Last Thursday, three French citizens were brutally killed in a church in Nice, one of whom was a woman with a throat cut. This gruesome act, which came barely two weeks after the beheading of Samuel Paty, a history teacher who featured his class cartoons from the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo to illustrate the concept of freedom of expression, has reanimated France to the reality of Islamist terrorism. Since 2012, more than 260 people of all origins have been killed in terrorist attacks: in a Jewish school, at Charlie Hebdo's headquarters, in a concert hall, on the streets of Nice, in churches and on police patrols.
However, if you look at the coverage of the recent attacks in the United States and the reaction from leaders like Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, France itself is the culprit. French President Emmanuel Macron's vow to fight "Islamist separatism" was treated as his own act of barbarism. However, most French citizens, aware of the reality on the ground, recognize this struggle as necessary and overdue.
In a series of personal attacks against the French president, Erdogan claimed that "Macron needed mental treatment" in his response to the attack. Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan claimed on Twitter that Macron's words encouraged "Islamophobia" while Mahathir Mohamad, the former Prime Minister of Malaysia, upped the ante by commenting that Muslims have the right to "kill millions of French" in response on the “disrespect” they suffered. Some US media coverage seems to take the opportunistic accusations of illiberal leaders like Erdogan at face value. One article spoke splendidly of “crackdown on Islam,” and the headline in an article in the New York Times of Paty's murder read "French police shoot and kill man after fatal knife attack on the street".
As France mourns its victims, its fight against terrorism and radicalism deserves more understanding and solidarity.
The coverage has confused, if not angry, French observers. A comment in Le Monde condemned "a disturbing American blindness when it comes to jihadism in France". Macron's actions have often been analyzed through the prism of domestic electoral policy, allegedly to co-opt the far-right party. However, this analysis represents a gross misunderstanding of the political reality of France. A recent poll of the upcoming French presidential elections in 2022 reveals an eerily similar situation to 2017, when Macron flatly defeated Marine Le Pen in the second round. The vast majority of French citizens are deeply concerned about the situation. According to an IFOP poll last month, 89 percent of respondents considered the terrorist threat "high", 87 percent as "secularism in danger" and 79 percent as "Islamism has declared war on the nation and the republic". Are these all National Rally Voters?
While pointing out a "crisis" in Islam, Macron was careful to distinguish the majority of peaceful living and observing French Muslims from the radical minority who pose a threat. The comparisons with far-right rhetoric, which precisely refuses to make such distinctions, therefore completely miss the point. For many French liberals, this struggle is not easy to separate from that against the right-wing extremists – both are a defense of liberal-democratic values against illiberal ideologies. The French Justice Minister Éric Dupond-Moretti therefore rejected calls for immediate action by the national rally, insisting that the rule of law was the only possible solution.
Outsiders also misunderstand the local situation in France when it comes to radical Islamism. Following the recent attacks, the government decided to shut down a mosque and an NGO suspected of having links with radical groups. However, more rigorous legislative action was taken this autumn when the French government proposed a bill to combat “separatism”. Building on months of dialogue with religious organizations such as the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Macron proposed that foreign funding for mosques and the training of imams be curbed, in order instead to privilege the domestic training of religious scholars according to democratic values.
The term “separatism” was chosen in concert. Scientists like Gilles Kepel, who influenced Macron's thinking, have documented that France is facing a fight against Islamism that goes beyond terrorism. The deeper societal challenge is that radical groups have increasing influence in certain neighborhoods that are outside the jurisdiction of the state. This opposing society is at the expense of women, LGBT people, Jews and many others. Kepel's book Terror in France tells the story of people like Mohammed Merah, the terrorist who killed seven people, including three Jewish children, in Toulouse in 2012. At that time, Merah was considered the ultimate "lone wolf", a former petty criminal – the other way round – radical, acting alone without receiving orders from an organized terrorist network such as Al-Qaeda or the Islamic State. But years of research showed a different picture than the comfortable lone wolf narrative. Merah was socialized in a radical ideology that was the norm in his immediate environment. From his family to his friends to his mosque (in which the Islamic heads of state Fabien and Jean-Michel Clain also took part), Merah's ideological environment laid the foundation for his radicalism. Rather than delving into individual profiles and the psychological underpinnings of radicalism, the French government wants to tackle the ecosystems that have allowed them to thrive.
All of this adds to many accounts over the years of growing pressure on teachers trying to teach about the Holocaust, sex education, or even basic biology. In 2002, a book by a collective of high school professors, The Lost Territories of the Republic, warned of alarming sexism and anti-Semitism in the French banlieues. A professor interviewed by the Financial Times last month said, "I don't feel safe. When I have to show a movie with a nude scene or a couple hugging, they yell, and not just normal teenage stuff , real aggression, kids say, “This is not okay.” It's not allowed. ”Male doctors have been pressured not to only care for female patients, and mayors have come under fire for following demands from religious groups More recently, a group of Sorbonne scholars (a university not known for its far-right activism, to say the least), led by Bernard Rougier, published a series of empirical studies entitled Territories, conquered by Islamism and warned: “Islamist networks have managed to build enclaves in the heart of the popular Quarter. “Jews, who make up 1 percent of the French population but are disproportionately affected by hate crimes (around 40 percent of attacks in most years), have largely left these areas in the past decade.
According to jihadism scholar Hugo Micheron, who is currently studying at Princeton University, around 2,000 French people are viewed as a direct jihad threat. Another 20,000 are being monitored as potential accomplices by the French secret service. and a third, much larger group is influenced by the ideals of the Salafi and threatens to break away from French society. This third group is the one targeted by the new policy of separatism. Micheron cites an influential 2016 study by Hakim El Karoui by the centrist think tank Institut Montaigne, in which he estimates that 28 percent of self-proclaimed French Muslims are viewed as "secessionists," according to which Islam is a means of self-assertion against French society becomes. Similarly, according to respected pollster Jérôme Fourquet, author of the bestselling book French Archipelago, around 750,000 people show sympathy for radical ideology.
Could France better integrate its largest minority and deal with issues of racism and discrimination? Yes, it certainly could. Discrimination in the labor and housing markets, as well as hate speech against Muslims, is a serious problem that French society must deal with. And as Macron stated in his speech a few weeks ago: “We have built a concentration of misery and difficulties. We have concentrated the population according to origin and social milieu. … We have created neighborhoods where the promise of the republic was never kept and where these most radical forms (of Islamism) became sources of hope. “Some of the rhetoric from Macron's own government didn't help either. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, who himself has North African heritage, criticized large corporations for joining identity politics by having separate kosher and halal aisles.
However, the blame on the French state for the attacks and the rise of radicalism shows a dangerous moral confusion. Secularism is not to blame here either. While the French secularism laws forbid "ostentatious" religious signs (such as hijabs, kippas or large crosses) in schools and state buildings, Paty's murder and the new wave of attacks are linked to the cartoons of Charlie Hebdo and most recently to the trials against the United States, accomplices of the attacks 2015. Whatever you think of the magazine – which regularly ridicules all religions, right-wing extremists or any politician – its employees have the right to draw cartoons without being murdered in a liberal democracy. Moreover, whether secularism or not, France is not alone in this struggle. While France is home to the largest Muslim population in Europe, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden, none of them harbingers of Laïcité, have sent higher proportions of foreign fighters to Syria. Terrorist attacks have hit Germany, the United Kingdom, Belgium and others. France is at the forefront of a deeper struggle affecting major European societies.
An important fact that is often overlooked in this context is the diversity of the 5 million Muslims in France, their political opinions and their religious practice. A new generation of French citizens with diverse religious, ethnic and social backgrounds is making a name for themselves in the civil service, business, journalism and politics. They often do not want their public or political identity to be conveyed through their religion. Other French are more visible in their religious identity, and they have every right to do so, even if it is not always well received in a deeply secular, even atheistic society. It is paradoxical that so many news outlets around the world claim to care about Muslims in France without voicing or even speaking to the different opinions they have. It is up to them, not Erdogan or Khan, to speak for their identity. In the meantime, the condemnation of politics against Islamists as "Islamophobia" brings all Muslims together with the radical minority, which is precisely trying to prevent their integration into society as a whole. It is a trap.
Giving wrong names adds to the misery of the world, said Albert Camus. In 2017, after Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, after two years of terrorist attacks and structural economic difficulties, the French electorate decided to decisively defeat the far-right party and opt for a centrist, pro-European government. Today France is on the front lines of another struggle against illiberalism and is leading this struggle with the same values. It deserves better than denial and accusations from its friends.