We have seen in the past month a dangerous trend of politicizing religion, starting with French President Emmanuel Macron’s speech in which he described Islam as a religion “in crisis” and accused French Muslims of “separatism.” This was followed by a counterattack from Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who accused Macron of insulting Muslims. Regardless of the motives behind this escalating rhetoric, it should stop before it leads to another wave of terrorist attacks, as was witnessed in 2016 following the rise of Daesh.
In the French president’s controversial speech, the positive points — namely his intent to teach Arabic in schools, his plan to promote Islamic culture, and his confession that Muslim immigrants have been left isolated by the state in ghettos of “misery and hardship” — were overshadowed by the strong overall tone. This offered the chance for Erdogan to position himself as the defender of Islam and to garner popular sympathy, especially amid the boycott campaign he is facing in Arab countries in response to his intrusive policies in the region. The initial verbal battle between Erdogan and Macron was followed by a gruesome terror attack, in which a teacher was beheaded for showing Charlie Hebdo’s blasphemous cartoons.
Following this incident, Macron doubled down on his position and the cartoons were projected onto the facades of French government buildings. Shortly after, two Muslim women were stabbed next to the Eiffel Tower. The poster of the offensive cartoons prompted Muslim leaders, who had so far remained quiet and refrained from interfering in what they viewed as internal French affairs, to condemn their publication. Erdogan again jumped on the bandwagon and reiterated his attacks on the French president. Another gruesome terrorist attack occurred last week in a church in Nice, where an assailant slaughtered three people.
The French authorities have started clamping down on Islamic organizations, even threatening to close one that fights Islamophobia. Far-right pundits have taken the opportunity to push for their theory of the “great replacement,” predicting that the white European population will be replaced by immigrants. Essayist Eric Zemmour called for the French to fight for their country’s “liberation” from the “colonizers.” The question is where does it end? This quest by politicians to raise their popularity and visibility by politicizing religion and by raising the rhetoric is very dangerous and could lead to another wave of violence. This is why former President Francois Hollande called for an end to the controversial rhetoric and the adoption of an appeasing tone through which social cohesion can be ensured. Canadian President Justin Trudeau added that liberty of expression has no meaning unless it has limits. The calls of Trudeau were echoed by Archbishop of Toulouse Robert Le Gall, who called the cartoons an insult to Muslims and Christians, adding: “We all see their results.” Amid those wise, calming calls, Charlie Hebdo made an irresponsible and immature statement, claiming that it was proud to provoke Islamists despite the violence.
This quest by politicians to raise the rhetoric is very dangerous and could lead to another wave of violence.
Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib
Officials should be careful when choosing their words. Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin showed discontent with the fact that French stores have dedicated aisles that cater for different religions, saying this contributes to the isolation of minority communities. Following the Nice attack, Macron said, “there is only one community in France — the national community.” This message, which was intended to stress France’s national unity, should not be interpreted to mean that communities no longer have the right to their own peculiarities. Hence, the French state should be very clear that it is protecting its people from terrorism and fighting extremism, not adopting identity politics. Calls for conformity negate the concepts of diversity, plurality of opinion and personal freedom, on which the liberal world relies. Also, the state should make sure that Muslims do not feel targeted. Accusations of separatism that mention them exclusively can instigate feelings of persecution, creating a fertile ground for extremists; hence the severity of the situation.
France seems to be realizing the violence that might snowball because of this escalating rhetoric. On Saturday, the president gave a TV interview in which he distanced himself from the blasphemous cartoons and said that he understands the reaction of Muslims. The same way Macron toned down the rhetoric here, other leaders should follow suit, while it is also the role of religious authorities to give guidance to Muslims on how they should react to and counter such incidents in a manner that is in line with the laws and regulations of their respective countries. The world’s political leaders, religious leaders and the media should all make responsible statements that lead to appeasement and reconciliation in order to prevent the violence from spiraling further.
* Dr. Dania Koleilat Khatib is a specialist in US-Arab relations with a focus on lobbying. She is the co-founder of the Research Center for Cooperation and Peace Building (RCCP), a Lebanese NGO focused on Track II. She is also an affiliated scholar with the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut.