France is reeling from a spate of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. Last month, a boy of Chechen origin killed his school teacher for displaying controversial images of Prophet Mohammad, which had provoked a macabre terrorist attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. In early October, Macron made public his plans to ‘regulate’ Islam and counter ‘Islamist separatism’ by passing a new law to that effect. In a tribute to the school teacher, Macron said, ‘We will not renounce cartoons or drawings even if others recoil’. As tensions continued to smoulder, another Islamist terrorist murdered three civilians at a Church in the city of Nice. As despicable as these acts of violence are, they have occasioned the conditions for reflection. Is ‘reforming’ Islam the best way to combat extremism in France?
The link between France and Islam dates back to the days of colonialism when the country ruled over several Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Following its occupation during WWII, France sought to restore its pride by clinging on to its colonial possessions. Its recalcitrance on the question of granting independence and high-handedness in dealing with its colonial subjects generated colossal amounts of bloodshed. The Algerian war typified the racist contempt with which the French colonists treated the natives. Although other countries like Tunisia, Morocco or Lebanon did not have to fight a bloody war against the state for independence, the savagery of colonisation remained etched in popular memory.
A bruised self-esteem amongst the natives was a key consequence of decades of French colonialism. When a new generation of people from its former colonies started to migrate to France, they brought with them the bitterness with which their forebears regarded the French state. This was the beginning of the friction between France and its Muslim citizens. This sentiment was compounded by the poor economic situations the immigrants found themselves in.
Most of them ended up in sordid suburbs around Paris called banlieues which would subsequently become a hotbed of Islamist radicalism. The social conditions in these banlieues have been pointed out by a number of experts as the prime reason for moulding the psyche of Muslim youth into favouring extremism. Matthew Moran, reader in International Security at King’s College London, points out in his essay that the experience in the banlieues ‘fosters confusion and frustration, and contributes to an identity crisis which in turn creates space for the cognitive openings that can open the door to radicalisation and ultimately violent extremism.’
Whilst geographical proximity is a major reason why France is vulnerable to attacks from North Africa, there are also other reasons why France is targeted. The rise of fundamentalist jihadist outfits at the turn of the century provided an option for the disaffected denizens of the banlieues to vent their pent-up anger against the state. Moreover, groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS attracted a large number of fighters from the Islamic Maghreb, a region of French pre-eminence. For example, a large number of Muslims joined ISIS from France’s former colony Tunisia. The city of Nice, where the recent Church stabbings and a ‘lone wolf’ Islamist attack took place in 2016, is home to a substantial Tunisian diaspora. These connections make it easier for Islamist terrorists to target France than any other country in the West, like the USA or the UK. Indeed, figures revealed that over 1,700 French nationals went to fight for ISIS in the heyday of its caliphate.
This trend demonstrates that the temporal grievances of the Islamic community in France, mostly economic and social ones, adopt religious colours when they go unaddressed. The radical Islamist organisations feed on disgruntled young Muslim men and persuade them to seek salvation through arms. Thus, a thoroughly domestic socio-economic problem becomes an international one when external malign forces intervene to recruit foot-soldiers for a destructive cause.
This also lays bare a deeper malaise within French society; that of lack of integration. The fraught atmosphere when France was militarily involved in the fight against ISIS, gave political ammunition to the far-right National Front party led by Marine Le Pen. The National Front has over the years mastered the rhetoric typical of countries led by right-wing populists. A xenophobic disposition of this party and its entry into the mainstream political arena has weakened an already fragile social fabric of the country.
A harmonious France needs a government that addresses the core reasons that push Muslims to militancy. Along with adequate education, health and employment opportunities French Muslims need a society that embraces them for what they are. A greater focus on their reasonable socio-economic worries might integrate Muslims closer into the larger society and thwart any recourse to Islamism for solace. But, some ideals of the French state, such as secularism and freedom of expression stand in the way towards that end.
The French version of secularism - laïcité - plays a profound role in the alienation of Muslim communities in France. A history of competition between the republic and an authoritarian church for power and supremacy redounded to the energy with which secularism was instituted in the state. Laïcité, adopted through a 1905 law, guarantees the citizens freedom of conscience and dissociates the state from any faith, belief or religion. In other words, the French state does not recognize any religion and it is faith blind. While this might seem innocuous, another provision of the law forbids demonstrating religious symbols in public. This posed considerable threat to the harmony of French public life.
The steady flow of Muslim population from former colonies diversified the French demographic make-up and simultaneously gave rise to new questions about laïcité. Bans on Muslim clothing such as the Islamic head-scarf and the face-veil were seen as discriminatory towards Islam. When the state refused to give in to popular pressure, it disillusioned its Muslim subjects. A rigid implementation of laïcité is sometimes seen as an anachronistic and a gratuitous measure. When the 1905 law was passed, France was a relatively homogenous country and the authoritarian instincts of the Church was a considerable impediment in the way of state supremacy. In present times however, France is home to the largest Muslim population in Western Europe and the Catholic Church is hardly a threat to the state. An impecunious and socially immobile Muslim community is now confronted with an affront in the cultural sphere backed by the weight of the French legal framework which reinforces their sense of ostracisation from the society. Indeed as former housing secretary Benoist Apparu put it, laïcité has evolved to resemble something like a ‘secular totalitarianism’.
Outright violence broke out in early 2015 when the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad in improper ways, considered blasphemous in Islam. Two brothers of Algerian descent broke into the premises of the newspaper and murdered 11 people in cold blood including the chief editor and the cartoonist. The terrorist attack, as it drew widespread condemnation, also sparked a debate about the freedom to offend. Charlie Hebdo had a notorious history of offending faiths including but not limited to Islam. Following the attacks, the newspaper drew support from the global community for its heroic championing of freedom of expression. But the debate about whether or not some things are beyond satire continued to rage.
Amidst the sea of support that poured in, the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) emerged the contention that Charlie Hebdo had been breaching certain norms of morality. The portrayal of Mohammad naked on all fours should have been considered outrageous not because it disparaged Islam, but instead because it violated basic human decency. As the popular movement in favour of Charlie Hebdo morphed into a rally for freedom of expression in general, questions related to the finer details of the issue and the dubious moral superiority of the newspaper fell by the wayside.
A combination of untrammelled freedom of expression and a stringent observation of secular principles have conspired to produce a sense of antagonism among the Muslims which they continue to nurse. An opportunity to exercise their religious freedom might have made the Muslims more amenable to take in satire with good humour. But instead they chafe under a stifling environment that neither allows them to practise the basic tenets of their religion nor gives them a chance to object to an insult to their sentiments. As Elizabeth Winkler in The New Republic put it, ‘Satire must be allowed to flourish alongside religious expression.’
The sanguinary episodes of terrorism in France have spurred President Emmanuel Macron to double down on efforts to ensure the security of the realm. His latest plans to ‘create’ a French version of Islam neglects to address the root causes of the terrorist scourge that plagues France. Attempts to ‘reform’ Islam would only reinforce the antipathy towards the state that have long festered amongst Muslims in France. The Washington Post wrote an article recently stating that, ‘Instead of addressing the alienation of French Muslims, especially in France’s exurban ghettos or banlieues — which experts broadly agree is the root cause that leaves some susceptible to radicalization and violence — the government aims to influence the practice of a 1,400-year-old faith.’ President Macron should focus instead on salvaging the Fifth Republic from its social schisms by working sedulously towards integrating the disaffected sections of the population. It must be recognised that the causes of terrorism lie in the socio-economic disgruntlement of the French people of North African descent. Conflating this domestic problem with a crisis in the whole religion of Islam risks further alienating the Muslim community and it would delay the attainment of irenic social integration.
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