Explained: France’s complex relationship with Islam, Macron’s recent remarks

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Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Mumbai |

Updated: Oct 30, 2020 11:13:42 AM





French President Emmanuel Macron. (Photo file)The words of French President Emmanuel Macron on Islam pitted France against several countries in the Islamic world. A look at what he said and why:

Why are many countries in the Muslim world angry with France?

France has a long and complex relationship with Islam and its 5 million Muslim citizens (just under 9% of its population).

On October 16, when an 18-year-old Chechen refugee in France The decapitated teacher Samuel Paty, 47, a few days after showing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad to his students, President Macron said: “We will continue… We will defend the freedom that you have taught so well and we will bring secularism. He declared that France “would not give up caricatures, drawings, even if others are retreating”.

Days before Paty’s murder, Macron gave a controversial speech. He declared that “Islam is a religion in crisis today all over the world”, “beset by radical temptations and by a yearning for a reinvented jihad which is the destruction of the other”.

He spoke of an “Islamist separatism” inside the country, and the need to counter it through the rules and values ​​of the Republic, to build a French version of Islam, an “Enlightenment Islam” that would integrate better French Muslim citizens to the French way of life. French secularism was not the problem, he said. It was the “conscious, theorized, politico-religious project, which materializes by repeated deviations from the values ​​of the Republic, often results in the constitution of a counter-society, and whose manifestations are children dropping out of school, the development of sport. and the practices of the cultural community which are the pretext for teaching principles which do not conform to the laws of the Republic. It is indoctrination through the negation of our principles, equality between women and men, human dignity ”.

Macron called it an attempt to create “a parallel order, to erect other values, to develop another organization of society, separatist at first, but whose end goal is to take control.” And this is what makes us reject freedom of expression, freedom of conscience, the right to blasphemy ”.

Macron’s speech and statements after Paty’s murder have exasperated many islamic countries, with Turkey and Pakistan leading the French President’s denunciation of Islamophobia. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has long-standing feuds with France and Marcron – over gas reserves off Cyprus, Nagarno Karabakh and the wars in Libya and Syria – has questioned mental health by Macron after the speech. A number of Islamic countries have said they will boycott French products. 📣 Click to follow Express Explained on Telegram
Police officers investigate the beheading of a teacher in Paris on October 16 (AP Photo / Michel Euler)

What is the French definition of secularism?

Macron’s remarks highlighted the difficulties France has encountered in reconciling its strictly interpreted secularism with the growing assertion of religious identity by its Muslim citizens, and how France itself has changed its way of seeing l ‘Islam.

French secularism, or secularism, sees no place for religion in the public sphere. In this way, it is the opposite of the way India has practiced its secularism. Over the years, secularism has been confronted with the religious practices of many immigrant groups in France, including the Sikhs. But the biggest clashes have been over its Muslim citizens, who form the largest group of Muslims in Europe, ahead of four million Turkish Muslims in Germany. Most French Muslims today were born in France, descendants of first generation immigrants from former French colonies in North Africa. The French Constitution requires that those who wish to obtain citizenship engage in integration. But it turned out to be elusive.

Macron acknowledged in his speech that there were gaps in the way France responded to this challenge. He acknowledged that the country had not faced the legacy of its problematic Algerian war. He also said French governments must take responsibility for ghettoizing Muslim communities across the country and creating the conditions for radicalization.

Only a few thousand people can be radicalized Islamists, but France’s troubled relationship with Islam manifested itself in many ways – in the 2005 riots in Paris suburbs, suburban ghettos where immigrants were confined ; in the refusal, on the grounds of secularism, to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab in public spaces; the burqa ban in 2010. In 2011, the Charlie Hebdo cartoons sparked anger in the Islamic world, but the French have the right to blaspheme as absolute individual freedom, also available to those who want to insult Jesus Christ as to those who will blaspheme Islam. This is considered the French “way of life” – which also includes knowledge of the language, as well as adherence to secularism.

Read also | Explained: What explains the calls for a “boycott of France” in the Muslim world?

Macron’s controversial speech long before Paty’s murder; so, what triggered it?

The murders at the Charlie Hebdo office in January 2015, apparently to avenge the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons, marked a turning point for France. Then, in November, a series of coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris and in a suburb that shook the whole world. The attacks included suicide bombings, shootings in a football stadium, mass shootings in cafes and restaurants, and another mass shooting and hostage-taking in a theater. In Europe, France was the country with the largest number of citizens who left to join Daesh in Iraq and Syria in 2014-2015.

Thus, even if there is a real constitutional basis for Macron’s positioning on Islam – as secularism justifies it – it is also a political necessity. No French politician at this stage thinks he can afford to ignore the impact of these events on French national life. The trial of the Charlie Hebdo killers began last month, five years after the attack, and for many, Paty’s murder was a continuation of the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo.

Macron, who describes his policies as “neither right nor left” – he was with the Socialist Party until 2009 – will run for a presidential election in early 2022. Right-wing Marine La Pen, whom he defeated in the elections of 2017, directed the accusation against Macron for not having cracked down sufficiently on Islamism. Last year Macron made changes to the immigration law on the grounds that it was being misused.

For good measure, Macron also announced a controversial “anti-separatism” bill to crack down on Islamic radicalism due to be presented to parliament in December. It is considering a range of measures, including school education reforms to ensure that Muslim children do not drop out, tighter controls on mosques and preachers, and has raised concerns among Muslims in France.

The president’s remarks showed how far France has come since the September 11, 2001 attack on the twin towers of the World Trade Center. While Le Monde declared “We are all Americans today”, Jacques Chirac, then French President, had drawn the lines of his country’s support for the American war on terrorism.

France, more than any other Western country, knew the dangers of mistaking an entire religion for terrorism, and feared that the United States would end up doing so. He sent troops to Afghanistan, but expressed opposition to the invasion of Iraq. While US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the UN to support the planned invasion, French Foreign Minister Dominique Villepin made a passionate appeal against it in the Security Council of the UN.

According to France’s own assessment of the available information, he said, “there is no basis for establishing […] links ”that the United States was establishing between Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq and al-Qaeda. “On the other hand, we need to assess the impact that contested military action would have on this front. Would such an intervention not be likely to exacerbate the divisions between societies, cultures and peoples, divisions which fuel terrorism? ”

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This article first appeared in the print edition of October 28 under the title “France, Emmanuel Macron and Islam”.

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