French President Emmanuel Macron believes that the secular French Republic is under attack by “Islamism” and that the problem can be solved by stepping up a counterattack. He should think again: extremism has proved to be a complex global threat that should be confronted by subtle and creative strategies.
Nowhere has it posed more of an existential challenge than in the Muslim world, which has been struggling for decades against religious militancy that has been seeking to create alternatives to modern, secular and liberal institutions and social behaviour. It would be better for France to take notice.
Extremism and terrorism are among the most difficult challenges facing the Islamic world today. Beheadings and other barbaric crimes by terrorist groups such as the Islamic State (IS) have taken their toll on many Muslim nations, while dangerous terrorist threats persist around the Islamic world.
Fundamentalism, or conservatism, which continues to shape the political and social debate and sentiments in many parts of the Muslim world, constitutes a greater threat and remains at the core of the challenges posed by extremism and radicalisation.
Here are just a few examples of how fundamentalism has been playing out before it resurfaced recently when France and the world were shocked at the decapitating of teacher Samuel Paty in a Paris suburb by a Muslim youth.
In Egypt, a teenage girl was banned from attending a private school last week in the Nile Delta town of Bilbis for not wearing the hijab, or Islamic headscarf, which families say is not part of the uniform sanctioned by the authorities.
In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the authorities arrested a young girl in Najafabbad, a town south of the capital Tehran, on charges of “insulting” the Islamic dress code after she was found unveiled and riding a bicycle in public.
An Iraqi TV presenter working for state-owned television was forced to quit his job after he hosted a talk-show on secularism in which a guest was critical of apostasy in Islam and accused of being “diversionary.”
Needless to say, the war against terror across the Islamic world has been going hand-in-hand with another against conservatism, which has long showed an intolerant face of Islam.
Yet, while it is true that defeating fundamentalism for good still has a long way to go, the vast majority of Muslims now support changes that could lead to a much-needed Islamic reformation.
In the wake of Macron’s rhetoric after the shocking murder of Samuel Paty, which even many French commentators see as a turn against democracy, justice and national cohesion, the question now is how much this will help in challenging extremism and encouraging Islamic moderation.
It was not unexpected that the tragic killing of the French teacher should have sparked an outpouring of emotion among the public and a strong reaction from government officials in France, but this should not come at the expense of the integration of the French Muslim community or diligent efforts to broaden the base of those in the Islamic world who are seeking religious reform.
While the horrific crime in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine was shocking, the immediate political mobilisation by the French government and political groups that draw on Islamophobia that came in its wake was also alarming.
Speaking at the scene hours after the incident, Macron denounced what he called an “Islamist terrorist attack” against the French Republic, sparking criticisms for stigmatising a whole religion rather than the individuals or groups involved in this sordid act.
Just two weeks before, Macron had announced plans to “regulate” Islam in France and to clamp down on so-called Islamic “separatism,” underlining claims of alleged Muslim communalism and establishing the subject firmly in French public debate.
French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin announced proposals for the government to break up certain French associations or NGOs, including the Collective against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), the main national body offering legal support to victims of Islamophobia.
Darmanin later also criticised French supermarkets for having aisles of “[religious] community food,” implying that the separate sale of products like halal meat could contribute to the isolation of minority communities and even lead to radicalisation.
Amid emotional reactions to Paty’s death across France and demands for the “eradication of Islamism” by powerful far-right opposition party the Rassemblement National, fears mounted about possible further violence.
Two veiled French women of Algerian descent were attacked with a knife near the Eiffel Tower in Paris following what police said was a dispute over an unleashed dog. No details were disclosed about the dispute, but many Muslims believe that dogs are ritually impure.
One of the victims told social media that the assailants had hurled racist insults at her, such as “dirty Arab, go home,” before she and her cousin had been stabbed more than once.
Muslim community leaders in France and mainstream Islamic institutions and leaders worldwide condemned Paty’s grisly killing and called for Islam to be disassociated from such heinous acts. But critics inside France and in the Islamic world also doubled down on the poisonous Islamophobic rhetoric that fuels racism and hatred.
The killing, and Macron’s subsequent interventions and the hysteria surrounding the event, highlighted the larger problem of France’s uneasy relationship with its Muslim community and the French ruling elites’ outlook on Islam at large.
France’s problems with its Muslim community are deep-rooted and go back to European colonialism in the Arab world and to the post-colonial political, economic and social gaps that have resulted from failures of integration and been expressed in such policies as housing many French Muslims in isolated “banlieues,” or immigrant ghettos, and the cultural schisms over laïcité, or secularism, in France.
Even if this is a national crisis that is in need of a local solution, many in France and in the outside world believe that it would be counterproductive to take the uneasy path of assimilating France’s second-largest community on the country’s own secular terms, considering that there have been demographic and historical changes that make France’s version of secularism outdated.
Like many events of a global nature, and in particular issues of faith and identity, fears of the demonising of French Muslims can travel far and wide and provoke various impacts and reactions.
Muslims across the world have responded with anger at attempts to alienate French Muslims under the guise of “regulating” Islam or the use of terms such as “Islamist separatism” and have called for respect for the beliefs of others.
Calls to boycott French goods are growing in many Muslim countries in reaction to Macron’s criticisms of the French Muslim community and the continued publication of caricatures of the Prophet Mohamed in France that has been at the core of the controversy.
In Egypt, Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam, which had earlier condemned the “criminal terrorist” killing of the French teacher, slammed the “discourse of hatred” and called for an international convention on the “respect of religion.”
Other criticisms of the current discourse in France say that it is demonising the Muslim community and that the hysterical climate it has created against Muslims has harmed the drive to push forward the Islamic reformation that is underway in many parts of the Muslim world.
The objective behind these reform efforts is not only to “immunise” Muslims from extremism but also to rekindle an Islamic renewal, a goal they share with Macron’s “Islam of Enlightenment” thought in the broad sense of a commitment to modernity, freedom, human rights, democracy, diversity, pluralism and tolerance.
This is why France needs another approach to deal with its “Islamist” challenge, one which differs from a hardline and “localised’ interpretation of secularism and takes into account Muslims’ spiritual and sometimes historical connections.
As the examples of the controversies over girls’ headscarves in Egypt and Iran show, together with the debate about secularism in Iraq, Muslim societies are fighting their own battles against fundamentalism, but realise that there can be no quick or easy win.
One would have hoped that a strategic international alliance could have been conjured up to help advance the cause of Islamic renewal, but hope is also a disease as the great French philosopher of the Enlightenment Voltaire warned on a related note.
“It is up to us to cultivate our gardens,” he suggested instead.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 29 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly