Macron’s clash with Islam: secularism or oppression?

The events currently unfolding in France have captured the world’s attention. A few days ago, a French teacher was beheaded after he had shown objectionable caricatures of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) during a class on freedom of speech. Subsequently, there was another incident where a young man stabbed three French citizens to death in Nice.

Let me be clear right away. There is absolutely no justification for murder in the name of Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) honour. Yes, Muslims have the right to be angry at caricatures but killing a person due to his views is completely unjustifiable, and all those who are glorifying the killer and calling for more killings are severely condemnable. As I write these sentences, there is a viral video on social media which shows a female teacher from Jamia Hafsa beheading an effigy of the French president in front of hundreds of students.

I have already pointed out in a previous piece for the Express Tribune that eventually we, as Muslims, will be judged for our behaviour. And while we have every right to be angry over such caricatures, we should also be vehemently condemning such acts of violence (not because if we fail to do so then Islamophobes will be able to frame all Muslims as closeted extremists, but because it’s the right thing to do).

The gruesome beheading of the French teacher shocked the world and also enraged French society at large, prompting President Emmanuel Macron to personally attend the slain teacher’s funeral and give a scathing statement. Not only did he criticise the killing but he also vowed that France would never give in to Islamic radicals. Additionally, Macron did not renounce the caricatures.

Had Macron stopped at denouncing the gruesome act and vowing that France would not give in there may not have been such a controversy. However, his insistence on not banning the caricatures has set the Muslim world on fire. Frankly speaking, this was not a mature response from the president even though, as someone who studies secularism, I can understand the context and the reasoning behind his words.

Macron, as a statesperson, should have refrained from saying things that were clearly devoid of cultural sensitivity. Granted, a beheading is completely unforgivable, but one angry and distrubed individual’s actions cannot and should not be used to hurt the sentiments of millions. By saying such words, Macron not only hurt France’s own Muslims but also the global Muslim community.

Much of the secularised west continues to ignore the fact that while it is easy for them to satirise religion by justifying it as freedom of speech, the same principle does not hold true for most of the Muslim community. An overwhelming number of Muslims still revere their religion and religious figures immensely, and this forms an intrinsic part of their identity. So when caricatures of the Prophet (PBUH) are made, or when he is mocked in the name of freedom of speech, Muslims are hurt on a visceral level.

It is almost like satirising skin colour or race. Although I am not fond of drawing analogies since they are often false and are used to justify acts of aggression and offer apologetic defences, let me ask a question here: will Macron encourage the mocking of Africans for their skin colour, or women based on their gender? No, he will not. The point I am trying to make here is that identity is important to all of us as human beings, and Islam is an intrinsic part of the Muslim identity.

Of course, this does not mean that one cannot criticise some of the regressive laws and practices which exist in the Muslim world, nor does that mean that some of the Islamic interpretations cannot be put under a critical microscope. However, mocking revered figures just to prove that freedom of speech exists is not nuanced or mature. Moreover, I also do not support the idea that Muslims living in France should unquestionably accept everything including insults hurled at Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). A modern civic society, which France claims to be, should always be more inclusive, and while it should not compromise on some basic principles, it must strive to adopt a more mature way to reconcile cultural differences. This attitude of saying “If you don’t like it here then just leave,” smacks of immaturity and insensitivity, particularly when an overwhelming number of current French Muslims were born there.

But why did Macron do it? While the decision to say such words was his own, there is a broader context at play here which has to do with the nature of the French Republic. Once we understand that, his statement can be better contextualised.

The modern French Republic was founded on the basis of secularism and, just like Islam is woven into the collective psyche of most Muslims, secularism is intertwined with the collective French psyche. Secularism underpins their nationalism and defines what they are as a nation. Moreover, the French follow what is technically known as “assertive” secularism, which is in sharp contrast to “passive” secularism followed by countries like the United States. This form of secularism is not merely restricted to a separation of the church and state but also targets the visibility of religion in the public sphere. France has been pretty consistent across faiths in the application of its secular policies. For example, the French law pertaining to secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools, which was passed in 2004, banned explicit religious symbols and prohibited items including headscarves for Muslim girls, yarmulkes for Jewish boys and turbans for Sikh boys.

French society is largely secularised, hence, for them, mocking religion, including Christianity, is hardly a big deal. In fact, they deliberately go out of their way to mock religion to show the extent of their secularism. Moreover, the French president and French society are still adamant to not ban caricatures because they think when religious satire results in violence or even mere anger, their secularism and freedoms are under threat. They will double down to show their ‘commitment’ to what they think are their nation’s ideals. There is also that fierce nationalism at play here.

Of course, they conveniently overlook the fact that different sets of people have different types of sensitivities. Moreover, while they are right to demand that Muslims in France should do more to assimilate and integrate, they also have to be understanding of the critical differences. As the world becomes more cosmopolitan and Western countries like France and Germany continue to house more immigrants, the demand for assimilation has to be cognisant of the critical cultural aspects. America, whatever its faults may be, has done a better job in this respect.

On the other hand, as I pointed out at the start of the article, Muslims also need to introspect, particularly those who are violent or support violence and stubbornly refuse to assimilate at all. If they adopt such an attitude then they should not expect the world to have a sympathetic view towards their complaints.