The consequences of the lesson in “free expression” in a French school, that unfortunately cost the life of a teacher, keep alerting mankind that the theory of a “clash of civilisations” is borne out by the facts, every now and then.
On the day Muslims around the world were celebrating the birthday of the Prophet Mohamed, Thursday, 29 October, an illegal immigrant, a 21-year-old Tunisian, who had just crossed the Mediterranean in September, went into a church in the coastal city of Nice and killed three people — two women and a man. One of the women was from Brazil.
The horrible murders raised a lot of difficult questions to deal with. For one, how does the Muslim world see itself in the 21st century? A second relates to how effective have been all the initiatives, books, publications and seminars on the peaceful coexistence of civilisations? A third pertains to illegal immigration and the threats it poses for Europe, and how to make sure that the immigrants, who are mostly young, are not radicalised, if not outright members in would-be sleeping cells, sent to Europe? A fourth question is about the most effective ways to reduce the numbers of illegal immigrants to European shores.
A related question is the ability of European countries to synchronise their policies regarding how to integrate their Muslim communities and how to combat terrorism and radical fundamentalism across Europe?
The measures that were announced by French President Emmanuel Macron in his speech in the small town of Les Mureaux, on Friday, 2 October, to fight what he rightly called “Islamic separatism” within France, seem to me to be a turning of the tide and putting an end to the impunity enjoyed by some Islamist groups and Muslim associations in France for too long.
The fierce reactions in the Muslim world to the “lesson in free speech” that cost the life of an innocent French teacher have been orchestrated, to a large extent, by fundamentalists and radical groups in reaction to the new French policies to confront their plans to create a parallel “society and a way of life” inside France. In other words, to create a supra-legal entity specifically tailored to the application of Sharia law on France’s Muslims.
France was to be the laboratory to demonstrate how successful such plans would be. If positive it would be applied elsewhere within the European Union. The patronage of Erdogan’s Turkey has been a major support, either directly or indirectly. His organisational instrument is undoubtedly the International Association of the Muslim Brotherhood, with strong ties to Qatar.
The proposed measures announced by the French president are scheduled to be adopted by the French government 9 December. If approved by the National Assembly, the expected law would be a very serious blow to all those who wanted to use the Muslim community in France as a Trojan Horse. This would be a first step on a long and difficult road of decoupling Islam from political instrumentalisation. If successful, it would have reverberations not only in Europe, but also across the Arab world.
France on its own cannot possibly win the war of ideas without strong support from other member countries in the European Union. Leaving France to fight fundamentalism and radicalism alone would be counterproductive for the successful integration of Europe’s Muslims who should become fully and successfully included in the European mainstream. If Europe succeeds in achieving such necessary integration, Muslim communities in Europe would be the defenders of Europe, the birthplace of the modern world.
Islam as a religion, if properly interpreted away from political considerations, is the main instrument in bringing about such a monumental change in the perceptions of Europeans to Islam, and in helping Muslim communities in Europe to integrate constructively their religious beliefs into their national European identity.
The French have been speaking for some time of what they have dubbed the “Islam of France”. Whether this is the proper term to use or not is a matter of controversy. However, the fact of the matter is that people everywhere do interpret religious text in the context of their living conditions and their educational levels. In other words, if they are enjoying the fruits of the welfare state; if they are assured that their sons and grandsons would climb the social ladder without hindrance and obstacles because of their religious affiliation; if they enjoy equal opportunity, then their way of understanding and practising Islam would be Europeanised in the sense that they would see no contradiction between Islam and their European identity.
Needless to say, for this to come about European governments would have to shield their respective Muslim communities from radical and fundamentalist preaching coming out of the Muslim world, at the hand of radical groups led, secretively, by the Muslim Brotherhood and the direct support it enjoys from both Erdogan’s Turkey and Qatar.
France cannot alone lead the war in Europe against the pernicious impact of Islamist propaganda, preaching and radicalism. It is a fight that should be waged as a common effort by European countries. If so, then we would be certain that the tide is turning in favour of all those powers and countries fighting Islamist obscurantism, including both Egypt and France.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly