France: Macron Against Radical Islam
Written by Anjana Sathy
Research Associate at Law & Order
Disclaimer: Please note that the views expressed below represent the opinions of the article's author. The following does not necessarily represent the views of Law & Order.
Introduction: The Origins of Islamic Fundamentalism
Islam, the second-largest religion in the world, teaches that “God is one, merciful, all-powerful and unique” (Campo, 2009) and has “guided humanity through prophets, revealed scriptures and natural signs” (Peters, 2009). Historically, Islam is said to have originated in the early 7th Century in the Arabian Peninsula, specifically in Mecca (Watt, 2003), and by the 8th century, the “Umayyad Caliphate” extended from Iberia in the West to the Indus River in the east. The idea of Islam “is not a monolith but rather, multifaceted, multileveled, continually changing, and often self-contradictory” (Grinin & Korotayev, 2019). It is impossible to understand contemporary Islamic and Arab societies, “without considering the inﬂuence of Islam as a pastiche of ideology, cultural environment, modes of action, and ways of life”. Islamism thus remains “a phenomenon lurking beneath the surface” (Osman, 2016).
Islamic fundamentalists favor "a literal and originalist interpretation" of the primary sources of Islam (DeLong-Bas, 2004) and aim to eliminate what they perceive to be "corrupting non-Islamic influences, from every part of their lives” (Roy, 1994).
The term "Islamic fundamentalism" has been criticized by Bernard Lewis, Eli Berman, and John Esposito, among others. Many have proposed substituting it with other terms including "Radical Islam." Khaled Abou El Fadl of UCLA, a critic of Islamic Fundamentalists, also finds fault with the term because, “many liberal, progressive, or moderate Muslims would describe themselves as usulis, or fundamentalist, without thinking that this carries a negative connotation. In the Islamic context, it makes much more sense to describe the fanatical reductionism and narrow-minded literalism of some groups as puritanical; a term that in the West invokes a particular historical experience” (Abou El Fadl, 2005) while Eli Berman argues that "radical Islam" is a “better term” for many post-1920s movements starting with the Muslim Brotherhood because these movements are seen to practice "unprecedented extremism", thus not qualifying as a return to historic fundamentals (Berman, 2003).
As experts note, even radical Islam is extremely diverse. There is still no established terminology for its designation: “Islamism, political Islam, Islamic fundamentalism, Islamic terrorism, jihadism, Wahhabism, Salaﬁsm, etc.” (Berman, 2003) Islamism could be “moderate, democratic, but it may be perfectly undemocratic, as diverse and contradictory, not frozen, but alive as a life, reacting to various changes, ranging from extreme radicalism to quite liberal statements and political actions” (Volpi & Stein, 2015). Islamic Fundamental movement or radical movements stem from several existing situations and give rise to up and coming contemporary and futuristic issues.
A well-known reason states that “Islamic fundamentalists hold that the problems of the world stem from secular influences” (Mattews, 2009).
Islamic fundamentalism's push for ‘Sharia’ and an Islamic State has come into conflict with concepts of the secular, democratic State, such as the internationally supported Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is noted that "Western and Islamic visions of the state; the individual and society are not only divergent, they are also often totally at odds." (Dennis, 1996) Further, the acceptance of international law on human rights has been somewhat limited even in Muslim countries that are not seen as fundamentalist – “even when they adopt laws along European lines, they are influenced by Islamic rules and precepts of Sharia, which cause conflict with international law on Human Rights” (Mayer, 1999). Rising conflict between ideologies, peoples, and beliefs continue to fester and affect society, and how it perceives a certain group of people and subsequently, their beliefs.
Islam and Radicalism in Europe
Though Muslim communities in Europe the Balkans and the Caucasus have been home to such societies for several centuries. Islam is said to have entered Europe through the expansion of North Africa in the 8th Century and through the conquest of Persia in the 7th Century. The Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1922, losing its hold in Europe. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, a large number of Muslims immigrated to Western Europe. Pew Research Centre revealed that “By 2010, an estimated 44 million Muslims were living in Europe (6%), including an estimated 19 million in the EU (3.8%). They are projected to comprise 8% by 2030” (Pew, 2011).
The mix of ideologies in the Wesontinue to be a major topic of discussion and controversy. This has risen out of events such as terrorist attacks, instances in Denmark, debates concerning the Islamic manner of clothing, and continual support for political parties that view Muslims as a threat to European culture. Such events have also fuelled growing debate regarding “Islamophobia, attitudes toward Muslims, and the populist right” (Goodwin et al., 2014). The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia reports that “the Muslim population tends to suffer Islamophobia all over Europe, although the perceptions and views of Muslims may vary”, (European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, 2006) and half the population of Moroccan and Turkish minorities had stated that “the Western lifestyle could not be reconciled with that of Muslims” (Chatham House, 2018). Furthermore, a February 2017 poll in 10 European countries by Chatham House found that “on average, a majority were opposed to further Muslim immigration” (Chatham House, 2018). A great chunk of the cause for such distinctions was found to be based on Fundamentalism. A 2013 study reported that “two-thirds of Muslims (the majority) responded that religious rules were more important than civil laws and three quarters rejected religious pluralism within Islam and that Muslims should return to the roots of Islam” (Koopmans, 2014).
Perceived discrimination was also found to be a cause of religious fundamentalism (Koopmans, 2014).
The perception that Western governments are inherently hostile towards Islam as a mode of identity is prevalent among some European Muslims.
It was however found by Koopmans that “Belgium which has comparatively generous policies towards Muslims and immigrants in general, also had a relatively high level of fundamentalism while France and Germany which have restrictive policies had lower levels of Fundamentalism” (Koopmans, 2014). Despite it all, a recent study showed that “this perception significantly declined after the emergence of ISIS, particularly among the youth, and highly educated European Muslims” (Hekmatpour & Burns, 2019).
Situation in France: Macron’s Role
France has the largest number of Muslims in the Western world, primarily due to migration from West African, and Middle Eastern countries. The French Constitution and way of life emphasize on Secularism – no religion in the public sphere. However, in order to support and protect the identity of the Islamic faith, the government has tried to organize forums for their representation. In 2002, the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy initiated the creation of a "French Council of the Muslim Faith". It was found that “first generation of Muslim immigrants, who are today mostly retired from the workforce, keep strong ties with their countries, where their families lived. In 1976, the government passed a law allowing families of these immigrants to settle as a result of which, many children and wives moved to France” (Acton, 2006). Religious practices have both come to a head and in some ways, integrated seamlessly into the French culture. The great majority of Muslims practice their religion within the French framework of ‘laïcité’, which does not allow religious conduct to enter or infringe the public sphere. According to a study of Muslims in France, “39% prayed five times, most observed the fast during Ramadan, most did not eat pork while many did not drink wine. This shows that some Muslims in France alter some of these religious practices, particularly food practices, as a means of showing ‘integration’ into French culture” (Brown, 2019). However, on the other hand, some Muslims (like the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UIOF)) request the recognition of an Islamic community in France with an official status.
In November 2015 in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, three mosques were shut in France due to concerns of extremist activities and security issues. These attacks have “changed the character of Islamist radicalization from a security threat to constitute a societal problem” (The Independent, 2015). Prime Minister François Hollande saw the fundamental values of the French republic being challenged and called them “attacks against fundamental secular, enlightenment and democratic values along with what makes us who we are" (Vidino, 2018). Furthermore, in 2016, French authorities reported that “120 of the 2,500 Islamic prayer halls were disseminating Salafist ideas” and 20 mosques were closed due to findings of hate speech (The Atlantic, 2016) and that 15000 of the 20000 individuals on the list of security threats belonged to Islamist movements. The European Union anti-terror coordinator, in 2018 estimated there to be “17,000 radicalized Muslims and jihadists living in France” (Vidino, 2018). Vidino also held the view that by incarcerating a large number of Muslims on terror-related charges, French prisons have become a hub for radicalization and related problems (Vidino, 2018).
At the first instance, it has been found that “Muslims sending out resumes in hopes of a job interview had 2.5 times less chance than Christians, with similar credentials, of a positive response to their applications” (Otago, 2010). Other examples of discrimination against Muslims include the desecration of 148 French Muslim graves near Arras where a pig's head was hung from a headstone, and profanities insulting Islam and Muslims were marked on those graves (Wayback, 2008). Attacks on mosques after the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, the 2017 incident of a man ramming his vehicle into a crowd of worshippers exiting a mosque in Creteil, Paris and President Sarkozy’s 2009 declaration that the “Islamic burqa is not welcome in France” as they turn “women into prisoners behind a screen” (Erlanger, 2009) have also been pertinent to the discrimination discussion (Batchelor, 2017).
A study has revealed that the main reasons France suffers frequent attacks include, “France’s secular domestic policies (Laicite) which Jihadists perceive to be hostile towards Islam”, “France’s strong cultural tradition of comics” which in the context of Muhammad cartoons raise issues, “France’s foreign policy towards Muslim countries and the Jihadist front” and the perceived notion of France being less respectful towards religion and an obstacle towards establishing a Caliphate (Bindner, 2018).
The latest stance on this growing issue came in the manner of President Emmanuel Macron’s severe crackdown in October 2020. He declared a crackdown on "Islamist separatism" in Muslim communities in France, saying a bill with this objective would be sent to parliament in "early 2021." Reuters explained that among the measures would be, “a ban on foreign Imams, restrictions on homeschooling, and the creation of an ‘Institute of Islamology’ to tackle Islamic fundamentalism” (Reuters, 2020).
A Chatham House 2017 poll of 10,000 people in 10 European countries found that “a majority (55%) were opposed to further Muslim immigration”, with opposition especially pronounced in Austria, Poland, Hungary, France, and Belgium. Except for Poland, all of those had recently suffered jihadist terror attacks or been at the center of a refugee crisis (Chatham House, 2018).
Due to the recent severe stance taken by the French President Emmanuel Macron, both Muslims in France and across the world have taken a stance condemning this move. On October 16, when an 18-year-old Chechen refugee in France beheaded schoolteacher Samuel Paty, days after he had shown caricatures of Prophet Mohammed to his students,
President Macron said: “We will defend the freedom that you taught so well and we will bring secularism.” He said France would “not give up cartoons, drawings, even if others back down” (Subramanian, 2020). He spoke of an “Islamist separatism” within the country, and the need to counter it through the values and rules-based in the French Republic, to build a version of Islam, an “‘Islam of Enlightenment’ that would integrate French Muslim citizens better with the French way of life”.
While Macron’s stance has been considered a blatant example of Islamophobia, in reality, there exists both a legal constitutional basis to Macron’s stance on Islam (‘Secularism’ meaning no place for religion in the public sphere) and also a political one. The 2015 Charlie Hebdo killings were a turning point for France, followed by November attacks throughout Paris including suicide bombings, mass shootings, and hostage situations. At this point, no politician in France either believes or explicitly states that they could afford to move on from the impact of these events on the French way of life and lifestyle. Furthermore, Macron has also announced a controversial ‘anti-separatism’ bill to crack down on Islamic radicalism that is to be introduced in Parliament in December. The bill encompasses a range of protectionist measures including education reforms, controls of dropouts, and stricter controls on religious heads and mosques. All these continue to spread fear and dissent among the French-Muslims.
Macron’s speech, and his pronouncements after the killing of Paty, have infuriated many Islamic countries, with Turkey and Pakistan taking the lead in accusing the French President of Islamophobia.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has had long-standing rows with France and Macron over gas reserves off Cyprus, Nagorno Karabakh, and wars in Libya and Syria, questioned Macron’s mental health after the speech. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan considered that Macron’s “public statements based on ignorance would create more hate, Islamophobia and space for extremists.” Several other Islamic countries also rose in support by vowing to boycott French goods hereafter (Subramanian, 2020). The French government was visibly upset by this movement. However, instead of adopting a conciliatory tone, it has further used controversial verbiage and considered the boycotters as “being part of a ‘radical minority'’”. Even domestically, Macron’s stance has not received completely positive results. An MP, Aurelien Tache, from Macron’s party, expressed his skepticism about this approach - "with this type of approach, we will not have succeeded in eliminating one extremism - Islamist - and we will have succeeded in reinforcing another - the extreme right".
What does the future hold?
In the midst of the controversy stirring across the world and in light of President Macron’s harsh stance on Islam and radicalism in France, there is a need to look to the future with hope and the possibility of a peaceful middle ground. In order to ensure this line of thought, France is looking at appointing a special envoy to explain Emmanuel Macron’s thinking on secularism and Freedom of Expression in a bid to quell the anti-French backlash growing in some Muslim countries. Macron has already taken to Al Jazeera to justify and explain his stance but it was met with support only from the United Arb Emirates’ Foreign Minister.
Though the leaders of the Middle East region have explicitly condemned the killing of the teacher in France, the depth and scope of criticism faced by Macron in the aftermath of his public stance, has startled even his own officials.
In an attempt to move towards a peaceful, solution-based discussion, the Government of Saudi Arabia has called for “intellectual and cultural freedom to be a beacon of respect, tolerance, and peace that rejects practices and acts which generate hatred, violence, and extremism and are contrary to the values of coexistence” (Wintour, 2020). To support this, the Foreign Minister of UAE rose in support, with a view solely based on religious views without making a political spectacle of the entire situation. He stated that “As a Muslim, I feel offended by certain caricatures. But as a thinking person, I see the politics that are carried out around this topic. With his attacks on France, Erdoğan manipulates a religious issue for political purposes.” He said, “Erdoğan is using the controversy to mount a political recovery”. In all, a wide world-view only seeks to achieve peace and stability. With nations working together while some also playing the all-important role of the opposition, the move towards a peaceful middle-ground built on tolerance, acceptance, peace, and respect is in the works. Despite the harsh stance and its subsequent backlash, nations, including France, continue to move forward. Macron’s future steps of explaining and discussing his stance will hopefully go a long way to restore peace in the region while working together to protect both modern freedoms and religious rights.
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