In France, isolated terror attacks lead to the scapegoating of Islam

Print edition : December 04, 2020

Members of an Italian Muslim association stage a sit-in to condemn what they see as persecutory acts against the Islamic community in France and against the publication of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, in Rome on October 30. Photo: Andrew Medichini/AP

President Emmanuel Macron during a national homage to the French teacher Samuel Paty in Sorbonne University’s courtyard in Paris on October 21. Photo: FRANCOIS MORI/AFP

People gather on the Place de la Sorbonne in Paris to watch a live broadcast of a national homage. Photo: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP

A portrait of Samuel Paty on display in Montpellier on October 21, during a national homage to the teacher. Photo: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP

President Emmanuel Macron uses isolated terror attacks following the publication of the Prophet Muhammad’s caricatures to crack down on mosques and Muslim charities in order to eradicate Muslim “extremism” from France.

The brutal killing of Samuel Paty, a middle school teacher in a suburb near Paris in the third week of October, has triggered another wave of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant hysteria in France and its neighbouring countries. Paty was killed by an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant for showing the students a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad that appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The assassin was only armed with a knife. Paty had requested his Muslim pupils to stay away from the class if they were uncomfortable with viewing the portraits of the Prophet.

The Prophet Muhammad is deeply revered by Muslims and any visual depiction of him is forbidden in Islam. It was no surprise that the news of the lecture went viral in the Islamic community and death threats soon followed. The French state, despite being aware of the depth of feeling in the Muslim community against the re-printing of the Prophet’s caricatures, did not care to take the threats seriously. France has the largest Muslim population in western Europe. Paty’s killing was followed by the killing of three worshippers in a church in Nice by a young Tunisian who had just arrived in France. There was also a copycat killing of four people in the Austrian capital of Vienna. France and most of western Europe has been on high alert since then.

Charlie Hebdo had decided to reprint the caricatures in September to mark the beginning of the trial of 12 conspirators behind the attack on its office five years ago. The attack in 2015 had occurred after the cartoons depicting the Prophet were first published in the magazine, which is known for its penchant for mocking religion, especially Islam. The event had paralysed France briefly and resulted in the death of 17 people, including 12 employees of the magazine. The Daesh (Islamic State), which was running rampant in Iraq and Syria at the time, claimed responsibility for the killings.

Also read: Charlie Hebdo Attack: Shocking in Paris

Despite what happened in 2015, the magazine’s management chose to republish the caricatures. In an editorial, it said that it was re-printing the caricatures as they “belong to history, and history cannot be erased”. The French establishment and its intelligentsia claim that no religion should be above ridicule but have exhibited thin skin when Israel’s apartheid policies and Zionism are criticised. In early 2019, when angry “yellow vest” protesters criticised the pro-Israeli writer Alain Finkielkraut and called him “a dirty Zionist”, the French political class reacted with expressions of disgust, calling the attack “anti-Semitic”. President Emmanuel Macron had tweeted that the “anti-Semitic remarks” the writer had been subjected to “are the absolute negation of who we are and what makes us a great nation”. Macron said at the time that he was considering passing a law that would “equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism”.

Most constitutional and legal experts believe that “anti-Zionism” is a political stance and cannot be equated with “anti-Semitism”. In Britain, the Labour Party suspended Jeremy Corbyn, who until recently was the party’s leader and presumptive Prime Minister, on the specious grounds of being “anti-Semitic”. His only crime was that he was upfront in his support of the Palestinian cause and trenchant in his criticism of Israel.

The leaders of France and other European countries have backed the publication of the pictures citing “freedom of expression”. The Indian government, too, has supported the position taken by President Macron. Hindu fundamentalist groups close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) are full of praise for Macron. The French President seems to have become the poster boy of the Indian Right overnight. The Hindutva groups that cheered him today were the same ones that had hounded the noted artiste M.F. Hussain out of the country. Hussein’s crime, in the eyes of the Hindutva mob, was his artistic portrayal of Hindu deities in his paintings. Muslim countries, barring the notable exception of the United Arab Emirates (UAE), strongly criticised Macron’s views on Islam and his handling of the Charlie Hebdo incident. The Emiratis have long considered the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties as terrorist groupings.

Also read: Voices of reason amidst a spate of attacks on Muslims in Europe

Macron accused his Muslim compatriots of fostering “separatism” and controversially said that Islam was “a religion in crisis all over the world”. He also insisted that France would “not renounce the caricatures” of the Prophet. The most vocal criticism has come from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who said that Macron had “a problem” with Islam. “Macron need some kind of mental treatment. What else is there to say about a head of state who does not believe in the freedom of religion and behaves this way against millions of people of different faiths living in his country”, Erdogan said.

Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said that the French government should have confined itself to sending condolences to the family of the bereaved school teacher instead of supporting the publication of the caricatures. Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan said Macron had chosen “to deliberately provoke Muslims”. Protests have erupted in many Muslim countries, including Turkey, Pakistan and Bangladesh, calling for the boycott of French goods and demanding the expulsion of French ambassadors from their capitals. The Indian External Affairs Ministry has, in a statement, “strongly deplored” the personal attacks against the French President.

The President of the French Council of Muslim Worship, Mohammad Mousaoui, urged people to “ignore” the cartoon controversy and condemned calls for violent reprisals. A Saudi citizen attacked a security guard outside the gates of the French embassy in Riyadh. When the offending caricatures were first published in a Danish newspaper in 2006, Jacques Chirac, who was President of France at the time, criticised the decision by saying that the foundation of the republic depended on “the values of tolerance and respect for all faiths”. Macron has justified the publication of the caricatures, stating that “the right to blasphemy” was a fundamental right.

Also read: Yellow fury erupts against the Macron government

Macron’s popularity is at a low ebb. His government had a tough time controlling the wrath of the “yellow vest” demonstrators in the last couple of years. Before the pandemic struck, there were major protests against the government’s plans for pension reforms, fuel price hikes, police violence and unemployment. In the local elections held in June, Macron’s party fared badly.In the ongoing efforts to re-boot his political standing, Macron seems to have made the opportunistic calculation that the road to re-election could be facilitated considerably by taking a confrontational stance against the Islamic minority, a long-time resident in the country.

Rhetoric against ‘radical Islam’

In a speech delivered on October 1, Macron unveiled a plan to defend France’s secular values against what he termed as “Islamic radicalism”. He said that “no concessions” would be given in the fight to keep religion out of education and the public sector. He asserted that “Islam is a religion in crisis all over the world today” and that he was going to “liberate” it from outside influences. “What we must attack is Islamic separatism”, Macron said. He upped the rhetoric against “radical Islam”, which he claimed had spread its tentacles all over France, following the killing of the schoolteacher. Seizing on the outrage of the French public, he was quick to announce that he would take action to eradicate Muslim “extremism” from France.

Macron announced that he would be presenting a Bill in Parliament in the first week of December that would further strengthen the 1905 law that separated religion from the state. Macron said the measures were aimed at stopping the increasing “radicalisation” in the country. “Secularism is the cement of France”, he declared. Wearing the “hijab” in schools and workplaces is already banned in France. Macron’s speech came a week after a Pakistani immigrant armed with a meat cleaver staged an attack, injuring two men outside the former office of Charlie Hebdo in Paris.

Also read: Cautious optimism over Emmanuel Macron's victory in French presidential election

The French government has used the isolated terror attacks following the publications of the Prophet’s caricatures to crack down on mosques and Muslim charities in the country. More than 20 Muslim organisations in Europe have called on the government in France to end its “divisive rhetoric”. In an open letter, the group said that Macron had failed to “provide strong moral leadership” following the killing of the schoolteacher and the three worshippers at the church in Nice. “Maligning Islam and your own Muslim citizens, closing mainstream mosques, Muslim and human rights organisations, and using this as an opportunity to stir further hatred, has given further encouragement to racists and violent extremists,” the statement said.

The main opposition, the right-wing National Rally party led by Marine Le Pen, has made Islam and the presence of immigrants the top issue in French politics. The presidential election is due to be held in April 2022. Faced with criticism about the way his government handled the pandemic and the economy, Macron seems to have calculated that hijacking the issues being propagated by the far-right is the only way to get a second term in office. In opinion polls conducted recently, Macron and Marine Le Pen are running neck and neck. One opinion poll said that if the election was held today, Marine Le Pen would be the winner of the first round. The right-wing and conservative parties in France have been accusing Macron of not taking the threat of “radical Islam” seriously.

Now almost all the major political parties in France, barring some from the Left, have supported Macron’s crackdown on Muslim civil society. Some right-wing parties want the government to take tougher steps like rescinding citizenships, reinstatement of the death penalty, and forcing Muslim citizens to adopt French names. The right-wing and centrist parties have accused Left parties such as “Unbowed France”, led by Jean Luc Melenchon, of being part of an Islamo-leftist grouping that is bent on destabilising France. The ruling class does not acknowledge that the sizable Muslim minority remains marginalised. The rate of unemployment is the highest among the Muslim minority. Most of them live in dismal housing projects and are subjected to routine racism. It is not that they want to “separate” from France. It is the French state that has failed to “integrate” them into the mainstream. Macron had admitted at the beginning of his presidency that the state was to a large extent responsible for “the ghettoisation of our republic”. But he now prefers to scapegoat Islam. His Interior Minister has compared political Islam with terrorism.

Also read: Paris Attacks: The night Paris changed

The recent “terror” incidents in France and Austria, according to investigative authorities, were not “well-orchestrated and synchronised attacks” unlike as reported in the media. Rather, they were acts of individuals who were self-radicalised and motivated to seek revenge. All the recent attacks in France were carried out by unknown individuals who were not on the radar of the intelligence agencies. They used unsophisticated weapons and had no clear connections with terrorist groups although they were influenced by the Islamist ideology disseminated through social media.

The recent attacks, according to counter-terrorism experts, stemmed from religious anger triggered by the re-publishing of the Prophet’s caricatures. There were no political motives. According to many French political commentators, it is the state that is ascribing political motives to the attacks. The French government insists that it is facing a major threat from “Islamic separatism” and is relentless with its crackdown on individuals and organisations that it has deemed as “Islamist”.

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