02 November 2020

Dialogue’s boycott. France vs the Islamic world

Laurenţiu Sfinteş

One does not have to be a prophet to anticipate the fact that the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s republication of the Mohammed cartoons, at the beginning of September, to mark the start of the process of those involved in the bloody attack from 2015, 13 men and a woman, was going to trigger a chain reaction, similar to the previous ones. The decision of the magazine was, most likely, logical, assumed and courageous, but, this time, the reaction provoked collateral victims which were used by occasional martyrs, decided to defend with a knife the faith they thought it was under attack, but it also produced a political reaction, as France was all of a sudden alone in an unexpected dispute with the Muslim world.

Image source: Profimedia

After the magazine republished the cartoons,  president Emmanuel Macron made some statements, on October 2nd, according to which he was going to launch a plan to defend the French values against the “Islamic radicalism”. At that time, it was all just a legislative concept, to be sent in the parliament in December. Two weeks later, the debate was going to be, however, related to a brutal and bloody reality.

From the Muslim world’s perspective, France’s debts are big and continuously growing

The reference to president Macron’s speech on the fact that “France will not give up cartoons” was going to become ominous for the following developments, and for the representative voices of the Muslim world it was going to be a proof that France has a problem with this religion and its representatives.

It was less important that most of the speech was about reconciliation, integration, separatism and the “parallel world’s” rejection, where some of the French Islamic community lives in.

The message of the French president was interpreted at an attack on a religious community, and all Islamic corners in the world turned their look at the country of “enlightenment”, contesting how Paris is protecting its secular values.

Erdogan took advantage on the situation

The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, took advantage on the situation and got involved in the fight as the defender of the Muslims in the Middle East. This stance of defender of the sacred places, a Saladin, liberator of Jerusalem was repeatedly recalled and it worked perfectly for the Turkish leader, precisely when he had to give along explanation on Turkey’s interference in Libya, Syria, Eastern Mediterranean or the Caucasus. It was for Muslims’ well-being, of the Sunnis, of course, whose faith is under attack due to a president who cannot deal with his internal affairs with “the other France” of the French Islamic community, but who thinks there is a need to “reform the Islam”.

Cautiously, the Turkish president diplomatically calls on moderation, but he is also suggesting Europe, which is treated as a witness, yet which is an accomplice of Paris, to interfere in this fight and convince France to stop the anti-Islam campaign.

The icing on the cake was, however, the moment he said the French president needs mental health treatment, three times during his public speeches, which led to calling the French ambassador to Ankara for consultations. For the European leaders, this type of speech is unacceptable, but for the Muslim communities in the Middle East, to whom the speech was actually dedicated, the message was perfect for the French president, who became overnight the symbol of European Muslims’ oppression.

Boycotting the French companies and products

Erdogan, but also other leaders in different parts of the Islamic world called for a boycott of the French companies and products. In Kuwait and Qatar, the French products were out of the shelfs, the “French month culture” was cancelled in Qatar, the sales of Carrefour dropped dramatically in Saudi Arabia and the EAU. This boycott procedure is peaceful, but its consequences are as dramatic as the political sanctions. Often, this is an uncoordinated reaction, more like a consequence of organizations and personalities’ calls, most of them religious. The consequences are strongly felt in the bilateral relation, they have economic effects, and in Lebanon, where Macron was aiming at becoming the leader of reconstruction and reconciliation, in the post-Beirut explosion, his well intentions will be buried by this crisis.

The reproachful messages against France, coming from Islamic leaders, were numerous and punctual, sometimes due to oldest problems, other times because of the pressure coming from their own citizens, or because one cannot keep his mouth shut when it comes to religion. They did not have Erdogan’s tone, because there is no other Muslim country in the world now that France has so many bilateral disputes with, however, there were some touches.

The Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, did not forget, however, that France was, most likely, the supporter of the Nuclear Treaty, so he could not let this attack against Islam unanswered. His message called on France to be honest with the Muslim world, teaching the French and the Western people how to deal with the problem: “The Western people must understand that the Prophet is loved by all Muslims and freedom lovers… insulting the Prophet is the same with insulting all prophets, the human values, it is a subversion of the human ethic”.

Reminding about “all prophets”, Rouhani also includes prophet Isa, the Islamic name of Jesus, as a potential target of the French secularization policies.

France’s ally, the occasional buyer of two French Mistral warships, the Egyptian president Al-Sisi, could not let Macron’s statements unanswered, but his message promoted the freedom of speech right: “If some have the freedom to express what is in their thoughts I imagine that this stops when it comes to offending the feelings of more than 1.5 billion people”.

 Ahmed el-Tayeb, probably the most famous Islamic doctrinaire voice in Egypt, the great imam of Al-Azhar mosque, the ideological centre of the Sunni Islam, called for moderation as well: “Terrorism has no religion, all Muslims must condemn this act which is not part of Islam”.

During crisis times, moderation is, however, rare, and some French but also Islamic analysts have interpreted the French president’s as being related to presidential elections.

Is the battle for “the other France” the electoral stake for 2022?

Having in mind that presenting a harsh attitude towards the French Muslim community is always the winner’s card in the elections, Macron is seen as being in a fight against time to win some voters.

The polls made before the coronavirus crisis showed that 24% of the French people were approving his policies, quite close to the record figures the previous French president, Francois Hollande, had, so low that he did not even dared to show up at the scrutiny for a second mandate.

Things have changed in the meantime, and he got somewhere around 33% which, only a year before the following presidential elections (April 2022), is still quite small.

The crisis should have contributed even more to increase electorate’s trust, but the June 2020 local elections proved the weak performance of the presidential party “La Republique En Marche!”, whose candidate for the mayor of Paris position was two steps away from being left out of the podium. And if the party decreases dramatically, Macron might not be feeling well also.

An anti-Islam message is, however, something that can galvanize the rightist voters but also some of the French secular leftists. The bloody attacks from October allowed president Macron and his leadership to take a drastic stance against those organizations, the groups of the French Muslim community who were accused for “Islamic extremism”.

The measures were included in a program to defend the “French values”, adopted immediately by a great part of the French society and elite, which compares the situation with the war that should be fought now and here and where the combatants should not show any weaknesses on the danger represented by this “crisis Islam”, which must be freed by foreign influences.

The “weaknesses” belong to a possible counter candidate at the presidential elections, Jean Luc Melenchon, the president of the left party “La France Insoumise”, a populist who called, however, on containment when accusing the French Islamic community. The fact that he got called “Islamophobic leftist” by the current French political and intellectual establishment only aims at getting Melenchon out of the presidential run.

As for a possible new duel with Marine Le Pen, Macron has nothing to worry about: collecting centre and left electorate and some of the left one, through policies that defence the French values, will be enough for him to get a new mandate.

As for foreign influences, things are more complex, even concerning. According to some polls, 70% of the imams preaching in the 2500 mosques in France are not French. As there are not French institutions to prepare an Islamic clergy, France is importing clerics from Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey. Turkey alone, through the consular offices, is monitoring the activity of 200 imams, who are preaching in 250 mosques. The offer of president Macron to create a generation of French imams, certified by locally accredited structures, is one of the legislative elements to be presented ahead of the National Assembly in December. This “cultural exchange” with Turkey stopped in February this year, so the bad relations file between the two countries includes older problems than the personnel exchange for the summer-autumn season.

Epilogue for an endless story

 The critical analytical demonstration insists the opportunistic elements of the statements and decisions taken by the French president. Why now? Why like this?

But this analysis also admits that the measured taken so far for the “other France”, of the Muslim communities in the big cities, were not enough, that Paris has a problem and that time is not working it its favor. But it admits also that however this happens, it will have repercussions on the Islamic world.

 For now, each week comes with a new bloody incident, in a chain of violent acts which is creating martyrs and collateral victims. The is all happening on a medical  and economic, crisis background, on social uncertainty, in random French villages, which can also affect us, the ones who are doing nothing but watch this tragic show from the grandstands.

Translated by Andreea Soare