Three weeks ago, Emmanuel Macron was coming under fire from French conservatives after suggesting that teaching Arabic in schools could help combat radical Islam.
Less than a month later, the French president is embroiled in a diplomatic stand-off with Muslim countries angry about a crackdown on Islam in his avowedly secular republic.
Macron’s about-turn follows the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty, who was murdered after presenting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to pupils during a class about freedom of speech.
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But the dispute runs deeper than the killing, laying bare France’s complex relationship with Islam and triggering calls for a boycott of French products in a string of Muslim-majority countries.
‘Islam de Lumières’
Tackling radical Islam is a longstanding policy of the French president, with advisers close to Macron telling Politico that he has “not shied away from addressing the problem of radical Islam in several speeches”.
The issue is also a hot-button issue with the public, who have witnessed 27 terrorist attacks since the deadliest assault on French soil in Paris five years ago. Multiple shooting and grenade attacks around the Stade de France and the Bataclan Theatre left 131 people dead in the capital, in an attack described by former president François Hollande as an “act of war”.
Macron last week said that his government had “stepped up actions” after the latest attack, adding that “it’s not about making new statements, we know what we need to do”. But the seeds of many Muslims’ outrage lie in a speech delivered two weeks before Paty’s murder.
On 2 October, Macron told a Paris audience that he planned to combat “seperatism”, describing Islam as “a religion that is in crisis today all over the world”. He spoke of a need to “free Islam in France from foreign influences” and build an “Islam des Lumières”, meaning “Islam of Light”.
A fortnight later, however, Macron’s comments would be thrown into sharp relief by Paty’s murder at the hands of a young Muslim of Chechen origin.
‘Demon of Paris’
In the immediate aftermath of the murder, French authorities launched “dozens of raids against suspected Islamic extremists, closed a major mosque and shut down some Muslim aid groups,” The New York Times reports. But it is Macron’s words that have triggered anger more than the conventional security response.
“Two French cities, Toulouse and Montpellier, projected Charlie Hebdo caricatures including that of the Islamic prophet on the walls of their regional council buildings as a gesture of defiance”, The Guardian says, while Macron told a vigil in the capital that France “would not give up cartoons”.
Charlie Hebdo, the satirical magazine at which ten staff were killed in 2012 after they printed images of the Prophet Muhammed, also stoked anger, publishing a cartoon of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the front page of its online edition on Tuesday night.
Erdogan, a self-modelled defender of Sunni Muslims, was one of the most vocal critics of Macron’s comments, describing the treatment of Muslims in France as “a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War Two”.
The claim that Islam was in “crisis”, Erdogan added, was “a signal flare to a particularly dangerous process that produce very grave results for European Muslims”.
The Turkish president was joined by Islamic leaders across the Middle East, with the front page of a hardline Iranian newspaper labelling Macron the “Demon of Paris”.
On the streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh, he was decried as a leader who “worships Satan” and his effigy was burned. “Tens of thousands of people” joined Erdogan’s calls for “a boycott of French goods”, the BBC reports.
“Macron is one of the few leaders who worship Satan,” senior Islami Andolan leader Ataur Rahman told protesters, while another of the group’s leaders, Nesar Uddin, described France as “the enemy of Muslims”, adding: “Those who represent them are also our enemies.”
France has withdrawn its ambassador from Turkey and issued “security warnings for France’s citizens in majority-Muslim states”, The Guardian says. But the planned dissolution of pro-Hamas group known as Cheikh Yassine, which authorities say was “directly involved” in the assassination of Paty, will extend the dispute.
Clash of values
The relationship between France and its five million Muslim citizens is a complicated one.
Tensions have “simmered” since September, when Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed on the eve of the trial of 14 people involved in the terror attack on its offices. But the issue runs deeper than satirical magazine covers.
France is determined to maintain its tradition of laïcité - or secularism - and has a “history of criticising all religions”, Vox says. Its tradition of political cartooning has jarred with Islamic bans on idolotry, and triggered the murders of Charlie Hebdo staff and Paty.
The country’s anti-religious streak, “originally designed to counter the power of the Roman Catholic Church”, says The Telegraph, has increasingly found a new target. The country has at times “struggled to accept Muslims as they come”, Vox says, leading to disputes over the wearing of headscarves in both public schools and professional settings.
“We are the result of our history: these values of liberty, secularism and democracy cannot remain just words,” one demonstrator in Paris told French television at a demonstration honouring Paty. And France’s unwavering commitment to these values was on show in politician’s statements after the murder.
But in order uphold them safely, Macron will need to combat an issue that Politco says has been a “lightning rod issue” in France for decades: how to clamp down on Islamist extremist without isolating the wider Muslim community and Islamic world.
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