For over a month now, the world has been witnessing a rift between the Muslim world and the French state growing increasingly strained, as leaders and the public in several Muslim countries responded to a speech on October 2 in which President Emmanuel Macron said Islam was “in crisis” globally.
In a high-profile address on battling “radicalism” in France, Macron said his government would present a draft law aimed at strengthening secularism in the country, against what Macron described as “Islamist separatism”. “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today; we are not just seeing this in our country,” he said, in comments that drew an ire from a number of Muslim leaders.
The fallout continued worsening amid vile terrorist attacks reported in these pages before and renewed French support for the right to show caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In Bangladesh, Muslims also took to the streets and called for a boycott of French goods and denounced Macron for his remarks.
They started on October 27, when police estimated about 40,000 people took part in a march organised by Islami Andolan Bangladesh, a political party that has shunned alliances with any of the major parties and in recent elections, especially at the local level, started enjoying prominence with its hand-fan electoral symbol.
Protesters chanted “Boycott French products”. The boycott calls were in solidarity with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s calls on Turks to boycott French goods, as he continued to criticise Macron’s approach towards Muslims. The call for a boycott of French products spreads in Arab and Muslim-majority countries, as a number of protests were held denouncing Macron’s comments.
On November 2, thousands of Muslims marched in the streets of the capital of Bangladesh. The protesters, this time organized by the Hefazat-e-Islam, a network of teachers and students belonging to thousands of madrasahs, gathered outside the main Baitul Mokarram Mosque.
“I ask the French government to apologize to the 2 billion Muslims in the world. I also ask the world’s Muslims to demonstrate their faith by boycotting French products and terminating diplomatic relations with France,” Nur Husain-Kashemi, a leader of the group, told the protesters.
Muslim-majority countries across the world have been outraged by Macron’s refusal to condemn the publication or display of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. In Islam, any depiction of the prophet is prohibited. The issue reemerged following the gruesome beheading near Paris of a French teacher who showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in class. The 18-year-old Chechen refugee who carried out the attack was later shot dead by police.
The teacher, Samuel Paty, has been heralded as a symbol of France’s staunch secular ideals and its rejection of religious intrusion in public spheres. Macron and members of his government have vowed to continue supporting such caricatures as protected under freedom of expression.
Muslim politicians, religious scholars and everyday people have condemned such depictions as a form of hate speech and view them as sacrilegious and insulting to Islam. But state secularism - or laïcité - is central to France’s national identity. Curbing freedom of expression to protect the feelings of one particular community undermines unity, the state says.
The country has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, and some accuse the authorities of using secularism to target them. A number of factors ranging from its brutal history of colonialism to its staunch secular policies and now, a tough-talking president who believes he has solutions are contributing to a very tense situation in France.
Much of the current anger stems from the recent republication by French satirical newspaper weekly Charlie
Hebdo of caricatures depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoon images of Islam’s founder deeply offended many Muslims, who see them as sacrilegious. But the cartoons were originally published in Denmark in 2005, and similar images have been published in other countries that hold freedom of expression dear.
While French officials often say their country is targeted because of its reputation as the cradle of human rights and a rampart of global democracy, what distinguishes France most is its unusual attachment to secularism.
The often-misunderstood concept of French secularism is inscribed in the country’s constitution. It was born in a 1905 law separating church and state that was meant to allow the peaceful coexistence of all religions under a neutral state, instead of a government answering to powerful Roman Catholic clerics. Crucifixes were at one point torn from classroom walls in France amid painful public debate.
A century later, polls suggest France is among the least religious countries in the world, with a minority attending services regularly. Secularism is broadly supported by those on both left and right. As the number of Muslim in France grew, the state imposed secular rules on their practices. A 2004 banning Muslim headscarves and other ostentatious religious symbols in schools remains divisive, if not shocking to many outside France. A 2011 law banning face veils made Muslims feel stigmatized anew.
The ambitions of Jupiter France has been hit with extremist attacks over recent decades under leaders across the political spectrum, but centrist President Emmanuel Macron, who once expressed a desire to rule like Jupiter, the king of the Roman gods, is a particularly popular target. Protesters burned his portrait or stomped on it at protests in multiple countries this week.
That’s in part because of a law Macron plans to introduce to crack down on Islamist fundamentalists he contends are turning some communities against the state and threatening pillars of French society, including schools. In the wake of recent extremist attacks, his government expelled Muslims accused of preaching intolerance and shut down groups seen as undermining French laws or norms.
The words the president uses have provoked outrage as well. He said the planned law was aimed at Islamist
“separatism,” which raised fears of the further alienation of French Muslims.
At a memorial for a teacher beheaded for showing the prophet caricatures to his class, Macron gave a speech extolling tolerance, knowledge and religious freedom. But he drew ire, including from Turkey’s president, for saying, “We won’t renounce the caricatures” and that France should “diminish Islamists.”
Earlier, Macron described Islam as a “a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” with positions “hardening” in many Muslim countries.
And as calls for anti-French protests mounted, he tweeted: “We will not give in, ever.”
Rein in the fervour
Much of the row really comes down to a philosophical question on whether the character of a state should be something static, or does it evolve over time, perhaps with the changing nature of its demographics. Or whether Muslims who choose to live in France have to change their own ways and sensibilities - although that raises the question of how that may apply to those born in the country and grow up in an atmosphere of alienation from the rest of society. That is what the French republic will have to grapple with more and more over the coming years, and Macron is perhaps not wrong to confront it at least, even if his methods may be ill-advised.
In an interview with Qatar-based Al Jazeera this week, Macron said he understands the feelings of Muslims who are shocked by the displaying of cartoons of Prophet Muhammad but added that the “radical Islam” he is trying to fight is a threat to all people, especially Muslims.
“I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights,” Macron said.
“I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw,” he added. Macron also hit out at what he described as “distortions” from political leaders, saying people were often led to believe that the caricatures were a creation of the French state.
Bangladesh and France have traditionally enjoyed a good and warm bilateral relationship - the country is a major destination of Bangladeshi export products, especially textile items. Last year, Bangladesh exported goods worth $1.7 billion to France, making France its fourth biggest export market after the USA, Germany and the UK. And French companies have investments in Bangladesh, from cement to energy, telecommunications and pharmaceuticals.