In the words of Edward Said, “The term Islam as it is used today seems one simple thing but in fact is part fiction, part ideological and part minimal designation of a religion called, Islam”.[i] The past political and colonial rivalry lies between the West and the Islamic world is reflected in the religious polemics perpetuated by both the Arab and Islamic world and the West. If Orientalists have defined Islam through their colonial prism and treated it as a ‘question’ rather than a revealed religion of the Book, Arab and Islamic reformers and ideologues have been divided over whether to emulate the West as a model of progress or to treat it as its the “other”. According to Mandeville, “The Arabs had a much stronger notion of the Christians as the “other” than the Christians did of Muslims.”[ii] Other proponents of modernity argue that Islam like the Orient is another antonym for the West and European secularism is perceived to be a proper opposite of Islam. On the other hand, many fundamentalists view modernity as a fake and corrupt word; modernisation for them is a false historical narrative and, in the process, they have brought to the surface a historically sedimented antagonism between the West and Islam.[iii]
Similarly, if Orientalists attributed the absence of democracy in the Arab world and other signs of social conservatism to the religion of Islam, there have also been Arab reformers and polemicists who attributed all decadence in their society to the ideas of secularism and liberalism imposed on the Arabs by what they called non-believers (read Europe). 19th and early 20th century Islamic revivalist groups found the notion of western liberalism and secularism quite antagonistic to Islamic religiosity and for them there were no grounds for rapprochement between the two and the only solution they could envisage was that of Pan Islamism.[iv]
What later revived the colonial-era contestations between Islamic world[v] and the West was the Afghan war, the end of Cold War and subsequent events of 9/11 that saw a new phase of interface between the two with the strong echoes of the past. Again, Islam took centre stage and was portrayed by the West as a mirror-image of violence and intolerance while the West was celebrated as an abode of freedom and tolerance.
In the light of this hypothetical abstract nothing exemplifies the extent of Islamic intolerance more than the beheading of a French teacher, Samuel Paty, by a Chechen-born French-man for referring to the Charlie Hebdo Cartoon[vi] while explaining the concept of freedom of expression to his students. The act was a grim reminder of the 2015 Charlie Hebdo related killing of twelve journalists. The killing of the French teacher was followed by a similar incident when a white man stabbed two Muslim women calling them dirty Arabs.[vii] Subsequently, three people lost their lives in an attack by a Tunisian Muslim termed an act of Islamic terrorism by French President Macron.[viii] The uproar on the streets of France in protest at the killing was to be expected but the subsequent polemics are a grim reminder of a past colonial context when both the Arabs and the colonial masters expanded the orbit of religion to understand or condemn individual acts. In the words of a well known 20th century renowned Orientalist, Bernard Lewis, “Islamic culture (and ideology) and Islamic peculiar history are crucial to understanding of Islam”.[ix]
Many have suggested that this act of intolerance an old-age incompatibility between Islamic puritanism and the western way of pursuing religiosity. If Arabs could not see the cartoon caricature beyond the mockery of a revered figure, the French state too saw it only as an expression of French Laicite.[x]
Western Liberalism and Islam: A Glimpse into the Past
As mentioned earlier, both the Arabs and the West in terms of their culture and religion have seen each other as the antithesis, if not eternally but at least since the colonial encounter. Any notion of Islamic polity or rejection of liberalism or secularism has been seen as an antithesis of the Western Enlightenment. It was the nineteenth century colonial encounters that triggered debates between Arab intellectuals and European orientalists about the question of compatibility and incompatibility between Islam and the western modernity. The emergence of Islam as a project can be attributed to the rise of European imperialism and the corresponding decline of the Ottoman Empire. In his book, ‘Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development’ Leonard Binder, argues that western imperial liberalism made an effort to convert Islam into a form that the later (Islam) could never accept.[xi]
Gradually Islam emerged as an undeniable condition of the evolution of western identity and formally became integral to the discourse about liberalism. Talking about the closed minds of the Arabs and their hostility towards the ideas of the ‘other’, the 19th century French Orientalist Joseph Ernest Renan spoke of an “iron circle enclosing the head of the faithful in orient and making them impervious to fresh ideas and incapable of anything new”.[xii] Similarly, another 20th century American proponent of modernity, Daniel Lerner argued that Islam would be defenceless against the infusion of rationalist and positive spirit of modernity.[xiii]
It is also, however, a fact that the Arab has not only failed but has refused to catch up or match the liberal, rational or political ideals preached by the proponents of modernity not only because of their adherence to their past [xiv] but because of their blind faith in the authenticity of their past as Ali Pasha of Egypt reacting to Machiavelli’s Prince once said “Europe couldn’t claim to teach us much about the art of ruling and I have nothing to learn from Machiavelli”.[xv] Perhaps Derrida was right when he said Islam was the “other” of democracy and the “other” is occupied by Arabs and Muslims.[xvi]This was Islam’s nostalgia for the past which has not allowed it to keep pace with the time. As Napoleon rightly observed, “I found no Arab officials to take over as an administrator and so I had to ask Albanians and others to look after this job”.[xvii] Amidst the colonial onslaught and penetration of colonial powers (Russia, France, Britain, and Italy) in the Islamic lands, the possible resistance potential of Islam greatly worried the French intellectual. The French as also their contemporaries were forced to construct an ideological cover to justify imperialism. Both the British and the French showed equal concern about the political revival of Islam and its potential implications for the European colonial interests. Edward Said rightly declared that Orient has been an integral part of European material civilisation and culture.[xviii]
Perhaps it was in the colonial interest of the Western powers to postulate a fixed cultural category for Arabs and hence the objectification of the Muslim as an unchanging entity cropped up during the heyday of French control of the Muslim landscape. The practice of drawing a similarity between Islam and despotism was an imperial strategy to highlight the political aspect of Islam and a dominating tactic to cement colonial rule over Muslim/Arab lands.
It was in the justification of colonial subjugation that the renowned French thinker Alexis de Tocqueville had no objection to despotic rule for barbarians, particularly in Algeria and who also called for two sets of laws in Africa- one for ruling elites and another for the ruled. But if there was a French thinker like Alexis de Tocqueville justifying despotism, there were Arab intellectuals like Rifaa Tahtavi who during his stay in Paris in 19th century expressed his obsession with French cultural and political superiority in following words, “How civilized the French are and how their state is bound to justice and who treated even the representative of toppled regime so well”.[xix] A Moroccan scholar Muhammad Al-Saffar expressed his views of France that , “In comparison with the weakness of Islam, the dissipation of its strength, disrupted conditions of its people, how confident they are, how completely they are master of the state, how firm their laws, how capable in wars and successful in vanishing their enemies”.[xx]
The current polemics between the Arabs and the West in the wake of the cartoon controversy has an echo of the past or the past is being invoked to confront the present. Many radicals are associating the recent statement of President Macron of creating an Islam engrained in secularism and not in religious texts in order to foster a generation of Imams ‘made in France’ with the idea which originated much before Algerian independence of training Muslim judges on a rationalist basis and fashioning a new and modern Islam which would be close to France’s destiny.[xxi] Many conservative Muslims see this talk of fusing imported Islam with France’s tolerant religiosity as an attempt to convert Islam in France into French Islam.[xxii] Those opposed to the idea of French Islam are ignorant of the fact that religion is essentially influenced by culture of the host and no religion is immune from external influences and both the sociological mix of low-high culture have always left its imprint on the religious evolution, Indo-Islamic culture is the obvious case in point.
After the Third Republic, French secularism took an extreme form by banning the visibility of religious symbols in public places under the legal principle of laicite enacted in 1905[xxiii] that bars the state from imposing a particular belief. To enforce the principle of laicite, France had banned religious symbols in public schools in 2004, imposed a full-veil ban in 2010, a burkini ban on swimming in 2016 and then a ban on religious garb in National Assembly in 2018, which again was seen by many hardliners as a ban on expression of its identity, failing to understand the core ethos of the principle of laicite. Today, the display of Islamic symbols in public spaces is on the rise in France, causing fears and tensions. The Montaigne Institute in Paris in its report of 2018, ‘Islamist Factory’ said that Islamism generates fear but we should be guided by reason and should understand the strategy of these hardliner Islamists before responding in haste to their Islamist actions.[xxiv] The same institute in its 2016 report, ‘Is French Islam Possible?’ said that distrust and hostility threatens national unity and Muslims must use knowledge to combat misunderstanding.[xxv] According to a report, 74% of youth below 25 among the 6 million Muslims in France put their faith ahead of the French Republic.[xxvi]
The killing of the Teacher and Opening of a Pandora’s Box:
France has been at the center of growing terrorism and Islamic radicalism over the years since 2015 alone, 260 people have been killed in terror-linked attacks.[xxvii] Yet the latest killing of a teacher and subsequent killings in Nice and other sporadic attacks have triggered a new debate about Islam and its legacy in France in general and in Europe in particular. The tension had started before the killing of Samuel Paty, when President Macron had spoken about Islam being in crisis everywhere and called the 6 million Muslims residing in France a parallel society or a counter society.[xxviii] He also defended the decision to republish the offensive image of Prophet saying that, “We have freedom of expression and freedom of belief”[xxix] and images of Charlie Hebdo caricatures were reportedly projected on a government building as armed police forces stood guard.[xxx] Reacting to this disregard for Muslim sentiments, President Erdogan of Turkey had said that Macron has ‘lost his mind’ and the European Union retorted by saying that Erdogan must stop this spiral of confrontation and use of such words were unacceptable.[xxxi]
President Macron said that he would set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organised in France.[xxxii] Foreign funding of mosques have been banned and as of now 328 mosques, many seminaries and Islamic NGOs including a well-known Collective against Islamophobia and Barkah city have been shut down and conditions have been imposed on the leaders of the prayers. New taxes have been imposed on pilgrimage and all political activities for Muslim organisations have been banned. One hundred fifty complaints were registered against those children who refused to observe a moment of silence over the killing.[xxxiii] These moves are being termed as state-sanctioned Islamophobia that appears to transgress the French principle of freedom. At the same time, the refusal by some Muslim students to participate in a condolence meeting organised in a school in honour of those killed in the recent attacks is an obvious reflection of hostility towards the host country and of how radicalism has become embedded among French Muslim youth who appear reluctant to embrace French values.
After the killing of the teacher, the passage of a bill proposed long ago against radicalisation, Charter of Republican Values[xxxiv] was expedited and in February, 2021 after two weeks of intense debate and discussion, it was passed in the National Assembly with the objective to safeguard France against Islamic radicalisation and promote French values. The bill would tighten surveillance of mosques, schools and sports clubs and foreign funding for religious activities.[xxxv] The bill was termed by many as being separatist in character with Muslims asserting that it will single them out even though it discourages white supremacy as well. The new law prohibits the display of religious symbols in educational campuses or other public spheres.
On the other hand, the defence of the Prophet cartoon by President Macron led to anger on the streets in Islamic countries. Protests were held in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Mali, Lebanon and other Arab countries. Many Islamic religious bodies like Al-Azhar and the Council of Senior Scholars in Saudi Arabia condemned the French Government for its demonisation of Islamic symbols, Francois Burgat, a renowned French Islamic scholar wrote that, “It seems that obscene caricature of utmost vulgarity, stripped of any humour or meaning other than desire to insult, of most revered figure has become for the France’s Head of State and Laicist elites the only way to shield the laicist of the French Republic and sacrosanct symbol of French style of freedom of expression”.[xxxvi]
Many scholars view that the earlier paradigm of Islamophobia in France has now been sanctified by the French State itself as according to a report of French Muslim-run organisation , Collective against Islamophobia in France’ 59% of Islamophobic comments come from the Government officials.[xxxvii] The same organisation listed 1,043 Islamophobic incidents in 2019, a 77% spike from 2017.[xxxviii] Earlier the charge of Islamophobia was largely made against the far right but to many Muslims it gradually seems to be penetrating into the political discourse of the current Government and finally affecting the ethos of laicist discourse. The rise of Islamophobia in France or in other parts of Europe calls for a close examination and it needs to be seen also in the context of growing refugee crisis. The increase in Arab refugees has given rise to Islamophobia as many in Europe associate migration with a rising risk of terrorist attacks, with Islamisation of the secular society and the dismantling of their welfare state system.[xxxix] This view is strengthened by the number of deaths (260) that France has witnessed in terror-linked attacks in last five years. Many ISIS defectors have reported that veteran ISIS mentors are sending new Arab Muslim recruits to penetrate the refugee community.[xl] This influx is not simply an influx of men but also of ideas, concepts, and ideologies. Europeans are increasingly blaming refugees for all terror attacks since 2011 and reports suggest that a majority are hostile to the rush of the Arab refugees. The opposition ranges from 41 % in Spain to 71% in Poland.[xli] Ironically, Islamophobia is being fuelled in France and in Europe by a growing number of Arab and Muslim refugees seeking to live in Europe but resist assimilation into the culture of the host country thus triggering conflict.
The new generation of immigrant Muslim youth, particularly those marginalised or poor have become habitual in viewing every action by the French State through a traditional Islamic prism. While they do not like the state to question the presence of Halal meat shop on the street, for instance, they tend to forget that the presence of the shop itself is possible only because of the receptivity to other religions, of the host culture and a tolerant secular state.
President Erdogan of Turkey called for a boycott of French goods over Macron’s defence of the cartoon and soon many business malls in Arab countries were seen without French products. Almost as if the condemnation or boycotts were not enough, the Arab media embarked upon digging up the French colonial past. A renowned Arab commentator Bari Atwan said, “There is no nation on the planet except France which established a museum of skulls of those braves killed in fighting the French forces in the war of the independence in Algeria.[xlii] He also questioned French values referring to the killing of Qadhafi. Abdul Amjad Sheikh, advisor to the Algerian President accused France of making soap and sugar from the bones of dead Algerians.[xliii] One Arab commentator asked if Macron had any idea about how the most enlightened French thinkers like Garaudy, Jacques Burke, the painter Etienne Denné, Foucault, René Guinon and others have eulogised the Prophet.[xliv]
A Turkey-based think tank in its report said that European society is overwhelmed by Islamophobic discourse and far right conspiracy theories.[xlv] The report further said that both the Government and the media are using Islam and the Muslim migrant as political tools.[xlvi] Many see the statement of Macron as mandatory co-option of far-right arguments.[xlvii] It has been observed that, whenever an election is around, there are some accusations of foreign funding and some question about Muslims’ loyalty and national identity.[xlviii]
Reacting to protests and the growing hostility towards France in the Arab/Islamic world – a big defence market for France, President Macron lowered his emphasis on French values and targeting of Islam and tweeted “we are all one”, but there were no takers for this. [xlix]He said that he understood the shock, but violence was unacceptable and clarified that the cartoon was not the creation of the French Government.[l] He also acknowledged that, “We have ourselves built our own separatism……the ghettoisation that our Republic has allowed to develop and we have built up a concentration of impoverishment and hardship…..[li]. In contrast to previous polemics, he appeared to choose the path of negotiation. His Foreign Minister, Le Drian visited three Arab countries, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria in the first week of November to discuss security coordination and exchange of intelligence. The visit was also aimed at calming the growing frictions with Arab countries and migrants in France.
Laicism, Blasphemy, French Domestic Politics and Current Debate:
France defines religion with its own sense of constitutional principle of Laicite wherein cultural and religious manifestations carry a similar meaning. There is some vagueness about what a remnant of religion is and what is the reflection of culture. An array of arguments has been put forward to explain the current crisis. Many portray it as a deliberate attempt to alienate Muslims and that the principle of laicite is to target the religious symbols of Muslims. According to Oliver Roy, a French Islamic scholar, “a state can’t interfere in the management of religion or in theological questions”.[lii] The present polemics are thus seen aimed at imposing assimilation which is different from integration. Many in the past have warned that Europe would become a satellite of Muslim world[liii] and others see the present as the mainstreaming of state-sanctioned Islamophobia and blasphemy.[liv] Amr Moussa, a well-known Arab voice warned against fuelling the clash of civilisations and questioned why “anti-Semitism” is a crime while “anti-Islamism” is a view.[lv]
For many, it is a crisis in French exclusionary secularism which does not believe in exercising social responsibility towards a religious minority.[lvi] One analyst has borrowed the words of Gramsci to posit that France seems to be in an organic crisis.[lvii] President Macron himself has said that French values of freedom of belief and unbelief cannot be compromised.[lviii] Macron, however, failed to differentiate between his criticism of Islamic fanaticism and Islam as a faith or belief.[lix] While the debate about place of religion and culture in a democracy is complex, the ethos of liberal democracy is also in putting limits on the freedom of expression in case of any apprehension of violence or incitement.[lx] Tolerance also means holding back on freedom of expression. There are examples such as when the Belgium Government expelled a teacher for showing an offensive image of the Prophet and the Canadian Prime Minister called for freedom of expression with limits.[lxi]
Meanwhile, there is a call from different religious groups and an array of Muslim intellectuals for correcting Islamic discourse itself and to cleanse it of all fanaticism, extremism, and incitement, while stressing promotion of tolerance and respect for others. Many have questioned such an outcry over the cartoon and are of the view that there are many other reasons for Muslims to come on the streets other than a picture drawn by an unknown painter. Some are also of the view that violence in no way can be a sign of reverence for the Prophet. One Indian scholar argues that why should one shy away from accepting the fact that Islam has motivated many to barbarism. [lxii] Caricature has never been so sensitive an issue in the Islamic past but the satirising of the Prophet which is expressed through the caricature that is unacceptable. Then, why should a secular nation abide by standards set by Islamic teaching.[lxiii] A well-known voice on Islam in India Zeenat Shaukat Ali argued that killing of a human soul for blasphemy or a satirical act cannot be justified.
The current polemics are also linked by analysts to domestic politics of France. The principle of laicite in France primarily calls for state neutrality towards an organised religion. To some President Macron appears to be less worried about rising Islamic puritanism and more about his political opponent Marine Le Pen.[lxiv] On this reading his recent polemics seem to have been borrowed from the playbook of the far right which is wrapped in language of liberalism and secularism. The next election may see a stronger streak of populism and polemical and demagogic discourse which without any hesitation uses terms like Islamo-fascism and Islamic terrorism. As per Globsec reports, 56% of analysed terrorists are already found to be involved in burglary, rape, theft, looting, pickpocketing, and drug trade.[lxv] Some therefore have concluded that in the divisive politics of liberals and the far right, Muslims have become the scapegoat as President Macron is pandering to the voters of the far right to combat Pen.
The current crisis can also be seen in the light of growing economic and political deprivation of Muslims and denial of their cultural and religious rights. Macron himself said that the Republic has allowed the ghettoisation and ignored impoverishment and hardship.[lxvi] The perceived ‘policy’ of exclusion and marginalisation of the Government is largely causing the present conflict. Added to this is the fact that over the years Europe has changed and a declining multiculturalism is a significant trend.
Cartoon Controversy: A New Fillip to Current Regional Turmoil
The controversy triggered by the debate between “Islamic fanaticism” and the Islam’s reluctance to conform to the European liberal values converged with the current strategic contestations between France and Turkey on issues such as Libya, Syria, Greece and the Eastern Mediterranean. The cartoon controversy was also thus reduced to a confrontation between President Macron and President Erdogan. President Erdogan not only called for a boycott of French goods but also predicted that France would very soon get rid of him.[lxvii] He said that Islamophobia in Europe was spreading like cancer. President Macron responded by re-calling the French Ambassador from Turkey and accused Erdogan of erasing all freedom of expression in Turkey. He also called upon the EU to impose economic sanctions against Turkey.[lxviii] He indirectly referred to Turkey when he said that there would be no place for those who want to impose Sharia in France with the help of foreign powers.[lxix] In a recent interview with Aljazeera, he condemned Turkey’s behaviour in the region [lxx] and asked Erdogan to respect the values of France and the EU.
While President Erdogan is using the situation to divert attention from the economic crisis and political criticism at home, President Macron is under attack for failing to control COVID-19. Erdogan is also using the occasion to project himself as the ideal leader of the Islamic world. In a party meet, he chanted the eulogy of the Prophet that “Let us respond to those who try to encourage their dark hearts by defending the offense to the Messenger.[lxxi]
The coming together of Iran, Pakistan and Turkey against France in the ongoing controversy and the relative silence of GCC nations like UAE and Saudi Arabia are a testimony to the formation of new alliances and counter-alliances in the Arab-Islamic world. It is worth recalling here that the Saudi reaction to Macron’s support for the cartoon was confined to its clergy alone and the government did not join the boycott call of Erdogan. Sheikh Abdul Rahman Al-Sudais, Chief Imam of the Holy Mosque delivered the routine conventional sermon in Friday prayer that was devoid of direct criticism of France.[lxxii] Prince Mohammad Bin Zaidan of UAE conveyed his condolences to Macron and condemned hate speech and justification of violence.[lxxiii] Perhaps, he was pointing towards Erdogan when he said that any justification for violence would strengthen the radical voices.
We have seen above how the question of convergence and compatibility between Islamic theology and European enlightenment has always dominated the trajectory of the “Islamic world”-“West” relationship. During the height of western imperialism and its dominance of the Arab/Muslim world, it was classical orientalism that invoked the issue of compatibility between Islam and the west. A neo-orientalism (media and political polemics) has since emerged, which frequently raises this issue in public spheres creating a conflictual space for both the enthusiasts of Islamic values and the devotees of western values. This space is often hijacked by those who see these value-based differences through political and strategic prisms. Every nation has its own cultural and religious self images but differences or tensions arise when cultural and religious tolerance is in decline as is happening today. What makes the public sphere vicious is the involvement of political leaders who turn intellectual deliberations into phobia and hatred. There should be the recognition of the need for some restraint on freedom of expression if European multiculturalism and pluralism have to survive and the philosophy of the enlightenment or the principle of Laicite not become an instrument of demonisation of other religious groups. Similarly, there should be space for hearing out others as fanaticism or physical violence can never be an acceptable response to provocation against religious sentiments. Finally, the role of the state should be to rein in the perpetrators and provocateur of hatred. Finally, the process of social integration must be preferred over assimilation.
*Dr. Fazzur Rahman siddiqui, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
[i] Edward W. Said, Covering Islam, (New York: Vintage Book, 1997). P 1
[ii] Peter Mandeville Transnational Muslim Politics (London: Rutledge, 2001). P. no. 74
[iii] Mahmut Mutman Under the sign of Orientalism: The West versus Islam, Cultural Critiqe, NO. 23( Winter 1992- 93 )
[iv] Peter Mandeville Transnational Muslim Politics (London: Rutledge, 2001). P. no. 74
[v] Very often Arab world and Islamic world is used interchangeably. Though Arab is much older phenomenon than Islam and represents a linguistic and civilizational connotation and later Islam as a religion became an element of the Arab civilization. With the gradual expansion of the Islam into the Arab territories, both Islamic and Arab world began to be understood as one.
[vi]Charlie Hebdo is a satirical French magazine and it had published a cartoon of Prophet in 2015 and equated terrorism with Islam and Prophet.
[x] This is a constitutional principle of secularism in France and is a part of article one of the French constitution
[xi] Leonard Binder , Islamic Liberalism: A Critique of Development Ideologies ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988) p. 293
[xii] Benjamin Walker, Foundation of Islam: The Making of World Faith (Delhi: Rupa,2002).P. no. 346
[xiii] Joseph A. Massad, Islam in Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), p 18
[xiv] Ibid , p 18
[xv] Antony Black. The History of Islamic Political Thoughts: From the Prophet to the Present (Pakistan: OUP, 2004). P. no. 281
[xvi] Jacques Derrida, Rouge: Two Essays on reason, (California: Stanford University Press, 2005) p 28
[xvii]Benjamin Walker, Foundation of Islam: The Making of World Faith (Delhi: Rupa,2002).P. no. 345
[xviii] Edward W. Sais, Orientalism ( New york: Pantheon Book , 1978 ) p. 2
[xix] Bassam, Tibbi. The challenge of Fundamentalism: The Political Islam and the new World Disorder. (Los Angles: University of California Press, 1998). P. no.184
[xx] Ibrahim. M. Abu Rabi. Intellectual Origin of Islamic Resurgence in the Arab World. (Albany: State University of New York press, 1996) P. no. 07
[xxi] Joseph A. Massad, Islam in Liberalism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), p 113