France, Islam and strategic nuance

The furor over Islam and its place in France is reaching unprecedented levels of acrimony in the aftermath of now two terrorist attacks that have left four dead. The hostilities were sparked after the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, re-published cartoons of the prophet Muhammad at the beginning of September, the same cartoons that led to violence in 2012 and ultimately a devastating attack on the offices of the publication three years later. The re-publication of the cartoons, defended on freedom of expression grounds, was condemned by leaders around the Muslim world, including Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. The murders that have followed have only deepened the crisis, with French President Emmanuel Macron lionizing the high school teacher killed on October 16 and telling Muslims they need to develop an “Islam of enlightenment.” The war of words is escalating, and proving once again that words in themselves can prove deadly. Can the crisis be calmed, and if so, how?

Adnan R. Khan: Both sides in this controversy have been escalating their rhetoric. What are the issues at stake here?

Ilter Turan: Let us look at the French side first. The escalation started with the republication of the cartoons. The French government rendered this an into an issue of freedom of expression, arguing that the publication of the cartoon could not be curtailed simply because it was found to be highly inflammatory to Muslims. Then came the decapitation of the high school teacher and the attack in Nice which are clearly acts of terrorism. One should be careful, however, not treat them as actions emanating from an undifferentiated global community of Muslims taking revenge on the French.

Turning to Macron’s position, I think it would have been entirely possible for the French president to defend freedom of expression in his country while at the same time expressing a compassion for the Muslims who felt insulted by the cartoons. Secondly, one might question the sincerity of Macron’s commitment to an absolute freedom of expression when in his own society there are laws banning that freedom when you’re talking about the Armenian genocide or the Jewish Holocaust. So apparently, freedom of expression can in fact be limited in some cases. It is this insincerity or double standards, confounded by a lack of compassion that is at the heart of what the Muslims find to be highly insulting.

Adnan R. Khan: It seems to me this is less about the representation of the Prophet Muhammad than it is about the representation of Muslims in general. I’ve seen the cartoons and they not only lack humor but they also employ orientalist tropes of Arabs and Muslims that are openly racist and demeaning. Considering the number of Arab Muslims living in France, why do you think Macron would not at least try to show some compassion?

Ilter Turan: My feeling is that Macron is trying to extract some political capital out of this. He is capitalizing on the xenophobic proclivities of the French public at this particular time, when his government happens to be facing significant difficulties both economically and politically. Macron appears to have chosen employing inflammatory language so as to consolidate his support among voters which we know was sagging before this ordeal started.

Adnan R. Khan: What do you make of the response from Muslim countries?

Ilter Turan: Frankly, I find it disturbing. I do empathize that feelings have been hurt including mine, but the way they have responded is producing outcomes that harm their own interests. In the end, by taking Macron seriously and attacking him in unison, they are needlessly forcing others, including leaders of EU member and other countries in the Western world to express support for Macron which he does not deserve.

I think a more nuanced reaction would have been much better. When you examine what Macron has said – proposing ways to reform Islam, for example – he is acting as if he is an Islamic theologian. In response you could have simply made fun of him, saying things like: “Well, it seems now in addition to being the leader of France and aspiring to be the leader Europe, Mr. Macron appears to have developed an interest in becoming an Islamic theologian. Before he does that, might we suggest that he start with something more familiar, like rewriting the Old Testament,” or something like this to point out just how to silly he is.

I don’t understand why such a strong reaction was necessary, especially in a highly insulting and sometimes threatening way. It only provided Macron with more support both inside France and internationally.

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