International Booster- France : Extremism vs secularism Issue

France : Extremism vs secularism Issue

France is reeling from a spate of terrorist attacks perpetrated in the name of Islam. Last month, a boy of Chechen origin killed his school teacher for displaying controversial images of Prophet Mohammad, which had provoked a macabre terrorist attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. In early October, Macron made public his plans to ‘regulate’ Islam and counter ‘Islamist separatism’ by passing a new law to that effect. In a tribute to the school teacher, Macron said, ‘We will not renounce cartoons or drawings even if others recoil’. As tensions continued to smoulder, another Islamist terrorist murdered three civilians at a Church in the city of Nice. As despicable as these acts of violence are, they have occasioned the conditions for reflection.

France and Islam 

The link between France and Islam dates back to the days of colonialism when the country ruled over several Arab countries in North Africa and the Middle East. Following its occupation during WWII, France sought to restore its pride by clinging on to its colonial possessions. Its recalcitrance on the question of granting independence and high-handedness in dealing with its colonial subjects generated colossal amounts of bloodshed. The Algerian war typified the racist contempt with which the French colonists treated the natives. Although other countries like Tunisia, Morocco or Lebanon did not have to fight a bloody war against the state for independence, the savagery of colonisation remained etched in popular memory.

A bruised self-esteem amongst the natives was a key consequence of decades of French colonialism. When a new generation of people from its former colonies started to migrate to France, they brought with them the bitterness with which their forebears regarded the French state. This was the beginning of the friction between France and its Muslim citizens. This sentiment was compounded by the poor economic situations the immigrants found themselves in.



Islamic extremism in France

Geographical proximity is a major reason why France is vulnerable to attacks from North Africa, there are also other reasons why France is targeted. The rise of fundamentalist jihadist outfits at the turn of the century provided an option for the disaffected denizens of the banlieues to vent their pent-up anger against the state. Moreover, groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS attracted a large number of fighters from the Islamic Maghreb, a region of French pre-eminence. For example, a large number of Muslims joined ISIS from France’s former colony Tunisia. The city of Nice, where the recent Church stabbings and a ‘lone wolf’ Islamist attack took place in 2016, is home to a substantial Tunisian diaspora. These connections make it easier for Islamist terrorists to target France than any other country in the West, like the USA or the UK. Indeed, figures revealed that over 1,700 French nationals went to fight for ISIS in the heyday of its caliphate.

This trend demonstrates that the temporal grievances of the Islamic community in France, mostly economic and social ones, adopt religious colours when they go unaddressed. The radical Islamist organisations feed on disgruntled young Muslim men and persuade them to seek salvation through arms. Thus, a thoroughly domestic socio-economic problem becomes an international one when external malign forces intervene to recruit foot-soldiers for a destructive cause.

A harmonious France needs a government that addresses the core reasons that push Muslims to militancy. Along with adequate education, health and employment opportunities French Muslims need a society that embraces them for what they are. A greater focus on their reasonable socio-economic worries might integrate Muslims closer into the larger society and thwart any recourse to Islamism for solace. But, some ideals of the French state, such as secularism and freedom of expression stand in the way towards that end.

The problem with Laïcité 

The French version of secularism – laïcité – plays a profound role in the alienation of Muslim communities in France. A history of competition between the republic and an authoritarian church for power and supremacy redounded to the energy with which secularism was instituted in the state.  Laïcité, adopted through a 1905 law, guarantees the citizens freedom of conscience and dissociates the state from any faith, belief or religion. In other words, the French state does not recognize any religion and it is faith blind. While this might seem innocuous, another provision of the law forbids demonstrating religious symbols in public. This posed considerable threat to the harmony of French public life.

Freedom to offend

The case of Charlie Hebdo  Outright violence broke out in early 2015 when the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo published a series of cartoons depicting Prophet Mohammad in improper ways, considered blasphemous in Islam. Two brothers of Algerian descent broke into the premises of the newspaper and murdered 11 people in cold blood including the chief editor and the cartoonist. The terrorist attack, as it drew widespread condemnation, also sparked a debate about the freedom to offend. Charlie Hebdo had a notorious history of offending faiths including but not limited to Islam. Following the attacks, the newspaper drew support from the global community for its heroic championing of freedom of expression. But the debate about whether or not some things are beyond satire continued to rage.

Amidst the sea of support that poured in, the slogan ‘Je suis Charlie’ (I am Charlie) emerged the contention that Charlie Hebdo had been breaching certain norms of morality. The portrayal of Mohammad naked on all fours should have been considered outrageous not because it disparaged Islam, but instead because it violated basic human decency. As the popular movement in favour of Charlie Hebdo morphed into a rally for freedom of expression in general, questions related to the finer details of the issue and the dubious moral superiority of the newspaper fell by the wayside.

The sanguinary episodes of terrorism in France have spurred President Emmanuel Macron to double down on efforts to ensure the security of the realm. His latest plans to ‘create’ a French version of Islam neglects to address the root causes of the terrorist scourge that plagues France. Attempts to ‘reform’ Islam would only reinforce the antipathy towards the state that have long festered amongst Muslims in France.

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