Pandora’s Box ... Radicalization and counter-radicalization in France

by Hasan Ismaik
  • Release Date – Nov 5, 2020

While presenting his strategic vision to confront “political Islam” in a speech on October 2, French President Emmanuel Macron could not have possibly expected that by doing he would open up Pandora’s Box (a box full of the world’s evils, as Greek mythology put it).

However, unexpected events since then have turned his speech upside down, transforming it from an action plan against “Islamic isolationism” and in France to a speech preaching hatred to Islam.

The six-million strong Muslim community in France is the largest in Western Europe.

They represent about nine percent of all French citizens, making Islam the second major faith in the country. Yet, there is nothing new about it being at the center of attention in France; in fact, debates on its relationship with the state, institutions, and society go back a few decades.

Furthermore, controversies surrounding it have always been a fertile ground for political manipulation and partisan competition at all levels.

Despite some astonishment at Emmanuel Macron’s “anti-isolationist” speech, especially outside France, it was expected for some time that this issue should be faced head on – especially after a recent poll conducted by the French Institute for Public Opinion (IFOP) which reported that about 74 percent of French Muslims under the age of 25 have explicitly stated that they prioritize their religious faith over the laws of the French Republic.

According to French sources, the president’s speech was postponed several times. Apparently, those invested in Islamic isolationism, major among them Turkey, anticipated Macron to trigger the “uproar” that he did.

It hardly makes sense, therefore, to confine the argument between Ankara and Paris to this one speech only, as the Turkish government has always jumped at the chance  to interfere in French Muslims affairs: notwithstanding the tension it created  between the two countries.

It’s also worth mentioning that Turkey provides France with 140 out of 290 foreign imams it employs annually. The Turkish-Islamic Union for Religious Affairs also funds several French mosques.

Moreover, Turkey went so far as to promote a French party that is modeled on its ruling Justice and Development Party.

This was founded by Sakir Colak in 2015 and given the name of “Parti Égalité et Justice” (PEJ).

Interference in French Islamic institutions has changed beyond recognition, stripping them of the diversity of which the French Muslim community had been renowned for decades.

Hence, it isn’t too off the mark to suggest that in his speech Macron was actually targeting the Turkish manipulation of Muslims in France.

Emphasizing the need to  combat “separatism” and confront radical Islamic groups, by taking practical steps to abolish the system of training Muslim imams abroad and to control the funding of Islamic associations, the French President sought to end Turkey’s interference.

Despite its vociferous denouncements, and all the unfounded accusations thrown at Macron for allegedly targeting Islam and spreading Islamophobia, the speech cannot and should not be seen as the problem.

Macron’s misinterpreted vision of challenging Islamic extremism actually won the backing of two French Muslim community leaders: Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of Muslims (CFCM), and Ghaleb Bencheikh, president of the Islam in France Foundation.

Both offered their support as they believed that Macron suggest important ideas that could pave the way for a contemporary enlightenment project, not only in France but even in some Arab and Islamic countries suffering under political Islam.

The president placed much emphasis on the need to train imams in France in line with the values of the republic and its internationally renowned heritage.

Additionally, he called for an educational reform in the curricula as to include “progressive” Muslim thinkers and philosophers, such as Averroes and Ibn Khaldun.

He also appealed for “a better understanding of Islam and the teaching of the Arabic language,” in a way that could contribute to consolidating compatibility between religious belief and national identity for the Muslims of his country.

Having tackled those issues, it was remarkable that Macron proceeded to acknowledge that French authorities were part of the problem and not the solution, when they let “neighborhoods become ghettos.”

He said “We assembled the population according to their origins. We did not offer enough chances of mixing, nor did we provide them with enough support to enable them to start progressing economically and socially”.

Macron concluded with a striking summery of a problematic question that can be raised outside France as well. “The Islamists built their project on our backsliding and disillusionment,” he said, stressing that the best answer to extremism is national cohesion, and a state that guarantees all its citizens, everywhere, the rights of citizenship, fairness and equal opportunities.

Basically addressed to the French nation, the speech’s main goal was to ensure that societal peace would be well protected against extremism of any kind.

This danger, as far as France is concerned, emanates from two completely different sources.

The first is “Radical Islamism”, with an agenda that advocates rejection of the values and principles of French citizenship. The groups which were built around this tendency were guilty of violating French values and laws. They encouraged siege mentality among inhabitants of the miserable Muslim ghettos, urging them to opt out of French society and refuse to integrate; they worked to fuel hatred and intolerance against the secularity of the nation.

Consequently, these groups became alien in society, rather than people who sought to be in it when they emigrated to France. It’s worth noting here that French secularism was born out of struggle against Christian religious authority several decades ago.

The second source, however,  s related to the direct threat posed by the non-Muslims, whether the members of the far-right or the believers in “radical secularism” that do not shy from denouncing all religions. Hence, many analysts have been quick to point out that Macron’s attempt to win over the right fully explained the uncompromising tone of his speech.

Others considered the speech politically expedient since it could help him to curb Le Pen’s growing popularity and prepare for the 2022 elections. Although some  preferred to describe this as a symptom of Macron’s crisis, political wisdom suggests he should be given unconditional support, especially by Muslims who rejected his project, unless they felt that Le Pen’s victory would make life much better provide for Muslims and others of non-French origins.

In any case, the significance of Macron’s speech cannot be reduced to  mere political propaganda, as some wanted to use it to strip his plan of “reforming the republic” of its essence.

The problem of radical Islam in France has surfaced since the 1980s, and French presidents, especially Sarkozy, have addressed and also exploited it in their electioneering. However, none were interested in offering any serious plan to resolve it.

Like him or loath him, Macron was the one exception.

Perhaps his enthusiasm to try and tackle this huge problem was ignited when it became clear that it was no longer acceptable to standby and watch, especially after the “Arab Spring” highlighted the damage that radicalism has inflicted upon European youth who joined terrorists groups such as ISIS and others – of which France had the lion’s share.

Macron preferred not to beat about the bush: instead, he addressed the problem directly.

Admittedly, this has angered many Muslims around the world. But, the fact of the matter is that he only intended to diagnose the problems of French society, which he is responsible to protect, and safeguard the constitution of the republic and preserve the unity of his nation.

Therefore, any discussion outside France about the speech and whether it was or was not moderate, is a matter of opinion and should not affect French policy.

This dilemma first arose in the polarized political environment which received the speech in France and around the world. It then reemerged through the events that followed (the murder of Samuel Paty and showing Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons). The president stood firmly, which some saw as a sign of abandoning moderation and joining forces with “radical secularism,”.

He further fueled suspicion by refusing to apologize for what was his alleged insult to religious sanctities.

All that coincided with the beginning of a retrial of 14 people accused of aiding militants in the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo. The magazine re-published, on this occasion, those cartoons which Paty the history teacher, showed to his students – only after advising Muslim students to leave if they wanted.

In retaliation, a Chechen refugee cut off Paty’s head in a horrific crime that sparked widespread anger and condemnation in France and worldwide.

French government spokesman Gabriel Attal reported that Macron said at a cabinet meeting that “the culprit is known, it is political Islam which systematically supports the dismantling of the republic. It is a long-lasting security, educational and cultural battle”.

In the memorial service for the teacher, Macron suggested that Paty was killed “because he embodied the Republic,” stressing that his country will not “disavow the cartoons, the drawings, even if others recoil. We will provide all the opportunities that the Republic should to all its young people, without discrimination. We will continue, sir. France’s schoolteachers primary and secondary school teachers will teach history – both its glories and its dark moments. We will help our students discover literature, music, all the works of the mind and soul.”

Macron’s speech, and the covers of Charlie Hebdo projected onto government buildings triggered widespread anger on social media, which manifested itself through hashtags such as “#Macron_ offends _the Prophet” and “#Anyone_ but_ the_ Messenger”.

Users also demanded boycotting of French products, with accusations flying of hate speech, bullying and incitement of terrorism.

Thus, Macron found himself caught between many rocks and many hard places, the most crucial being the French public opinion’s anger about the murder and demands that the state should take an action.

There was also the far-right, lying in wait to seize the opportunity to attack him. In addition, he faced Turkey and other countries that support political Islam and would interpret any appeasement as failure on the president’s part.

Finally, the hardline Muslims who were genuinely angry about insulting one of their most sanctified religious symbols.

However, it cannot be denied that ordinary Muslim anger came about through foreign political and media incitement, which took a populist approach in order to force French politics into a war of words and provocative statements inconsistent with the French presidency’s approach to international relations.

Macron’s apology was demanded, alongside clarification on France’s position on Islam. This is what the French Foreign Ministry tried to do. However, quiet diplomacy cannot deal with the populist rhetoric heaped on France by the advocates and supporters of political Islam, as the voice of reason always takes a back seat when the scene is dominated by incitement and provocation.

The real apology that Muslims of France in particular need from the French president must come in action rather than words.

It should be real measures aimed to, for example, provide security and support for those Muslims, French and non-French, who stand courageously up to political Islam and radical extremists. Those brave people resort to reason, separate between religion and the state to ensure its independence, distinguish  politics from faith to keep it pure, call for a modernized religious discourse, reject attempts at fanatic mobilization, whatever its source, and always strive for peace.

Macron should also base his apology on challenging secular radicalism because it – like Islamic radicalism- promotes the culture of exclusion and hatred, without differentiating between Muslims and Islamists.

It stigmatizes all of Islam by painting it with same brush of extremism, and believes that the problem does not lie in extremist organizations, but in Islam itself.

Secular radicals thus take tough stance vis-a-vis Muslim immigrants who sought shelter in Europe and embraced its democracy and values, by demanding action to control immigration including a complete ban of it.

The apology should come about through a foreign policy that confronts ideological extremism deployed by the Turkish government in Europe; and also through a tough stance against the regime of Iran, with its hostile activities designed to spread “revolutionary Islamism” across the Middle East.

Such a tide of extremism will have repercussions that will be transnational, and France will not be immune to it.

We should strive hard to use France’s close relationship with the east and Africa, and invest it in repairing the relationship between east and eest on the basis of mutual respect, knowledge and understanding.

The hope for more peace and stability in the region and the world depends on that, which would largely erase the memory of apprehension and the remnants of the colonial era.

For France, secularism, as the French themselves see it, represents the “spirit of the republic”, “the essence of its national identity,” and the wall that protects its unity, security and stability. We do not disagree with that. But, it should be kept in mind that no pluralistic democracy and civil society can exist without free expression of diverse views on a range of issues including questions of faith.

When the French President shows the courage to match his words with action when it comes to challenging  radical extremism, then Muslims will stand shoulder to shoulder with him, because they are the most affected and the first to suffer from the actions of “political Islam”, and its continued defamation of moderate Islam supported by some governments.

Finally, I would like to say: Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) and all other prophets were exalted and preserved by God’s power. They are not waiting for millions to take to the street in demonstrations to defend them.

Countries that support political Islam, oppress and humiliate their people denying them their right to express their views freely, have forgotten that Europe and the west have embraced millions of Muslims, and treated them as citizens who have full rights.

Thus, as per the saying of the great thinker Sheikh Mohammed Abdo: “I went to the west and saw Islam but no Muslims, and saw Muslims but not Islam in our Muslim countries.”

This is how Emmanuel Macron can apologize to Muslims.

Hasan Ismaik