“Ignorance leads to fear, fear leads to hatred, and hatred leads to violence.”
The Charlie Hebdo attack and the subsequent beheading of History teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in his class, created a global stir against extremist factions of Islam. The killer was identified as Abdoullakh Anzorov, an 18-year-old from a Chechen Muslim refugee family. Matters escalated when the French President, Emmanuel Macron, took measures which were deemed as extreme, and which further worsened matters and soured France’s ties with Muslim nations.
In the game of geopolitics nothing is black or white. There are layers over layers of allegiances, strategies, politics, and power struggles which make things very complicated and opaque, yet only a simplistic and morally sane picture is presented to ordinary citizens. France’s latest friction with Islam is no exception, and various angles must be taken into account before coming to a conclusion.
The Laïcité Angle
Modern France emerged after a successful rebellion, and along with it, various ideologies emerged. Of them, the ideas of liberty, fraternity, and equality, took strong root and gained a global appeal; upon its Independence, India too enshrined these ideas in its Constitution.
Another significant concept which took birth was the concept of laïcité, a form of secularism rather unique to France. Unlike American or Indian secularism, laïcité, or French secularism, finds its roots in the conflict and deep distrust between Catholic institutions and the French republic. Laïcité aimed to promote freedom of conscience, equality in law regarding spiritual and religious beliefs, and neutrality of political power.
Right to blaspheme is legally recognized, especially in Western Europe, and the French media holds no bars in availing this right. But as is argued by Farhad Khosrokhavar of Politico, “It is one thing to protect the freedom to blaspheme and another to enthusiastically urge blasphemy, as is the case in France”.
The line between blasphemy and satire is very thin. While satire uses smart and witty digs in a literary manner, blasphemy is a non-argumentative and sarcastic form of free speech. Blasphemy has high potential to turn extreme and ideally, should be used in moderation. This is particularly important for a country such as France where about 7-9% of the population is Muslim, the bulk of whose parents or ancestors find their roots in French colonies of North Africa.
The so-called flag bearers of “freedom of expression” have made life worse for innocent migrant citizens who have already faced many atrocities in their homeland and given the extremists a reason and opportunity to spread their hate propaganda. Extremists and radicals find blasphemy articles handy in brainwashing young Muslims from poor or broken families, urging them to follow a path of destruction. Ultimately, this traps France in a vicious circle of jihadist terror and responsiveness to it, making it less and less free and equal.
The Muslim Leader Angle
As famous Indian journalist Shekhar Gupta states, “all religions are political. At this point, though, Islam is the most politicised”. This became further evident after President of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, known for strong Islamic stance, mocked Macron’s sanity and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan issued a two-page sermon calling for a re-education of the West about Islam. Though Saudi Arabia and UAE have remained silent on this matter, South East Asian countries witnessed anti-Macron protests.
The Islamic world today is facing a leadership crisis within itself. Turkey, former leader of the Islamic world, and Pakistan, who ignores the plight of Uyghurs in China, are building their own Islamic ecosystem. These systems, they envision, will compete with the existing Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in which Saudi Arabia is the leader.
Thus, in order to side-line Saudi Arabia, countries such as Turkey, Pakistan and Malaysia have taken upon themselves the responsibility to protect (and represent) Islam on the global stage.
It is sheer irony that in countries which constitute of a Muslim majority, the governments dodge the concept of secularism as a ‘bad Western concept’, but in countries where Muslims are a minority, Muslims persist to test the (often) democratic establishment’s secular commitments.
The Macron Angle
A graduate of the prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration (ENA) and an investment banker-turned-politician, Emmanuel Macron is rapidly losing support in his home turf as he struggles to regain public confidence. According to OpinionWay, only 28% of voters are satisfied with his performance – down from 35% in July. At this point, he is actually more unpopular than were either of his predecessors – François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy.
Many have concluded that his extreme actions are publicity stunts for increasing his name in regional politics by harassing minorities in the name of security. As per an opinion article in the Financial Times titled “Macron’s war on Islamic separatism only divides France further” (now removed), he was alienating a Muslim majority that also hates terrorism.
But Macron argues by stating that “journalists who write in a country that is the heir to the Enlightenment and the French Revolution — when I see them legitimizing this violence, and saying that the heart of the problem is that France is racist and Islamophobic, then I say the founding principles have been lost.”
His words may not be entirely false. Reports suggest that more than 250 people have died in terror attacks in France since 2015, the largest number in any Western country since then. Particularly and painfully memorable is the victim Jacques Hamel, an 85-year-old priest whose throat was slashed by Muslim fundamentalists in 2016 in a small stone church in the village of Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray.
An excerpt from Macron’s letter to the Financial Times goes like this:
“France is a country that knows what it owes to the Islamic civilisation: its mathematics, its science, its architecture all borrow from it, and I announced the creation of an institute in Paris to showcase this great wealth. France is a country where Muslim leaders speak out when the worst happens and call on followers to fight radical Islamism and defend freedom of expression.”
The Destabilization Angle
After the two Great Wars, direct attacks became a costly endeavour. Countries resorted to subtle measures to dominate other country. These measures were widespread during the Cold wars, which I term as World War III, when national leaders where ousted overnight and new orders were established. Within India’s neighbourhood, the all-too-familiar examples are of the Iranian Revolution which took place strategically just after Iran nationalised its oil refineries, and the sudden jihadi movement in Afghanistan to counter the USSR army.
Such forms of instability have plagued nations in which much larger nations have vested interests. The aim is to remove existing leaders and install subverted ones who will change the policies favouring the meddling nation indirectly. Foreign policy becomes a method of selling the integrity of the nation.
The concept of harbouring a divide may be on the grounds of religion, race, gender, class (bourgeoisie), etc. with groups mushrooming overnight and an unleashed media adding fuel to the fire. And it is possible that France is seeing something similar.
In the case of France, the feud between migrants and locals is not new. However, matters have never risen to an international level and have never worsened to an extent marring the face of France. As of now, they seem likely to foster an unprecedented change in the coming decade, both inside France and outside, in the global realm. What remains to be seen is in which direction this change goes.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.