The externalization of religious minorities from the majority culture impacts individuals of both parties, the minority and majority. A culture of fear and phobia grows, and in moments of crisis this fear can turn into hatred, then to violence, to the extent of possible extermination. A century ago Europe experienced such a situation, and its consequences are still in the memory, lives and policies of some people, states and societies inside and outside Europe. It is the role of critical intellectuals and scholars to warn against such moments and their replica in history. The externalization of Islam and Muslims from the contemporary Euro-American history, culture and economic life has various reasons. Here I reflectively stop at the particular case of the most recent France under the leadership of Emanuel Macron, the current French President, and how he has invoked the question of Islam in some of his most controversial speeches in October and November 2020.
The Most Recent Context
In a long political speech on 02 October 2020, Emanuel Macron spoke of laïcité (French secularism), and focalized “Islamist separatism.” In the speech, he made a general statement that touched millions worldwide: “Islam is facing a crisis all over the world today” [at minute 9 of his speech of 80 minutes] and he warned of “Islamist separatism” in the French society, led and nurtured by radical religious and political ideologies that seek power. Muslims, as individuals and established institutions, reacted against this diagnosis from a non-Muslim during a political speech. Two weeks later an eighteen-years-old high school student, a Muslim Chechen who arrived in France as a kid with his family of refugees, beheaded the French teacher Samuel Paty for having shown in class the defamatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, as a form of defense of the sacredness of the Prophet and his depiction in images, let alone in defamatory images. Tension in the country, and worldwide, intensified.
During the funeral of the teacher, Macron intensified further the climate, by defending the freedom of expression, and the freedom to practice (the culture) of caricature. This defence of the caricature is read by some Muslims worldwide as a state defense of the defamation practice of the reverence Muslims have of their Prophet. Some protests worldwide against the French president’s speech took place, despite the Covid-19 pandemic situation. State leaders denouncing the speech and calling for protection of the figure of the Prophet from defamation were heard and read or filed to French embassies or Foreign Ministry from countries like Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, and Malaysia, besides condemnations from established religious institutions like al-Azhar in Cairo. A boycott of French products followed suit. Meanwhile, a number of violent acts of killings and stabbings were committed in Notre-Dame Basilica of Nice, and Lyon, fueled by these presidential earlier speeches. Apparently, the French president had to seek the international Arabic al-Jazeera TV Channel for an interview to further explain his point, which he did on 31 October 2020, and he aimed with it to calm down the electrified tension inside and outside France. He clarified that his statement has been mis-quoted and mis-translated, and that he meant the defence of the culture of the caricature, as part of freedom of expression, and not the caricature of the Prophet itself, which he does not agree with himself, but as president he guarantees the right of all for freedom of expression, adding that the Charli Hebro magazine behind the caricatures had ridiculed all religions before, without exception, and not only Islam or the figure of the Prophet Muhammad.
On 04 November, Macron published “Letter: Islam is against ‘Islamist separatism’ – never Islam” on the American Financial Times. The letter emphasizes that the struggle is not against a religion or its overall believers, but is against an ideology that is “separatist.” Two days earlier, 02 November, one hundred French researchers and academics signed a “Manifesto of the 100”, on Le Monde, warning against the other professors and academics who teach indigene and racial issues, and postcolonial thought, imported from North American university campuses, teach hatred towards the “whites” and towards France. The Manifesto also quotes the French Minister of National Education Jean-Michel Blanquer who warned in the Senate on 22 October of the “Islamic Left” (l’islamo-gauchisme) which is powerful and is ruining the French universities, he said. Gilles Kepel, Bernard Rougier, Laurent Bouvet, Luc Ferry and (surprisingly) Marcel Gauchet, are among the signatories of the manifesto. Olivier Roy and Francois Burgat are not signatories; they have saved the face of the French academia from censorship! Frédérique Vidal, the Minister of Higher Eduation, Research and Innovation, apparently did not join this debate and manifesto, and is reported to have said on 26 October in the Senate that things are running normally in the French universities. The manifesto condemned the fact that some academics do not condemn “Islamism” as such, and only refer to violent acts as forms of “obscurantism” and “fanaticism.” The importation of “Anglo-saxon communitarism” is described as a threat to the French universities.
However, on 04 November, in Le Monde, nearly two thousand French researchers came together to denounce the “Manifesto of the 100,” and on 05 November a counter-manifesto was signed by international scholars, like Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak Talal Asad, and Alana Lentin, in defence of academic freedom and research. On 12 November, Amnesty International, too, came out with a critical statement against the “double speech” of France: “The French government’s rhetoric on free speech is not enough to conceal its own shameless hypocrisy.” On 19 November, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), an NGO founded in 2003 to combat discrimination against Muslims, was sent a letter from French authorities informing them of the decision of the government to dissolve the NGO, without outlining the reasons, a letter they have to respond to within eight days before the decision takes place, a new fact against which Amnesty International has warned because of its limitations of freedoms and criticisms.
Manifestations of Externalization
Macro’s recent appearances on the question of Islam and Muslims contain seeds of externalization, which may be easily used by further right wing parties, populists and Islamophobes – that if they were not meant as such in the first place. First, diplomatically, Macron was not politically correct to say that Islam is facing a crisis worldwide. Muslims themselves know this, and they have been discussing it and writing about it for the last two hundred years. They do not need a young international leader to scorn them in public about this! More importantly, this crisis has multiple factors, internal and external, and, as a reminder, the colonial France has played important roles in this crisis for the last two hundred years. The traces of the horses of Napoleon in al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo are not forgotten. Imagine an influential Arab or Muslim leader saying that Christianity or Judaism is in a crisis worldwide; how would the “Western” world and their media react? When the Turkish President Recep Tayyib Erdgan replied to Macron’s speeches, on 26 October, questioning his mental conditions, the French diplomacy received support from its German and Italian counterparts, and rebuked the Turkish president for such incorrect political language. While it is obvious that the Turkish president went beyond the limits of political correct language, it is not that obvious to many that Macron’s incorrect language does not reflect high political language correctness either. His language inaccuracy – which reflects a political attitude – resembles the American President George W. Bush’s erroneous language in September 2001, before invading Afghanistan and Iraq afterwards, when he described “this war on terrorism” as “this crusade.” Historians know how the word “crusade” sounds to the ear of non-Europeans; it is not dissimilar from the horrors invoked by words like the “Holocaust.”
Second, Macron’s defence of freedom of expression and the culture of the caricature is blurred with the idea of defending the republication of the defamatory cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. He played on this ambiguity to pass a message, and it backfired; it led to some protests worldwide, despite the pandemic situation. Historically, I do not know of any leader of Muslim majority societies who defended in the past or defends in the present a defamatory depiction of Prophets and religious sacred figures; and I do not know of any established and respected Islamic religious figure or institution that disdains other sacred figures of other religions. It is not about freedom of speech; it is about what such sacred figures represent to their followers of millions, symbols of life, dignity, liberty and ethical teachings. Muslims do not portray their Prophet even in good portrays, let alone in defamatory ones. Their choice of non-portray is a choice, a choice related to the idea of respect to his majestic aura and symbol of goodness in its perfectness, akin to the perfectness of the idea of God Itself, and that is why they do not depict God too. It is an abstract idea that inspires the heart and mind, without a need for a depiction. The cosmos is already a school that teaches about God, and Muslims do not need to picture It, or Him, to make It closer to them. There is a minimum of decorum to consider when it comes to most revered figures of other faiths, especially if these faiths are targeted and marginalized minorities (and by marginalized minorities I do not mean that some of their members do not become successful and influential in the majority society and culture).
Third, Macron used the label “Islamist separatism” to identify the threat which his state institutions struggle against. French media and French institutions do not always pay attention to the difference between “Islamic” and “Islamist,” but this time Macron was careful to use the label “Islamist.” Most commentators did not note that this label is directly or indirectly borrowed from Seyyid Qutb (hanged in 1966 by the regime of Nasser), the Egyptian literary critic who turned into a Quranic exegete and a father of the radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood between the 1960s and 1980s – and of some international terrorists until now. In his critique of the lack of Islamicity of Muslim societies, Qutb called for “emotional seclusion” (al-‘uzla al-shu‘uriyya), which is a status of preserving one’s piety and religiosity in a “jahili” (ignorant) un-Islamic enough context, ruled by authoritarian and Western secularism and capitalism, until change of social order occurs, to be led by God’s rule (al-hakimiyyah). A lot of research on the biographies of the French terrorists of Muslim background shows that they feel alienated or isolated or not included in society, and at certain stages of their life they seek heroism or easy paradise that the God “of Muslims” delivers to these self-claimed “martyrs.” This “separatism” when committed by French born and educated citizens, or residents in most cases, is French-bound, French-connected, before it becomes “Islamist” or “Islamized.” There was no need to use “Islamic” or “Islamist” in fighting this genre of ideological and radical separatism in society; it is a “separatist ideology” whether in France or Morocco or Indonesia, or wherever it tries to find a background. When you call it “Islamic” and “Islamist” it becomes easy to put into the basket also the ordinary Muslims who like to preserve certain aspects of visible religiosity, like waring the veil for some women, or the beard for some men, or eating halal and observing prayers in work places for others; these ordinary Muslims become also “separatist” because there is institutional evidence in a few French municipalities that they are targeted as potential radicals. Added to this is the fact that discrimination at work, based on colour and proper names not traditionally French, is a reality. Otherwise said, there is a separatism that the state and French culture so far propagates, willingly or unwillingly. To avoid putting all in one basket, then, “Islamist separatism” is a dangerous label to use, and “ideological separatism” or “radical separatism” are good enough labels. Olivier Roy and Francois Burgat could be better advisors to the French political elite!
Fourth, Macron used the phrase “Islamic civilization” when speaking to his French Muslim citizens and residents to tell them that “we”, the French, respect “your” civilization. The French use “culture” to refer to “civilization,” and they like to say “French civilization” instead of “French culture.” Maybe that is what Macron meant when he used the term “Islamic civilization,” i.e. “Islamic culture.” In both cases, he externalized Islam from France and the French culture. If he meant the culture, then the Muslims do not belong to the French culture, but the French can, nonetheless, respect them; we the French respect your culture; you are not part of us but we respect you. If he meant the civilization, then the externalization is double: the Muslims here in France belong to the Islamic civilization, which is now part of history, and does not exist as it did centuries back, especially between the 7th and 15th centuries of prosperity and culture; in this case, he meant the following: we, the republican secular French respect your old, archaic culture, which is dead and not like ours. Macron, to avoid externalization, could simply have used the phrase “we respect your cult,” which can be part of the French culture/civilization, the way Christianity and Judaism, as cults-faiths and cultures, are French now.
Fifth, on 16 November, Macron held a geopolitical interview with the Grand Continent, which is part of Geopolitics Studies Group of L’École normal supérieure of Paris, entitled The Macron Doctrine. Here, Macron speaks as a European and world leader, and proposes a more insertive European project in the world, to keep having an active role among the big ones, especially the US and China. Like the new Silk Road project, now called Belt and Road Initiative, that China is building, Macron says that Europe now lacks a concept, and he considers the Silk Road narrative and strategy as a concept to compete with and rival. The concept of Europe he proposes is composed of three major axes: 1) constant European work on education, health, digital technology and green energy, 2) fight against barbary and Islamist radicalism, in defence of European secularization of politics and coexistence, the traditional cultures of which are Judeo-Christian, and 3) the need to build strong Afro-European front of economic cooperation, since without this cooperation, Europe does not have a future. Not to go into details here, it is enough to see that Macron’s doctrine for the future of Europe does not mention Islam as part of this secular space of coexistence; Islam appears in the background as a front of Islamist radicalism. Macron seems to forget that the Africa he has eyes on, and already has feet in, for the future of Europe is nearly half Muslim in terms of population, and if he wishes to build a solid concept of co-existence he has to acknowledge that this Africa and its citizens – also Muslim – are not only an economic gain; they have cultures and faiths, and hold a strong sense of dignity that they wish to be respected. Macron here repreats the same mistake Europe committed when it imported labour force from outside Europe post-World War II; it looked at the labourers as cogs in the chain of industry, and ignored their human needs, among which culture and faith, and what those entail in terms of infrustructure: pluralist schools, teaching of their faith in public schools where applicable, funding their denominational private schools where possible, and the like measures for real integration, based on respect, for long term co-existence. There is simply a clear externalization of Islam and Muslims from the future of Europe in Macron’s doctrine. In comparison, Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative between 2014-2019, in a speech in Brussles in 2015, was more Europeanist and inclusive when talking about Islam and the past, present and future of Europe.
When terrorist events take place, established religious authorities and Muslims are called upon to condemn such acts. But established and active authorities have to be valorized in normal times, and not only in abnormal times of terrorism; they already do condemn violence without need for political reminders. The systematic mind of Europe fails absolutely here! The initiative to form a European institute to train imams, for example, became the talk of a leading political voice, as was the recent call of Charles Michel, the European Council President, after the Vienna terrorist events of 02 November. Muslims themselves, as well as scholars of Islam and Muslims in Europe, have already called for such initiatives before, but with little success. The French scholarly tradition of Islam and Muslims inside France and outside it appear to be ignored by the French ruling elite; if it were not, we would not be witness to such externalizations of a dynamic and integrated faith and its adherents. Successful stories of this type in France, and in the rest of Europe, are plenty. If the French media keeps inviting commentators like Éric Zemmour on a daily basis for the last thirty years, the successful stories may never find space on the French TV! Still, when he appears, on Face à Face TV programme of CNews, on 23 October, in front of the philosopher Michel Onfray who bashes him, then one can be grateful that French scholarship, its spirit of criticism and humanist tradition are still alive and present!
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