A war of words may sound harmless enough. Not this one.
President Emmanuel Macron is being verbally attacked – insulted in some cases – by the leaders of several Islamic countries for defending France’s right to publish caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed.
The Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, said that Macron was “mentally unwell”. The Pakistani Prime Minister, Imran Khan, said that the French president had “chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens.”
The immediate cause of their anger was a brief passage in Macron’s hommage last Wednesday to Samuel Paty, the teacher brutally murdered after he showed Charlie Hebdo’s controversial cartoons of Mohammed to a civics class in the western Paris suburbs.
Macron said: “We will not give up caricatures and drawings, even if others back away.”
He also said that “liberty can only exist by ending hatred and violence and promoting respect for others.”
That part of the speech has not been widely reported in the Islamic world.
First, some perspective (even if it is an unfashionable commodity these days).
Appeals in a series of Muslim countries for mass demonstrations against Macron and France at the weekend flopped. They attracted, at most, a few hundred people.
The Turkish president, Mr Erdogan, is in the middle of a series of disputes with Europe – and especially with Macron – about Libya, unauthorised gas-exploration by Turkey in the eastern Mediterranean and Ankara’s part in encouraging the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia.
He is struggling in the opinion polls. The Turkish economy is floundering. The Turkish lira is at an all-time low against the dollar. He has good reason to excite his base by insulting Emmanuel Macron.
The Pakistani Prime Minister has to contain the violent intolerance of radical Islamist forces within his own country. Defending Islam from alleged attack by Macron is politically astute.
Imran Khan’s indignation is selective, however. He, like many Muslim leaders, has little to say about the brutal repression of Islam and Muslim minorities by his giant neighbour to the north and east.
Macron is not entirely without blame. The homage to Mr Paty, which he wrote himself, was an eloquent exposition of France’s commitment to free expression, tolerance and a secular Republic, where faiths are defended but not promoted or worshipped.
But his words on the cartoons were ill-chosen. “We will not give up caricatures…”
He made it sound as though publishing scurrilous drawing of Mohammed was an important French national custom – not a test of the boundaries of free speech practised by one virulently anti-religious magazine.
It would have been much better if Macron had used words closer to those in an excellent “model” sermon circulated to mosques last Friday by the main French Muslim representative body, the Conseil Francais du Culte Musulman.
“The law of the Republic permits these cartoons but obliges no one to like them,” the sermon said. “We can even detest them. But nothing. absolutely nothing, justifies murder.”
In the light of some of the inflammatory language against France in the Muslim world in recent days– and some of the shrill commentary elsewhere – it is worth quoting another section of the sermon.
“No! We Muslims are not persecuted in France. We are citizens just like any other citizens. We have the same guaranteed rights and the same duties to observe.”
To which one could add. Yes, there is discrimination against Muslims in France. Yes, French Muslims are disproportionately confined to poor housing and ill-paid jobs.
No, the great majority of France’s 5,000,000 Muslims do not support radical versions of Islam. About half are reckoned to be non-practising.
A growing number wishes to express their faith overtly. Some of them have been converted to rigid, restrictive anti-western and sometimes violent forms of the faith.
There have been 36 serious Islamist terror attacks in France in the last eight years – ranging from the indiscriminate mass slaughter of the Bataclan and related attacks almost five years ago to individual atrocities like the murder of Mr Paty.
Despite these attacks, there has been – despite what the radicals may have hoped – no widespread, retaliatory violence against muslims and no lurch into the hard-right politics of intolerance.
All of this context is strangely absent from some of the present accusations against France – both in the Muslim world and in Britain and the United States.
The inflammatory comments by Erdogan and others are dangerous. In the context of recent history, they amount, de facto to an incitement to further islamist, radical attacks in France or against French targets abroad.
But Macron and his government also have some share of the blame and some responsibility to try to restore calm.
This – remember – is all about the murder of a man who tried to teach 13 and 14 year old tolerance and openness to the ideas and culture of others. Some of the commentary by government ministers in recent days has strayed into the intolerant register of the hard right (forcing Marine Le Pen it seems to shift even further towards outright islamophobia.)
The interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, even suggested that the secular values of the French Republic – its very existence – was threatened by halal and other ethnic aisles in supermarkets.
The danger is that the attacks by the Turkish president and others will push the government into other statements or actions which appear to target all Muslims – not just the extremists.
In his tweeted replies last night, in French, Arabic and English, Macron came over as determined – but also rather intransigent. “We will not give in, ever. We respect all differences in a spirit of peace. We do not accept hate speech and defend reasonable debate. We will always be on the side of human dignity and universal values.”
That’s fine but fails to acknowledge that the Mohammed cartoons are “hate speech” to some muslims.
Macron needs – urgently – to make a statement which returns to the spirit of the speech that he gave on Islam, freedom and separatism on October 2nd. This speech has been presented in the Muslim world as an attempt to “conquer” or “constrain” Islam. That is a distortion.
Macron promised a draft law in early December to combat extremist Islam by banning the “importation” of foreign-financed and trained imams. Financial support will be available to mosques which sign a charter accepting French principles of secularism, democracy and the rule of law.
Macron recognised, however, that France’s Muslims had been let down by successive governments. He admitted that France had created its own “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with poor housing and few jobs. He promised new actions to improve opportunities for the people of multi-racial inner suburbs or banlieues.
He should make the speech again – not for Erdogan or Imran Khan but for the great majority of French Muslims who wish to practise their religion but also to be part of a successful, tolerant France.