Leaders of the Muslim world are using the highest platforms to condemn comments made by the French President Emmanuel Macron after the killing of school teacher Samuel Paty. Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and many others have released press statements blaming Macron for the rising intolerance and Islamophobia in France.
The diplomatic altercation came as a result of a violent attack in France in which a school teacher was beheaded. Samuel Paty was a school teacher, who showed the cartoons by Charlie Hebdo, depicting the Islamic prophet, to students in his classroom. Mr Paty showcased these cartoons in an attempt to educate pupils on the issues of freedom of speech and French values of secularism, the school maintains. According to reports, he asked Muslim students in the class to look away if it might cause offence.
After the incident gained limited local public traction in France, Mr Paty received some criticism from Muslim advocacy groups for hurting the religious sentiments of Muslim students. But the issue gained international limelight when Mr Paty became the target of an attack by an 18-year old Chechen migrant to France. His killer, 18-year-old Abdullakh Anzorov, was shot dead by police.
Prosecutors revealed Anzorov had paid two teenage students around €300 ($355) to identify Mr Paty. The two teenage students, aged 14 and 15, allegedly described Mr Paty, 47, to Anzorov and stayed with him for more than two hours outside the school until the teacher appeared. The killer told the students he wanted to “film the teacher [and] make him apologise for the cartoon of the Prophet [Muhammad]”, anti-terrorism prosecutor Jean-François Ricard said at a press conference.
The juvenile pair are two of seven people the French authorities are seeking to prosecute over the brutal attack.
After the attack
The attack was condemned alike by Muslim leaders and the French society. Mr. Paty received a state funeral and was posthumously awarded the Légion d’Honneur, France’s highest honour. The ceremony was attended by a large crowd of civil society members along with state officials and family.
The contentious comments made by Macron, that have caused a row between France and the Muslim world, came at this funeral. Speaking at a televised memorial service on Wednesday, Mr Macron told viewers that France “will not give up our cartoons”. Mr Macron said Mr Paty had tried to teach his pupils how to become citizens.
“He was killed precisely because he incarnated the Republic”, Mr Macron said. “He was killed because the Islamists want our future. They know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it.”
The President praised the schoolteacher for his embodiment of the secular values of France that he wanted to teach his students. However, the president did not simply stop there; Macron said the teacher “was killed as Islamists want our future,” as he pledged to fight “Islamist separatism” that threatened to take hold of some Muslim communities around France.
Privately, he’s reported to be even more blunt with his intentions, saying: “They want our death. So we will fight them to the death,” and “the French Republic is a nice girl but she won’t allow herself to be raped.”
Macron’s comments on Islamist separatism and establishing tighter hold on Muslim communities are reactions in the direction of collective punishment for the Muslim community. Instead of a dialogue with French Muslims and diffusing the situation, the French President has given comments that many political commentators see as inflammatory and irresponsible; comments that will add fuel to the fire of rising Islamophobia in France. This would provide space to right-wing radical groups to propagate a narrative that marginalises Muslims, and sees Islam as incompatible with French values.
Other members of the Macron government went event further. French Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin, in particular, has seized the terminology and thought patterns of the hard-right. He says France is fighting a “civil war”, going so far as to suggest that sections for ethnic foods in supermarkets should be shut down.
The comments coming from the French government now mirror statements from far-right leader Marine Le Pen – once considered on the fringes of acceptable public opinion, and widely regarded as an extremist xenophobe.
France’s troubled relation with Islam
Early this month, Macron unveiled his long-promised plan: reforming the practice of Islam in France.
The proposals would restrict the funds that Muslim communities receive from abroad, supposedly limiting foreign influence, and create a certificate program for French-trained imams, among other things. Paty’s killing made this matter much more urgent. The French Interior Ministry added this past week that officials would target for potential dissolution more than 50 French Muslim associations if they’re found to be promoting hatred, including a mainstream group devoted to combating Islamophobia. Macron wants to build “an Islam in France that can be an Islam of the Enlightenment,” as he put it, and to halt “repeated deviations from the values of the republic and which often result in the creation of a counter-society.”
Restrictions are also being enforced on home-schooling of children by Muslim parents, restricting access to learning Arabic, Turkish or Persian by Muslim students. As it creates “a significant vector of separatism” given that many of the teachers did not speak French or care about French culture, the French president said.
Many see the debate in France clearly shifting towards the political Right, as far as social policies regarding minorities are concerned. Some have estimated that this is because Macron’s biggest political opponent is Marine Le Pen, head of the right-wing Rassemblement National (National Rally) in France. To capture the right-wing vote on the key issue, Macron is adopting the same attitude towards minorities while also maintaining his liberal vote bank. This could impact a significant number of people as France has the biggest population of Muslims in Western Europe.
France has a history of seeing its Muslim population as foreign and not compatible with the distinct brand of French secularism that aims to remove religious symbols from the public sphere. These values are intimately tied with French history, with events such as the French Revolution, as it started to develop since the French Third Republic, after the Republicans gained control of the state.
On the 11th April 2011, French Prime Minister François Fillon banned face veils from being worn in public spaces in France other than Mosques, at home or when travelling as a passenger in a car. Similarly, On 18 August 2016, Prime Minister Manuel Valls supported bans on Burkini swimwear which had been imposed in several French towns.
In October 2017, France introduced an Anti-Terrorism Bill which authorised power for officials to search homes, restrict movement and close places of worship. The concept behind this bill has been condemned by a United Nations human rights experts who, on the contrary, highlight the negative influence this may have over religious freedom.
In May 2019, France voted to ban Islamic headscarf-wearing mothers from attending school trips. This strengthens the war against Islamic dress in France which has developed through the original Burqa and Burkini ban, further emphasising the discriminatory approach of French politics in relation to Islam.
Policies such as these have been seen as the root of increasing alienation of Muslim communities from the French society, as they see that the mantra of the French culture – liberté, égalité, fraternité (liberty, equality, fraternity) – are not being extended to them, furthering the social divide and creating a breeding ground for the radicalisation of the youth.
This is a “systematic campaign to drag Islam into political battles,” commented the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Egypt, Sheikh Ahmad el-Tayeb, “We don’t accept to see our symbols and holy sites being a victim to cheap bargaining in electoral battles,” he said in a statement.
The spokesman for the Iranian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Saeed Khatibzadeh on Saturday condemned the stubborn continuation of insulting actions against the Prophet (PBUH) in France. Khatibzadeh added that undoubtedly the unacceptable and violent actions of the few extremists originated from an extremist and deviant thought in the Islamic world, cannot serve as justification for insulting and disrespecting the heavenly figure respected by one billion and eight hundred million Muslims in the world.
Libya and Yemen also released official statements against the French President’s comments, while protests were held in Gaza by the Palestinian population to show their condemnation.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan on Sunday also accused Macron of “attacking Islam.” In a series of tweets, Khan said the remark would sow division. “This is a time when Pres Macron could have put healing touch & denied space to extremists rather than creating further polarisation & marginalisation that inevitably leads to radicalisation,” Khan wrote. “It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists.” Furthermore, Prime Minister Khan also wrote to Mark Zuckerberg, asking Facebook to ban Islamophobia just as it has banned holocaust denial.
The most bitter exchange of words was between the Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the French authorities. “The person in charge of France has lost his way,” Mr Erdogan said on Sunday. “He goes on about Erdogan while in bed and while awake. Look at yourself first and where you’re going. I said yesterday … he is a case, and he really must be examined.”
Before this, Mr Erdogan said the French leader needed mental help for condoning the caricatures. “What is the problem of this person called Macron with Muslims and Islam? Macron needs treatment on a mental level,” Mr Erdogan said.
France rebuked Erdogan on Saturday and denounced his comments as “unacceptable.”
“Excess and rudeness are not a method. We demand that Erdogan change the course of his policy because it is dangerous in every way. We do not enter into unnecessary polemics and do not accept insults,” said a spokesperson at the Elysée Palace, home of the French presidency.
After this incident, in a rare move, France recalled its ambassador to Ankara for an “evaluation of the ongoing situation.”
With the situation deteriorating and the issue becoming increasingly politicised, a large number of French people see this as a question of the ‘national character’ of France, which would mean strict laws for its Muslim population who stand to be impacted the most.