The aftermath of Samuel Paty’s brutal beheading has reignited tensions between France and parts of the Muslim world. Kuwait, Qatar and Jordan have called for the boycott of French products, a move spearheaded by Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has claimed that Muslims are being “subjected to a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II.” Pakistan’s Imran Khan has deplored the “attack on Islam” led by Emmanuel Macron. There have been street rallies in Pakistan, in which protestors have burned the French flag and effigies of the French president. The myth that France is at war with Muslims has been promulgated for years—and not just outside the west.
through encouraging the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam & our Prophet PBUH. By attacking Islam, clearly without having any understanding of it, President Macron has attacked & hurt the sentiments of millions of Muslims in Europe & across the world.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) October 25, 2020
The speech that sparked the boycotts was in no way an attack on Islam, let alone an attack on Muslims. In eulogising the assassinated teacher, the French president simply recalled French law and the right to caricature as part of freedom of speech. As Macron later clarified, “France is against Islamist separatism—never Islam.”
Some might argue that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons themselves—and the choice to publish them during the ongoing trial for the January 2015 shooting—represent an attack on Muslims, due to the cartoons’ offensive nature. Imran Khan tweeted that “Blasphemy in the garb of freedom of speech is intolerable” and even Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau commented that “freedom of speech is not unlimited.” But critique and even ridicule of religion have their place in secular democracies and shouldn’t be confused with hatred of believers. Kenan Malik has accused France of double standards in allowing blasphemy, while outlawing genocide denial—both, he writes, should be permitted. But this is a false equivalency, since the cartoons poke fun at a religion, while the denial of the Holocaust and other genocides is motivated by hatred of specific groups of people.
French secularism, laïcité, does not recognise blasphemy as a concept because one needs to be religious to blaspheme. In France, the state and religion are kept separate and it is this secularism that protects the right of all citizens to believe in any god or gods, or none.
In his speech, Macron did not suggest that it is important to insult Muslims by distributing the caricatures of Prophet Muhammad. He was defending a freedom that should not be restricted in a secular, liberal democracy. Many French Muslims agree with him.
Still, many other Muslims, both in France and internationally, feel insulted by the Charlie Hebdo caricatures. But we should not forget that the French journal does not spare figures from other religions. While a society flooded with gratuitous insults would not be desirable, simply feeling insulted does not confer authority. Should we ban all religious satire? How do you reconcile conflicting sensibilities when, for example, one religion’s beliefs are anathema to another? Some religious practices may seem outrageous to the non-believer, and yet they must be protected as long as they fall within the law. Some French Muslims may want to mock their own religion, too and this is their right and could bring about progress. Mockery of the Catholic religion played a fundamental role in the inception of French democracy.
Anti-Muslim hatred certainly exists in France and is a growing concern throughout Europe. In 2019, two people were injured when a mosque in southwestern France was targeted by a far-right conspiracy theorist. Such threats are rightly taken seriously—the two mosques have been placed under police protection. Nevertheless, as the French Council of the Muslim Faith have stated in response to the boycotts, “Muslims are not persecuted” in France.
Racism and discrimination must be stamped out. But accusations of state-sponsored Islamophobia are not just irresponsible—since they are used to justify terrorism—but dangerously blur the distinction between French Muslims and Islamists, a conflation encouraged by both Islamists and the Muslim-hating far right.
To assess this claim, let’s examine the Cheick Yassine Collective, one of the groups dissolved following Path’s death. Their president, Abdelhakim Sefrioui, who is under investigation for his role in the harassment campaign that led to the teacher’s assassination, has been described as “dangerous” by imams he considers too moderate, has led violent protests in favour of the full veil and made a number of antisemitic remarks. The Collective is an Islamist group with a clear political agenda. In no way does it represent French Muslims.
When another three people were killed by Islamists in a church in Nice, some journalists held Charlie Hebdo and France in general responsible. CNN described the caricatures as a “hateful expression of opinion,” while the Associated Press initially tweeted that France had “incited anger in the Muslim world” (they later issued a correction). Shireen Mazari, Pakistan’s Minister of Human Rights told her 1.7 million Twitter followers that “Macron is doing to Muslims what the Nazis did to the Jews—Muslim children will get ID numbers (other children won’t).” Mazari’s statement referred to a proposal in France to expand the national requirement of student ID to include all home-schooled students. Washington Post editor Karen Attiah relayed the same falsehood. Both tweets have since been deleted and Attiah has issued an apology—but they are emblematic of a pattern of propaganda and misinformation, which has intensified in recent weeks.
Within France, too, Charlie Hebdo has long faced accusations of Islamophobia for their cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. In 2011, after the Charlie Hebdo offices were firebombed for the first time, French journalist Rokhaya Diallo, who has recently joined the Washington Post, stated that she felt no pity for the staff because she deplored their “Islamophobic obsession.” Even after most of the Charlie Hebdo staff had been killed by terrorists, many continued to indulge in unapologetic victim blaming.
Having been unjustly labelled as Islamophobes helped lead to the deaths of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists and Samuel Paty. Likewise, this fabricated idea of an Islamophobic France serves a destructive agenda. These accusations are more likely to be motivated by ideology than by concern for the welfare of a minority group. As Omar Mahmood has pointed out elsewhere in this magazine, “no one has burned effigies of Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite the fact that at least one million Uyghurs have been sent to indoctrination camps.” These are attacks on secularism. But, as the highest French Muslim authorities have pointed out:
Secularism is an essential value that allows different religions, including Islam, to flourish in France. We denounce all those who want to manipulate our coreligionists, especially our youth, and international public opinion, by suggesting that in France we would be subjected to a policy of “state racism” or a policy of “hatred against Muslims.” These are blatant lies that we denounce and demand a public apology from their authors as they try to divide us, to introduce doubt and to sow discord.
The current international opprobrium is a distraction—perhaps a deliberate one—from what is really important: the tragic death of a teacher and the battle against religious intolerance. Macron’s tribute to Samuel Paty summarises what is at stake and who the true enemy is:
He was simply teaching. He wasn’t an enemy of the religion that [terrorists] exploit: he had read the Quran, he respected his students whatever their beliefs and was interested in the Muslim civilisation … That’s precisely why Samuel Paty was killed. Because he embodied the Republic.