France demonstrations “reflect the ongoing civilisational war between Western democracies and the non-democratic Muslim states”, and insisted that clear restrictions be enforced “on anti-Republican sentiment and violent incitement within the country”.
Perhaps surprised by the spread and ferocity of the criticisms directed at him, at the end of October, Macron initiated some damage-control: in an interview with Al Jazeera, he said that he understood the feelings of Muslims who were shocked by the prophet’s cartoons, but clarified that “radical Islam” was the common enemy of all, particularly Muslims. He said the anger against him was the result of “lies and distortions” that had led people to believe that the cartoons had been created by the state and that he supported them. At the same time, he said he would support in France “the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw”.
Macron and Islam
The ongoing debate inspired by Macron’s speeches is now being shaped in stark terms: free expression, as exemplified by laicite, versus “Islam”. Both concepts offer no scope for nuance or prospects of mutual understanding and accommodation; the outcome of this confrontation is even being viewed as crucial for the survival of the Republic.
In the following paragraphs, we will examine, one, Macron’s diagnosis and prescriptions in relation to the problem of “Islam”, and, two, the issue of free expression that is seen as central to laicite.
The main problem with Macron’s message is that his diagnosis of the problem is flawed in several respects.
Throughout his speech Macron conflates Islam the faith with Muslims the people, suggesting there is one uniform faith and one uniform set of believers. To compound this folly, he then goes on to conflate Islam the faith with “Islamism” (the political expression of the faith) and radical Islam, suggesting that all three are identical concepts. The conclusion that flows from these two crucial errors is that Islam the faith is projected as the fountainhead of the violence that is linked to the entire global Muslim community.
Thus, Macron says: “Islam is a religion that is currently experiencing a crisis all over the world”. He describes this “crisis” as being “linked to tensions between different forms of fundamentalism” that has led to a “very strong hardening” in the faith across the world. To compound his confusions relating to “Islam”, Macron recalls the Tunisia of 30 years ago, when “the situation was radically different in the way religion was applied”. Here, Macron appears to be recalling nostalgically when Tunisia was ruled by a tyranny, albeit one that had close ties with France and ruthlessly suppressed all expressions of the Muslim faith.
He also fails to note that present-day Tunisia is a functioning democracy, upholding human rights and gender equality for all citizens, and allowing all parties, including an Islamist party, Ennahda, to participate in elections and seek power. In fact, the Islamist party has played a major role in shaping Tunisia’s democratic constitution.
In the same vein, Macron then expresses his concerns about “Islamism” and refers to three expressions that he believes are sources of modern-day radicalisation – Wahhabism, Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are all viewed as encouraging separatism, radicalism and denying gender equality, and penetrating the “heart” of France through indoctrination.
Macron should have better-tutored in Islamism. Yes, there is a “Salafist” trend in political Islam – the desire to reform a state order on the basis of Islamic principles. These principles are obtained from the beliefs and practices of pristine Islam, the faith of the first three generations of Muslims. This effort of deriving political norms and principles from early Islam has three expressions today: Wahhabiyya; the Muslim Brotherhood movement, founded in Egypt in 1928, and Jihad.
Wahhabiyya is a reform movement from 18th century Najd (central Arabia) that today informs state order in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Essentially it is quietist, in that state authority vests in the ruler, who is responsible for the security and welfare of his people, who owe him loyalty and obedience. Wahhabiyya in itself does not recommend violence, nor are its adherents inherently violent. Again, the manifestations of this belief-system in Saudi Arabia and Qatar show how much diversity this doctrine is capable of in practice.
The Muslim Brotherhood espouses political activism: it is a grassroots movement, whose intellectuals over the last 40 years have attempted to draw from pristine Islam the principles that would accommodate the norms and institutions of parliamentary democracy. During the early period of the Arab Spring, Brotherhood members participated in democratic elections and formed governments in Egypt and Tunisia and helped to promulgate democratic constitutions in both countries.
The Brotherhood government in Egypt was violently overthrown in a coup d’etat in 2013. The principal concern of the armed forces and their Gulf Arab supporters was that this democratic initiative would be successful and emerge as a model for other countries in West Asia that were (and still are) under authoritarian rule. In Tunisia, however, the constitution remains in place, free elections continue to be held, and the Islamist Ennahda continues to be a central role-player in domestic politics.
Radicalism in Islam
The only expression of political Islam that accepts violence as an instrument to achieve an “Islamic” state is jihad, referred to by scholars as “Salafi-Jihadism”. Its proponents also draw the doctrinal justifications for their violence from their understanding of the same texts and commentaries that have influenced Wahhabiyya and the Brotherhood. Modern research has shown that most jihadis are radicalised not so much by Islamist ideology as by considerations of revenge for the repression, humiliation and injustice they suffer; hence, Macron’s focus on “Islam” as the source of radicalisation is quite misplaced.
It will thus be seen that ‘political Islam’ is an ideological construct that is quite distinct from the faith that eschews politics and confines itself to setting out prescriptions relating to worship and personal conduct and morality. On the same lines, the term “Islam” cannot be applied to the faith as well as its believers – both are extraordinarily diverse in terms of belief and practice.
It would be useful for western leaders and scholars to recall that modern-day jihad is the product neither of the faith nor of some of its followers: it has its roots in a state-sponsored project – put together by the US, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan – to opportunistically use “Islam” to support a political and military enterprise, the confrontation against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s, referred to as a ‘global jihad’. At that time, “Islam” – the faith and the Muslim people – were viewed as “natural allies” of the West against godless communism.
The doctrinal support for jihad is certainly drawn by its intellectuals (not its rank and file) from the doctrines of Islam, but these are the personal understandings of the intellectuals concerned of the texts they refer to, understandings that are not backed in any instance by mainstream scholarship.
There is an ongoing debate in France on whether radicalisation is being driven by “Islam” (the faith) or socio-economic factors. The academic divide here is quite deep. A well-known sociologist, Olivier Galland, has asserted that radicalisation is the effect of Islam rather than social factors like poverty. He is backed by the distinguished scholar of political Islam, Gilles Kepel, who has warned that Europe risks a civil war because of the setting up of “radical Islamic parallel societies” and that Muslims tended to identify only with their local neighbourhoods and with their faith.
This view is challenged by the findings of a poll among French Muslims early this year that showed that 81 percent had a positive view of French secularism, and 77 percent said they had no difficulty in practising their faith. Besides this, 90 percent said they loved France, while 82 percent said they were proud to be French. However, 44 percent said they were not well-regarded by the rest of society; this number went up to 61 percent among the poorer community. These figures show that, rather than “separatism” that Macron emphasised in his speech, the problem for Muslims in France is that of alienation.
Contradicting the views of Galland and Kepel, several commentators have focused on the alienation and marginalisation of large numbers of Muslims from mainstream France. Shireen Hunter, writing in November 2015, just after the attacks in Paris, had highlighted socio-economic deprivation, particularly poverty, inadequate education, unemployment, and entrenched discrimination as contributing to the sense of exclusion and propelling some Muslim youth towards radicalisation. Olivier Roy, an authority on political Islam, told a parliamentary committee that most Muslims make an effort to integrate into French culture, but they often “don’t get a payback in return, they don’t have the benefit of recognition”.
Macron in his speech did attempt to present a balanced picture by mentioning the socio-economic aspects that have caused the “ghettoization” of a large number of Muslims and denied them essential services that have encouraged their sense of exclusion from the state order. However, he failed to expand on this and present clear and effective measures to correct the situation.
Entirely missing from his presentation was any reference to the over 1000 instances of Islamophobic attacks that took place in France in 2019; these included: 68 physical attacks; 22 cases of vandalism of sacred shrines, and numerous instances of hate speech, incitement to racial hatred, and defamation. Observers have also pointed out that in 2018 Macron refused to implement ambitious housing projects in France’s suburban ghettos that he had himself advocated earlier and commissioned a report.
The far-reaching “reform” of Islam to make it “compatible with Enlightenment values” was at the heart of Macron’s message. Like most political terms in popular use, “Enlightenment” has come to describe loosely all that is best about Western culture. Thus, the Enlightenment gave humankind rationality, egalitarianism and universal values that came to be realised and institutionalised in human rights, democratic order, gender equality, the scientific and industrial revolutions, and backing for free enterprise. This places Western nations in the vanguard of present-day human societies, and makes them the natural leaders of contemporary world order – geopolitically, economically and civilisationally. In the context of reforming Islam, however, the reference to Enlightenment was ill-advised.
Given the contributions of Rousseau, Voltaire and French intellectuals to the Enlightenment, France asserts frequently its claim to be a principal shaper of modernity. This of course camouflages the fact that the Enlightenment is a ‘collective’ concept that blurs important details: thus, most of its protagonists, including Voltaire, believed in God. In politics, none of them sought a democratic order, while few of them supported universal education. Most had little interest in social equality.
But there are two aspects of the Enlightenment that concern Islam and Muslims: one, the deep animosity of Enlightenment figures for Islam and Muslims, and, two, that no Enlightenment values or institutions were ever implemented in the Muslim (or other) colonies.
Voltaire (1694-1778) described Muslims as “the greatest curse on earth”; it is not enough to humiliate them, he said, “they should be destroyed”. The French scholar, Chateaubriand (1768-1848) saw Islam as a “cult that was civilisation’s enemy, systematically favourable to ignorance, to despotism, to slavery”. Ernest Renan (1823-92), a great scholar of Semitic history, failed to distinguish between Jews and Arabs, but saw both of them “as an incomplete race, by virtue of its simplicity [which has] never been able to achieve maturity”.
Even the great exponent of democratic values, Alexis de Toqueville (1805-59) supported two separate laws in Africa – one for the French, the other for the natives. He condoned French barbarism in the colonies as “regrettable necessities” and firmly denied he was revolted by the atrocities.
French colonialists in North Africa reflected the racist arrogance of their intellectuals at home. In Algeria, in the early period of conquest, no Enlightenment values were apparent in French conduct: entire tribes were massacred, rewards were offered for the ears of slain Arabs, while heads were carried home as trophies. Not surprisingly, Macron’s reference to “Enlightenment Islam” was received with derision, given the lived experience of day-to-day racism that draws from the treasure-trove of colonial history.
Free expression and laicite
Macron’s commitment to free expression is mentioned forcefully in both his October 2 and October 21 speeches. He sees this freedom as central to laicite and the core value of the Republic. He also sees this freedom being threatened by Islamic violence, given that it brings issues of religious faith into the public domain and, in the name of that faith, seeks to abridge the freedoms enshrined in laicite.
In Macron’s view, there can be no compromise on this point: in his emotional oration at the Paty memorial, he specifically refused to disavow “the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil”. Later, in his Al Jazeera interview, despite public opprobrium, the furthest he would go was to “understand” the anger of the Muslims, but still refused to give up on the cartoons.
Though the law enforcing laicite in France was passed in 1905, it is in connection with the increased presence and visibility of the country’s Muslim population that we see concerns relating to its norms. Thus, a law of 2004 banned the public display of symbols of one’s faith; in 2010, wearing the veil in public was banned, while in 2010 all religious garb was banned as well.
The issue of the cartoons of the prophet has been with us since the Charlie Hebdo violence of January 2015 and has retained its resonance largely due to the French insistence that their commitment to laicite does not provide for any compromise. Arab-origin commentators in France, on the other hand, see the issue through the prism of entrenched racism in France and the associated hostility to Islam and its prophet. Thus, Amel Boubekeur, a specialist in French Islam, sees the cartoons issue as the “hyper-politicisation of Islam in France”, while Rim-Sarah Alouane, a scholar of religious freedom, believes that laicite is being “weaponised” to silence Muslim voices, not just those of the radicals.
Other observers are bewildered by what they see as French obduracy on the subject. Free expression, they point out, must necessarily be circumscribed by social responsibility. Graham Fuller says that prudence and wisdom are important considerations while exercising free speech. They point out that restrictions on free expression are well-established in France: denial of the Holocaust, questioning the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, or calling for a ban on Israeli products are all punishable under the law. In fact, Macron has said publicly that in his view both anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are crimes, quite a strange position to take by one who condones cartoons that are offensive to over a billion people.
There is a further irony in Macron’s position: his pursuit of “Enlightenment Islam” calls for robust state intervention in matters relating to the Muslim faith – training of imams, funding of state-sponsored Islamic organisations, expanding the teaching of Arabic in schools, and making France a global centre for the study of Muslim civilisations.
Politics at Play
Macron’s speeches have provided no healing touch in a country reeling from the pandemic and the attendant economic challenges. They have in fact exacerbated the alienation of French Muslims by accusing them of separatism, identifying their faith as the source of violence, accusing the community collectively of being a threat to the unity of the nation, while displaying no respect for their religious sentiments and scant understanding of the sources of their alienation.
In Macron’s challenge to Islam, the Muslim is “reduced to his religion”, as an imam in Bordeaux has noted. Backing this view, Khalid Hajji has pointed out that “a criminal or a terrorist is not only the product of Islamic culture, but also of the French republic”. Again, in upholding the values of laicite, the president makes no distinction between being conservative and being radical, and actually suggests that seeking a traditional life-style is the first step to radical violence.
Thus, it would appear that France’s hundred-year commitment to laicite is mortally threatened by matters relating to women’s clothing, or whether 50,000 students (out of 12 million school children) get home-schooling, or restricting the publication of the cartoons that are offensive not just to French Muslims but to Muslims the world over. It is this aggressive intolerance on the part of the president that has led to Muslim violence rather than any tenets of their faith.
What is undeniable is that Macron’s positions enjoy considerable support among the white community in France, leading several commentators to suggest that the two speeches might have been motivated by political considerations. There is much merit in this view. As Malia Bouattia puts it in Middle East Eye, “going after Muslims” is the oldest trick in the rightwing book.
The present is a difficult period for France. The president is accused of not handling the pandemic effectively. The infections have re-surfaced, leading to a fresh and rather unpopular lockdown. There are also public concerns that a fresh upsurge could strain medical facilities to their full capacity.
The gilets jaunes (‘yellow vests’) movement, consisting of street demonstrators complaining about the economy since November 2018 lost its tempo due to the pandemic and is poised to make a comeback. The movement, largely from smaller provincial cities, was a protest against austerity and major economic reforms the president has been advocating since the early part of his presidency. Unable to appease the protestors, Macron could see himself challenged by the populist approach from the hard right, such as Marine Le Pen.
With local elections due next year and presidential elections in 2022, Macron is under pressure to regain the aura that surrounded his leadership three years ago and secure his re-election.
He is seeking it in this deliberate collision with “Islam”. The consequences are unlikely to be good either for him or France.
(The author, a former diplomat, holds the Ram Sathe Chair for International Studies, Symbiosis International University, Pune.)