Will the virus of sectarianism swallow France?

Photo: National Secular Society

By Muhammad Shakir

Is the essence of the French Revolution, which guided the world under the glorious slogan of equality, freedom and fraternity, being buried in the soil of France, during the time of the young President Emmanuel Macron, who assumed power with high hopes?

With the re-publication of the internationally controversial Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet, freedom of expression and secularism have once again led to heated debates and strife in France.

On 16 October, Samuel Paty, a history teacher, was beheaded in France by an 18-year-old son of immigrant parents from Chechnya for displaying the controversial cartoons in the name of freedom of expression. The accused was shot dead by the police on the spot and the French president’s response to the assassination sparked widespread protests and criticism around the world. In addition, two weeks before the Paty’s killing, President Macron said on 2 October “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.” This remark on Islam caused a great deal of controversy.

French secularism, synonymous with ‘pure’ secularism, has begun to fade. Political observers are shocked by the outbreak of intense social conflict during Macron’s reign because he had advocated for pluralism, upheld socialist ideas, while seizing power at the age of thirty-nine. He was a leader the world hoped for. So far, Macron has been a household name along with Justin Trudeau of Canada, Angela Merkel of Germany and Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand. His efforts to keep the French people, who had jumped to the far right, in the middle and lead them to humane values were considered to be somewhat successful.

But the contradictions in the president’s position in recent times show that the point at which the progressive left and the reactionary right meet is one, not secularism in the realm of reality. The secular outlook embellished in Islamophobia is making secularism a disaster.

Freedom of Expression?

What are the criteria for the freedom of expression? Are there limits?  Who sets the limits? These are the most discussed questions in recent days. The words of Malayalam storyteller Basheer are relevant here: “Littering in my backyard may be an expression for you, but for me it is dirty and smelly.” Healthy debates are a good sign of democracy and free thought. Devaluations to this principle occur when expressions give way to insults.

Freedom of expression is not something that changes according to one’s own intentions and identities. The French embassy in Mauritania terminated its employment contract with cartoonist Khalid Valad because of his cartooning of Macron. However, it justified the label of free expression when Charlie Hebdo cartoons insulted the Prophet. This sheds light on the duplicity of France’s position.

Charlie Hebdo, hailed as a martyr of freedom of expression, reveals another terrifying face of anti-Muslim racism. The weekly, which started selling anti-Muslim racism by publishing cartoons of the Prophet, later became a regular.

The image of Alan kurdi, a baby boy who died on the beach during his exile as a victim of civil war and famine, had shaken the world’s conscience. But knowing that Charlie Hebdo had published a cartoon that even mocked Alan Kurdi, one does not need much intellect to understand the meaning of the idea that forms its editorial desk.

Moreover, in the middle of the controversy, Charlie Hebdo, which regularly publishes anti-Muslim cartoons, fired their own cartoonist for making what could be interpreted as “anti-Semitic” cartoons.

One must be very careful about delineating the issue of ‘free speech’. It is true that violence, such as the murder of Paty, threatens free speech. But for those whose complaints are constantly ignored, free speech has long been blocked. Their protest for their rights is branded as extremism. This selective interpretation of freedom of speech points to underlying prejudice and bigotry.

Those who hide behind the mask of neutrality must honestly understand the facts. This does not mean that one should not criticize Islam or other religions, but that criticism should be based on facts and not on the dangerous prejudices and stereotypes created by imperialism. That is why all criticism assumes the same format.

The right to express one’s own ideas and thoughts is at the heart of democratic values.  Expression is often transmitted through art, which contributes to the advancement and development of society. However, complaints of freedom of expression that violate the rights of others and hurt their feelings cannot be accepted. This is because the limit of one’s freedom is only up to the nostrils of another.

French secular concerns

Macron’s moves can only be seen as a new continuation of the stereotype that anti-Islamism is the foundation of European identity construction.

Muslims have historically had to stand apart. The injection of Muslim-hatred into the subconscious of France cannot be judged on the basis of recent events alone. Its roots extend to the colonial past.

The media is now debating the motive behind the outrage that could not be seen despite the deaths of about 20 people in various terrorist incidents since Macron came to power. Diplomatic relations between France and Turkey have been strained in connection with the cartoon controversy.

Religious blasphemy is rampant in France, even as it praises secularism. How vile is the tendency to impose the actions of only a minority of extremists on an entire population and to exclude them from the mainstream?

The problems faced by Muslims in France are multifaceted. The constant harassment of Muslims as a problem community on the basis of their religious identity leads to the denial of the rights they are entitled to as citizens. Practicing Islam in daily life causes humiliation and alienation for innocent and ordinary Muslims, including the wearing of hijab by Muslim women and the Muslim vendors selling halal food.

In 2018, former Health Minister Gerald Columbus said to a student wearing a headscarf on a French television show that it was “different from French society.” This can be seen as a deep crisis in French secularism’s dealings with religious and ethnic diversity.

The terrorist activities against Charlie Hebdo are reprehensible. The involvement of extremists in anti-religious activities as a form of religious protection can never be justified. But the authorities’ response of blaming an entire faith community undermines the very foundation of a nation’s secular consciousness.

The secularism of a nation makes sense when its citizens can live without fear.

Muhammad Shakir is currently a research intern at Jamia Madeenathunnoor, Calicut, Kerala and pursuing master’s degree in Sociology from IGNOU, New Delhi. He is a reviewer, writer and independent research fellow, specializing in the areas of transnational studies and cultural anthropology. He is also interested in tradition, aesthetics, and Comparative studies.


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