What does French secularism (not) have to do with the recent Islamist terrorist attacks?

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What does French secularism (not) have to do with the recent Islamist terrorist attacks?

In just over a month, France suffered three different attacks in the wake of the opening of the Charlie Hebdo trial and the protests over the republication of Charlie Hebdo’s satirical caricatures of prophet Mohammed.[1]What was the deep reason that brought these tragic events? What does secularism have to do with the terrorist attacks? How can we make sense of what is happening in France? 

The three attacks
On September 25th, two people were gravely wounded after being stabbed in Paris near the former headquarters of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo.[2] A week later – on October 2nd –  French President Emmanuel Macron spoke about ‘Islamist separatism’ and the enduring problem in French society concerning the integration of large parts of the Muslim immigrant population. Macron added that Islamists have created a parallel culture in France that rejects French values, customs, and laws. In the speech, he also outlined some measures approved by France to solve the “separatism” problem and to develop an “Islam of France” with national and republican values. The measures included placing limits on home schooling and major government scrutiny on religious schools. The measures are intended to combat extremism in the Muslim community.[3]

On October 16th, not long after Macron’s speech, a teacher was beheaded in Paris. The teacher, Samuel Paty, had apparently given a lecture on freedom of expression around the re-publication of the Charlie Hebdo satirical caricature. Later that month, on October 29th , a terrorist attack at France’s Notre-Dame Basilica in Nice left three dead and one seriously injured. Of those who were killed, one victim, like Paty, was beheaded. President Macron responded to the event by stating that “France is under attack, we will not give up our values,” especially “the freedom to believe and not to believe.” He also added that: “If we are attacked it is for our values” and invited the people “to unity.”[4]

France’s strong response
In response to the beheading of Samuel Paty, France has retaliated with a crackdown on Islamist individuals. Ordered by the interior minister of France, Gérald Darmanin, French police searched dozens of Islamist small organisations due to the growing pressure on the government to shut down Islamic religious fundamentalism. Darmanin explained that 80 investigations were underway into “radical preachers and suspected extremists accused of spreading online hate.” Moreover, French authorities stated to be ready to deport over 200 foreigners who are on the government watch list due to their suspected extreme religious beliefs.[5]

Islamic protests against the measures
The French government’s more defensive and less pluralistic reaction to the attacks and the encouragement of freedom of speech and publications of the cartoon in its name, has angered Muslims in many Islamic countries. Turkish leader Erdoğan called for a “complete boycott of French products in Turkey,” a call echoed in Qatar and Kuwait. Erdoğan also stated that “Macron needed mental treatment” for his response to the attack.[6] Moreover, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan accused Macron of “attacking Islam” by encouraging the publication of caricatures of Mohammed. Besides Islamic leaders statements, outside Baghdad’s French embassy a depiction of Macron has been burnt, and Macron has been condemned in newspaper headlines.[7] Muslims in France are also unhappy. They believe the French government has used excessive retaliation measures on  their communities in response to the murder of the teacher.[8]In contrast to these responses, European leaders from Germany, Italy, and the Netherlands have expressed their support for Macron.[9]

Why France?
But why is France so harshly hit by Islamic terror and jihadist extremism and is she the target of tremendous and traumatic attacks? We know that other European countries, such as Germany,[10] Italy[11], and Denmark[12] [13] have also published controversial cartoons in the past, but these countries did not have to suffer acts of violence comparable to those suffered by France.[14]

The ‘secularism’ and ‘blasphemy’ response
According to Journalist Stephen Brown, a possible reason could be that France’s extreme kind of secularism and its “embrace of blasphemy,” have increased radicalism among a minority that in France already feels excluded and downgraded.[15] France, a secular country, has wrestled with religion and the issue of freedom of speech for decades, especially given its high Muslim and Catholic populations.[16]But in the past,  Brown argues, French secularism simply required neutrality from the state and demanded tolerance towards religions in the public space. Today, according to Brown, French secularism has become much more extreme and it has become a “civil religion.” He adds that the most important characteristic of this new form of secularism is the support of religious blasphemy such as in the form of cartoons of Mohammed. Brown argues that the French encourage blasphemy and therefore should have expected a strong reaction from the Islamic radical world. Finally, he underlines the importance of using blasphemy with moderation in a country with such a large Islamic population. This is because, according to Brown: “while defenders of blasphemy invoke freedom of expression […] what blasphemy does, in fact, is trap France in a vicious cycle of reactivity to jihadist terror that makes it less free and less autonomous.”[17]

However, some reject that the terrorist attacks were a response to a specific provocation. Rather, they argue this is the product of general hate. France protects its secular values more strongly than other European countries, which makes the country a preferred target. For instance, writer Caroline Fourest stated on Twitter: “Who will be the first to write that they were killed because of racism or drawings? The jihadists kill us for what we think, for what we believe, and for who we are. They kill everyone who is different from them. Hatred is on their side. Not ours.”[18] The chief editor of L’Express, Anne Rosencher, agrees with Fourest and stated that “Islamists hate everything of the French: the culture, habits, equality.”[19]

France deserves more solidarity
Journalist Benjamin Haddad has also claimed that France’s war against Islamism is not a form of populism and of hate of minorities. He argued that Islamism is a real threat to France and that “liberal critics of Emmanuel Macron’s campaign against radicalism misunderstand the crisis his country faces.”[20] He argued that some U.S. newspapers seem to encourage and agree with accusations of leaders such as Erdoğan. An article in the newspaper Vox wrote about the “crackdown on Islam,”[21] and the New York Times piece about Paty’s killing wrote as its headline: “French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street,” thereby underlining the violent response of the police rather than the violence of the attacker and not mentioning his religious identity.[22] Haddad argued that, ״as France mourns its victims, its fight against terrorism and radicalism deserves more understanding and solidarity.”[23]

Freedom of speech
Freedom of speech is not only an essential value in secular France, but across the entire Western world. In the name of freedom of speech, France is now in the middle of a great crisis. The world is still trying to find a way to interpret, understand, and explain the terrible events that happened in France. Only time will tell how France, Europe, and the world will come out of it.

Ghila Amati

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[1]  Nizza, attentato in una chiesa: tre morti e un ferito grave. Macron: “Francia sotto attacco”. L’aggressore sbarcato a Lampedusa a settembre

[2]  Nizza, attentato in una chiesa: tre morti e un ferito grave. Macron: “Francia sotto attacco”. L’aggressore sbarcato a Lampedusa a settembre

[3] France attack: Three killed in ‘Islamist terrorist’ stabbings

[4] Macron Vows Crackdown on ‘Islamist Separatism’ in France

[5]  Nizza, attentato in una chiesa: tre morti e un ferito grave. Macron: “Francia sotto attacco”. L’aggressore sbarcato a Lampedusa a settembre

[6]Samuel Paty murder: French police raid dozens of Islamist groups

[7] France’s War on Islamism Isn’t Populism. It’s Reality.

[8]Anger towards Emmanuel Macron grows in Muslim world

[9]Anger spreads in Islamic world after Macron’s backing for Muhammad cartoons

[10] Muslim backlash against Macron gathers pace after police raids

[11] Danish Muhammad Cartoonist Receives German Media Freedom Prize

[12] Italian Papers Show Muhammad Cartoons in Protest

[13] Jyllands-Posten Muhammad cartoons controversy

[14] Italian Quits Over Cartoons; 15 Die in Nigeria

[15] France’s dangerous religion of secularism

[16] France’s dangerous religion of secularism

[17] The beheading of a teacher will harden France’s belief in secularism

[18] France’s dangerous religion of secularism

[19] https://twitter.com/CarolineFourest/status/1321773139374886915

[20] Woede in Frankrijk na aanslag in Nice: ‘De islamisten haten alles van ons’

[21] France’s War on Islamism Isn’t Populism. It’s Reality.

[22] Muslims worldwide are protesting French President Macron’s crackdown on Islam

[23] French Police Shoot and Kill Man After a Fatal Knife Attack on the Street

[24] France’s War on Islamism Isn’t Populism. It’s Reality