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OPINION: Who’s to blame for Macron’s war of words with the Muslim world?

With the Islamic world in a war of words with the French president and countries including Turkey calling for a boycott of French products, commentator John Lichfield looks at the mistakes that have been made on both sides and what Emmanuel Macron could do to ease tensions abroad, but most importantly at home.

OPINION: Who's to blame for Macron's war of words with the Muslim world?
In this file photo taken on December 4, 2019 France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) gestures as Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan walks past him during a family photo as part of the NATO summit

A war of words may sound harmless enough. Not this one.

President Emmanuel Macron is being verbally attacked –  insulted in some cases – by the leaders of several Islamic countries for defending France’s right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that  Macron was “mentally unwell”. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, said that the French president had “chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens.”

The immediate cause of their anger was a brief passage in  Macron’s hommage last Wednesday to Samuel Paty, the teacher brutally murdered after he showed Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of Mohammed to a civics class in the western Paris suburbs.

Macron said: “We will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away.”

He also said that “liberty can only exist by ending hatred and violence and promoting respect for others.”

That part of the speech has not been widely reported in the Islamic world.

First, some perspective (even if it is an unfashionable commodity these days).

Appeals in a series of Muslim countries for mass demonstrations against Macron and France at the weekend flopped. They attracted, at most, a few hundred people. 

OPINION: How publishing Mohammed cartoons became a quasi-religious act in France

The Turkish president, Mr Erdogan, is in the middle of a series of disputes with Europe – and especially with Macron – about Libya, unauthorised gas-exploration by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Ankara’s part in encouraging the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia. 

He is struggling in the opinion polls. The Turkish economy is floundering. The Turkish lira is at an all-time low against the dollar.  He has good reason to excite his base by insulting Emmanuel Macron.

The Pakistani Prime Minister has to contain the violent intolerance of radical Islamist forces within his own country. Defending Islam from alleged attack by Macron is politically astute.

Imran Khan’s indignation is selective, however. He, like many Muslim leaders, has little to say about the brutal repression of Islam and Muslim minorities by his giant neighbour to the north and east.

Macron is not entirely without blame. The homage to Mr Paty, which he wrote himself,  was an eloquent exposition of France’s commitment to free expression, tolerance and a secular Republic, where faiths are defended but not promoted or worshipped.

But his words on the cartoons were ill-chosen. “We will not give up caricatures…”

He made it sound as though publishing scurrilous drawing of Mohammed was an important French national custom – not a test of the boundaries of free speech practised by one virulently anti-religious magazine.

It would have been much better if Macron had used words closer to those in an excellent “model” sermon circulated to mosques last Friday by the main French Muslim representative body, the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman.

“The law of the Republic permits these cartoons but obliges no one to like them,” the sermon said. “We can even detest them. But nothing. absolutely nothing, justifies murder.”

In the light of some of the inflammatory language against France in the Muslim world in recent days– and some of the shrill commentary elsewhere – it is worth quoting another section of the sermon.

“No! We Muslims are not persecuted in France. We are citizens just like any other citizens. We have the same guaranteed rights and the same duties to observe.” 

To which one could add. Yes, there is discrimination against Muslims in France. Yes, French Muslims are disproportionately confined to poor housing and ill-paid jobs. 

No, the great majority of France’s 5,000,000 Muslims do not support radical versions of Islam. About half are reckoned to be non-practising.

A growing number wishes to express their faith overtly. Some of them have been converted to rigid, restrictive anti-western and sometimes violent forms of the faith.

There have been 36 serious Islamist terror attacks in France in the last eight years – ranging from the indiscriminate mass slaughter of the Bataclan and related attacks almost five years ago to individual atrocities like the murder of Mr Paty.

Despite these attacks, there has been – despite what the radicals may have hoped –  no widespread, retaliatory violence against muslims and no lurch into the hard-right politics of  intolerance. 

All of this context is strangely absent from some of the present accusations against France – both in the Muslim world and in Britain and the United States. 

The inflammatory comments by Erdogan and others are dangerous. In the context of recent history, they amount, de facto to an incitement to further islamist, radical attacks in France or against French targets abroad.

But Macron and his government also have some share of the blame and some responsibility to try to restore calm.

This – remember  – is all about the murder of a man who  tried to teach 13 and 14 year old tolerance and openness to the ideas and culture of others. Some of the commentary by government ministers in recent days has strayed into the intolerant register of the hard right (forcing Marine Le Pen it seems to shift even further towards outright islamophobia.)

The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, even suggested that the secular values of the French Republic – its very existence – was threatened by halal and other ethnic aisles in supermarkets. 

The danger is that the attacks by the Turkish president and others will push the government into other statements or actions which appear to target all Muslims – not just the extremists.

In his tweeted replies last night, in French, Arabic and English, Macron came over as determined – but also rather intransigent. “We will not give in, ever. We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.”

That’s fine but fails to acknowledge that the Mohammed cartoons are “hate speech” to some muslims.

Macron needs – urgently – to make a statement which returns to the spirit of the speech that he gave on Islam, freedom and separatism on October 2nd. This speech has been presented in the Muslim world as an attempt to “conquer” or “constrain” Islam. That is a distortion.

Macron promised a draft law  in early December to combat extremist Islam by banning the “importation” of foreign-financed and trained imams. Financial support will be available to mosques which sign a charter accepting French principles of secularism, democracy and the rule of law.  

Macron recognised, however, that France’s Muslims had been let down by successive governments. He admitted that France had created its own “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with poor housing and few jobs. He promised new actions to improve opportunities for the people of multi-racial inner suburbs or banlieues.

He should make the speech again – not for Erdogan or Imran Khan but for the great majority of French Muslims who wish to practise their religion but also to be part of a successful, tolerant France.

Member comments

  1. What one has got to realise is that Macron has no experience of public office or how to communicate with people as he has always been a backroom boy. So his social skills are zero.

  2. Erdogan and Imran don’t have the guts to say anything to China, which has put millions of Uyghur muslims in concentration camps and is committing unspeakable atrocities against them. Guess we all know who the bully is now?

  3. I don’t particularly care for Macron, but I don’t understand why HE should be the one to be careful what he says?
    A “tolerant France” should start by the French Muslims showing us that they accept our way of life.
    It angers me to the core that “There have been 36 serious Islamist terror attacks in France in the last eight years”, but “Despite these attacks, there has been no widespread, retaliatory violence against muslims and no lurch into the hard-right politics of intolerance”.
    So, pray tell me, how much more tolerant do you want me to be??

  4. In response to Tarquin above….
    To repeat, I don’t like Macron, but to say his social skills are zero is rubbish. He’s the only French PM I know who speaks fluent English – at least he’s got that as a skill. And besides that, to call him a “backroom boy” is ridiculous for a person who was a minister of economy, industry and digital data for PM Francois Holland.
    Get your facts straight.

  5. Latest wave of state-sponsored Islamophobia a way to overshadow from the terrible economic decisions they’ve made. Same as with austerity & the burqa law 10 years ago.

    Yawn… basic stuff.

    “This – remember – is all about the murder of a man who tried to teach 13 and 14 year old tolerance and openness to the ideas and culture of others.” Via showing children porn of someone’s Prophet? Ugh… this guy is always not worth reading.

  6. Who’s to Blame? If that isn’t glaringly obvious, you’re in the wrong job.

    One party is talking about standing up to censorship and violence from a religion and defends free speech.

    And the other from states thathappily tolerate, and even support, mutilation of the genitals of its children and promotes violence against non-believers, and suppresses free speech.

    Have a guess who the good guys are….

  7. Very disappointing to see some of the comments here, from people who don’t use a real name, are as lacking in thought & analysis as so many on word-count-restricted Twitter.
    eg. Intellectually Boggy: “showing children porn of someone’s prophet”. Teachers *use* their materials with sensitivity, context, background, warnings & debate in order to enlighten (education from ex + ducere, lead out) to a broader, balanced view of the world. Sorry you don’t know that.
    eg. Solid: reference to extremes as if the entire “other side” were a homogenous evil. Generalisations get nowhere.

    As for the title, it’s there to attract readers to consider what is written. The idea of “blame” is very interesting when you look at one particular section above,
    ‘ But (Macron’s) words on the cartoons were ill-chosen. “We will not give up caricatures…”.
    He made it sound as though publishing scurrilous drawing of Mohammed was an important French national custom – not a test of the boundaries of free speech practised by one virulently anti-religious magazine’ in contrast to the wording from the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman.

    Furthermore, Solid, the idea of “blame” is shown not just to be dependent on extremists, it is also part of the political influencing going on with countries’ leaders (Turkey & Pakistan) trying to drum up support. That’s happening in the US right now & happened with the UK, be it Brexit or the most recent election. You are looking at blame as if it were based on whole populations, this is about elected leaders’ reactions to a speech & their exploitation of it for their own limited reasons. Personally I don’t think Macron was trying to drum up support from the far right, even if there’s been some wording which required more thought, whereas I think it’s obvious the other two leaders were, so I think the article is an interesting discussion of a difficult situation. A lot of people in Turkey also wanted to continue with a secular state, don’t confuse them with their current leader.

  8. Anyone who interprets Macron’s words as describing an important French custom? That’s reaching a bit.

    And only you have invoked the idea of comments being about ‘whole populations’. Although perhaps the citizens of any country are in some small way guilty for the acts of their leaders. Who elected them?

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OPINION & ANALYSIS

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

A row over Swedish public television suggests that the room for compromise between the Swedish Democrats and their partners in a possible new coalition government will be limited, argues David Crouch.

OPINION: Will the Sweden Democrats play nice or will they seek ‘revenge’?

On Tuesday evening, SVT’s flagship news magazine Aktuellt included a seven-minute segment about the Sweden Democrats (SD). They invited Willy Silberstein, head of the Swedish Committee Against Antisemitism, and PM Nilsson, the respected political editor of business daily Dagens Industri

This was an example of what TV journalists do all the time – get two sensible people with different views to explain and argue their positions. The approach allows viewers to be exposed to different opinions and make up their own minds.  

Silberstein said it was “frightening” that a party with Nazi roots had so much support in Sweden and expressed a concern that the SD’s strong showing at the polls would encourage racists. 

“I do not mean that the Sweden Democrats in any way call for violence against immigrants, but I think there is a risk that a climate will arise where many people who have racist attitudes feel a greater freedom to say things and possibly also act violently against minorities,” he said.

Nilsson respectfully and sympathetically argued that the SD kick extremists out of the party, and that the experience with similar parties in power in other Nordic countries is that they fail to make any fundamental changes to these liberal democracies. In some ways, it felt like the conversation I had with my Jewish relative that I described in my last column, although Nilsson failed to answer the real fear among ethnic minorities that the election result encourages racists. 

This innocuous bit of television provoked a furious outcry from the Sweden Democrats. Björn Söder, one of the SD’s top leaders and their candidate to become the new speaker in parliament, accused SVT of broadcasting “pure propaganda”. The public service broadcaster should be reported for bias and “fundamentally reformed”, he said.

Barely 48 hours after the polling stations closed, here was the SD with the gloves off, gunning for one of the party’s traditional enemies – journalists. 

In 2016, Linus Bylund, now the party’s chief of staff, called journalists “enemies of the people”. On election night, Bylund joked that he was looking forward to “a lot of what we like to call ‘journalist rugby’” – pushing journalists around, he explained. When Aftonbladet columnist Peter Kadhammar visited the SD stronghold of Hörby in 2020 and asked to read the town council’s official diary – a legal democratic right – two SD goons followed him and sat, arms folded, to intimidate him while he worked.

SD critics of the mainstream media have supporters inside the other right-wing parties that make up the loose electoral bloc that is on the verge of taking power. On Tuesday morning, Gunnar Axen, a venture capitalist and for 16 years a member of parliament for the Moderate party, tweeted: “A piece of advice to the Moderates and SD before the government negotiations regarding ‘public service’: A cancerous tumour is operated on completely, you leave nothing behind because then it starts to grow again.”

Söder’s outburst against the media should be a concern to anyone who consumes journalism in Sweden and relies on journalists to provide them with accurate information on which to lead their lives. But it also raises a bigger issue: to what extent will the party be prepared to compromise in the event that negotiations take place with the three other right-wing parties about forming a new government?

The Financial Times was one of the few foreign media allowed into the SD’s valvaka election vigil party on election night (The Local’s application for press accreditation was rejected). Its reporter Richard Milne wrote: “One word was on the lips of many Sweden Democrats MPs who spoke to the Financial Times: ‘It is revenge,” said Henrik Vinge, deputy leader. Linus Bylund, its chief of staff, added: ‘It is revenge because the other parties have treated us badly — even the three [rightwing] parties on our side.’”

It is easy to forget what it has cost SD politicians personally to get where they are today, and therefore how determined they are to pursue their ideological goals. Leading members have made sacrifices, they were in the movement when it was acceptable to make fun of them and even beat them up. Some have lost their positions or even their jobs for being SD members. Whether you think this was right or not, they have been isolated and bullied by the media and other Swedish institutions.

“These are investments that they have made, and they will not immediately become politically fatigued in negotiations, they are in it for the long term,” one experienced SD-watcher told me this week.

However, the SD have also seen what has happened to other, similar parties in the Nordic countries, and particularly the Danish People’s Party, whose role in propping up a minority conservative government has seen its support fall through the floor.

At the same time, in the municipalities it has controlled, the SD have behaved responsibly and generally stayed away from enacting hardcore policies. Moreover, this approach has seen its share of the vote grow by between 4 and 10 percentage points in all of these towns, which might have taught it that the softly softly approach works.

The election literature I received from my local SD was all about cuddly local issues and mentioned immigration only once – in sharp contrast to the election leaflet from the SD’s national arm.

Will the party take a similar softly, softly approach now it has the chance for power on the national stage, or will it want to show the full extent of its new political power and throw its weight around? If that includes taking revenge on the mainstream political parties and the media, be prepared for fireworks.

David Crouch is the author of Almost Perfekt: How Sweden Works and What Can We Learn From It. He is a freelance journalist and a lecturer in journalism at Gothenburg University.

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