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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 31-10-2020 10:08

Macron takes on the Muslim world

To the indignation, sincere or not, of a wide assortment of Muslim leaders, France’s President Emmanuel Macron is defending with unexpected fervour the right to draw unflattering pictures of Mohammed.

Thanks largely to the threat posed to them by the Iranian ayatollahs who, among other things, would dearly like to wipe the “Zionist entity” off the face of the earth, an increasing number of Arab countries are reconciling themselves to the continued existence of Israel. Thanks to its economic, technological and military prowess, the Jewish State has become a regional powerhouse and would be more than capable of helping them should a full-scale war erupt. However, this welcome rapprochement between a democracy which in many ways represents Western values and the Arab world has coincided with a sudden worsening of the relations between Islam and France which is already having ugly consequences.

To the indignation, sincere or not, of a wide assortment of Muslim leaders, among them the bellicose Turkish autocrat Recep Tayyip Erdogan, France’s President Emmanuel Macron is defending with unexpected fervour the right of the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo to draw unflattering pictures of Mohammed. After the decapitation by a young Chechen fanatic of a schoolteacher who showed some of the sketches of the Muslim prophet to his pupils, Macron ordered the French security forces to mount an offensive against Islamists who think anyone who insults their creed deserves to die. Fundraising outfits that allegedly study “Islamophobia” are being closed down, people suspected of holding “radical” views have been hauled in for questioning by the anti-terrorist specialists and fire-breathing preachers of foreign origin are getting sent back to wherever they came from.

Macron’s tough approach surprised the many who assumed that, as usually happens after a new Islamist atrocity, he and his compatriots would limit themselves to laying flowers on the spot where the killing took place, staging candlelit vigils, letting a pianist play John Lennon’s hymn to wishful thinking “Imagine,” linking arms in big public demonstrations and swearing they would stand firm against those seeking to provoke social divisions. While such reactions may make people feel a bit better, they are worse than useless because they also help convince the more determined Islamists that Westerners have gone pitifully soft and can therefore be treated with contempt.

The re-emergence of Islamic militancy in the second half of the 20th century was encouraged by the perception that the once all-powerful and often aggressive Western societies had allowed themselves to be crippled by doubt. Instead of reacting ferociously when challenged, as they surely would have in the not too distant past, the British, French, Germans and North Americans have accustomed themselves to staging in public debates about what they had done wrong and how they could make amends, with those who think their forefathers were nothing but a bunch of bloodthirsty criminals regularly coming out on top.

Needless to say, all this guilt-ridden collective self-criticism has made a strong impression on the rulers of non-Western countries, many of whom, reasonably enough, decide it would be in their interest to exploit the willingness of their counterparts in far richer and, in theory, far more powerful countries to grovel before them and beg to be forgiven for the imperialistic or colonialist misdeeds of their benighted predecessors.

Almost a decade has gone by since the then-British prime minister David Cameron and Germany’s Angela Merkel agreed that in practice “multiculturalism,” the notion that diversity strengthened societies by enriching them and making them more vibrant, had failed because “radical Islamists” not only refused to abide by the same rules as others but were more than willing to kill unbelievers who persisted in their atheistic folly. By then, however, it was too late for them or anyone else in Western Europe to do much about it unless they were prepared to set off a potentially disastrous social upheaval, an alternative that naturally alarmed them, so they told themselves that by being extra nice to Muslims they could isolate the extremists who, for sound scriptural reasons, insist they are duty-bound to attack infidels.

However, while there can be little doubt that, by and large, most Muslims living in Europe have no desire to participate in a holy war against their neighbours, many do tell pollsters that they “understand” the feelings of those who think terrorism can be justified. As a result, attempts to turn the supposedly “peace-loving” majority against the kind of individual who, given a chance, would go to the Middle East to join the Islamic State and butcher anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his or her hands, did not bring about the desired results. 

French attachment to the principles underpinning Western societies is far more explicit than is the case in most others. This makes it harder for Macron to weasel his way out of the position he finds himself in by treating Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons as “hate speech,” say, as might happen in countries such as the United Kingdom, where freedom of expression is getting whittled down and blasphemy laws are in effect creeping back into force. From Macron’s Cartesian point of view, it is either one thing or the other. He also knows that any attempt to look for a compromise would be pounced upon by his main adversary, Marine Le Pen, who would like to solve the problem by booting out just about everyone she thinks endangers France’s national identity.

Exactly how many Muslims live in France is hard to say because for decades the authorities have been reluctant to take into account the religious affiliations of the country’s inhabitants, but there are at least six million, perhaps many more, with most being natives who cannot be sent “back home.” And although it would seem that relatively few know that much about the creed they see as their own, that does not prevent them from sticking up for it when it proves incompatible with the law of the land, hence the “Islamic separatism” Macron says he is determined to root out. France is reportedly riddled with extensive no-go zones dominated by well-armed and trigger-happy Islamists which the police cannot penetrate, so a serious attempt to put an end to “separatism” would lead to something much like a civil war, while abroad, the conflict brewing between Macron’s government, with Le Pen closely watching its every step, and Muslim countries such as Erdogan’s “neo-Ottomanist” Turkey entails risks which are every bit as great, if not greater.


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James Neilson

James Neilson

Former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald (1979-1986).


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