Crisis of France’s liberal theocracy

EMMANUEL MACRON HAS spurred a tsunami of fury in the Muslim world with his brazen defense of the display of a cartoon caricaturing the Prophet Muhammad, which Islam considers blasphemy.

The French president was reacting to the killing of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty by a Muslim of Chechen origins, who had been enraged by Paty’s presentation of the cartoon to his class. Patty had known about the Muslim indignation and violence triggered in 2011 by the publication of Muhammad cartoons by the French publication Charlie Hebdo, but he wanted to push the liberal doctrine of free speech, anyway. It is a classic clash between France’s “liberal fundamentalism,” to quote Canadian philosopher Charles Taylor, and the Islamic faith.

With its 6 million Muslims, France is home to the largest Muslim community in Western Europe.  Macron and many other French politicians and intellectuals have blamed “radical Islam” for the Paty killing. The French president has reiterated his defense of the display of the cartoon, which he described as part of freedom of expression, a “universal value.” And he vowed “not [to] give in, ever” to pressures to stop that practice. Islam, he said, is “in a crisis all over the world,” and Muslim outrage over the cartoon was proof of that. His comment was a kind of rejoinder to me as I have written continually about a “crisis of liberalism” and argued that the Western agenda to make liberalism a universal ideology has been all but demolished by worldwide religious revival and globalization.

Since the Patty murder, the Macron government has shut down a major mosque it said was a base of Muslim “extremists,” cracked down on droves of Muslims and Muslim organizations, banned the hiring of foreign-born imams for mosques and foreign funding of mosques and restricted home-schooling of Muslim children, which French officials say is fostering “radical Islam.” Macron also announced his intention to help create an “Islam of France,” compatible with the country’s radical secularism, known as laicite. Like Wahhabism in Islam, French laicism doesn’t tolerate other creeds, subcultures and religious symbols in the public space. Many other Western countries, notably the United States, Canada and Britain, are multicultural democracies, which allow, and sometimes promote, different religious and cultural values and patterns. I was struck by this French oddity every time I visited France.

During my 2000 visit, I saw a daughter of my Algerian Muslim friend Rachid Benaisa, a UNICEF employee in Paris, preparing to migrate to America. Born in a Paris suburb, the young woman was an observant Muslim and her head covering had become a stumbling block to her getting a job. It also continually attracted stares and taunts on the street. On a visit to the United States, she had been pleasantly surprised by droves of Muslim women going to school, work and the outdoors wearing hijab. She has since migrated to the United States and been happily married to a Pakistani man in Chicago. What has become a liberal theocracy in France is, in fact, as intolerant of other creeds as the Sunni Islamic theocracy of Saudi Arabia and more so than the Shiite Islamic theocracy of Iran.

Muslim outrage over Macron’s support for the display of the Muhammad cartoon has spread like wildfire. Macron needed “mental treatment,” said Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. What else could explain his overt denigration of Islam and crackdown on France’s “own Muslim community.”

Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan denounced Macron for abetting “systematic Islamophobia” and “deliberately provoke[ing] Muslims, including his own citizens.” Pakistan summoned the French ambassador to Islamabad and handed him a diplomatic protest against France’s support for anti-Islamic blasphemy. Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan and a host of other Muslim countries also have condemned France’s vilification of Islam and assault on its Muslim community. Public demonstrations against France were staged in Egypt, Palestine, Bangladesh and other Muslim countries. One of the largest anti-French rallies rocked Dhaka, the capital of the secular Muslim country of Bangladesh (where I made my debut in journalism). Boycott of French goods has begun in Turkey, Kuwait, Qatar, Jordan, Palestinian territories, and other Muslim countries and communities. “Don’t go near French products,” Erdogan admonished Turks.

In the face of the rising tide of religious resurgence worldwide, French laicite looks increasingly like an aberration, reflected in the French panic attack on those who challenge it. You wonder how much longer can France, with its anti-religious bigotry, stick out like a sore thumb in the pluralizing and globalizing world.

The killing of the French schoolteacher was doubtless a reprehensible – and anti-Islamic – act. Islam says taking a single human being outside the judicial process amounts to “killing all humanity.” But the Paty murder seems to have, at least for now, pitted Europe against Islam. European Union leaders, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, otherwise known for her sensitivity to other cultures, have voiced support for the French stance on the Muhammad cartoons.  

The first thing this “clash of civilizations” brings to my mind is the extent to which Western Europe, the birthplace of liberalism, has derailed from its foundational creed. Classical liberalism was all about freedom and humanism, and religious freedom was one of its cardinal principles. The ideology was born in the wake of the French Revolution, and many Enlightenment thinkers, – John Locke, Denis Diderot, Gottfried Leibniz, Jean Jacques Rousseau, George Berkeley, and others – believed in God or some transcendental entity, and in any case, staunchly defended religious freedom. Locke, the father of liberalism, referred to the Bible to defend many of his arguments. French Muslims seeking to preserve their religious values and lifestyle are actually trying to revive the original liberal ethos of religious freedom and tolerance.

Most Western Europeans are, however, descendants of the materialist, individualist and militarist Germanic tribes, and over time they got busy with the pursuit of material happiness and individual rights, brushing aside the Christian values of love, compassion and community life. Community, or Umma, is a core Islamic institution, and Muslims often react strongly to injustices against their community or faith. The worldwide Muslim rage over the French cartoon episode is not just a protest against blasphemy. It shows, as importantly, global Muslim solidarity with the embattled French Muslims, part of the Muslim Umma. 

I doubt that the repressive measures being adopted by the Macron government, and the hostility Muslims face in other parts of Europe, can suppress the dynamic and assertive Muslim communities there. Macron’s new crusade against Islam can’t, I am afraid, have a better outcome than the ones the French led a millennium ago against Muslims and Jews in Jerusalem and the Levant.

  • Mustafa Malik, the host of the blog Community, is an international affairs commentator in Washington.