Asif Arif, Lawyer, France
France is facing a difficult time. The rise in Covid-19 cases, the impossibility to open more beds for ventilator services, curfews and then the lockdown imposed to the entire French population has raised substantial scrutiny of the French government. France’s population is currently also experiencing huge economic problems due to heavy taxes and the detrimental pause of commerce and businesses caused by the pandemic.
In this backdrop of difficulty and national suffering, the only political way to gain the support of the general population in favour of the government is to devise a strategy of distraction. This strategy consists of finding a “common interior enemy” in order to unite the population against this “common enemy”.
The law on separatism
Even before the barbaric terrorist attack against Prof Samuel Patty, French President, Emmanuel Macron invited multiple members of his government and the mainstream media to attend a meeting where he announced that the government would enact a law on separatism. The idea of the legislation was to reinforce universalism (suspending all particularities of people – faith, sexual orientation, race – within the framework of the French nation) and penalising any attempt for any group to separate from the “French society”.
This law invited a lot of negative comments on the basis of human rights. The law on separatism is giving large leverage to the government to pronounce the suspension of any association or group (even though freedom of association is considered as a constitutional right).
The government is also trying to make public-funded schools a mandatory passage for any student, prohibiting any home-schooling or private religious schools etc. A plethora of lawyers were wondering what the concept of separatism means.
When the French government is clearly referring to Muslims or to Muslim organisations in a law (that was meant to end “separatism”) wouldn’t this be extremely contradictory as it is singling out one demographic. Wouldn’t this be a form of separatism in itself? Why isn’t the plea of far-right groups in France who are trying to destroy national cohesion by demanding Muslims to leave Europe, being labelled as a form of separatism? You cannot fight against separatism by creating separatism.
Further, the general public in France is suffering great economic turmoil, like much of Europe. They are fed up with these questions and debates about religion and would rather have their problems resolved.
However, the government chooses to ignore the real problems that French nationals face and instead, shelter under scapegoating Muslims by highlighting and raising issues of separatism etc.
When Samuel Patty’s attack happened, the media geared all discussions towards attacks that were being made on freedom of speech. As Mr Patty was a teacher and had to explain – as set by the national syllabus of public schools – what the Charlie Hebdo cartoons were, the mainstream media and Emmanuel Macron said that the terrorist attack was an attack against French values and freedom of speech.
When that statement came out, everybody forgot that Mr Patty respected the sensibilities of Muslims by telling them to look away or go out of the classroom while he was explaining the concept of the cartoons.
The presumption of culpability
This terrorist attack opened a boulevard for the government to act. The government started a crackdown on different Muslim associations, started arresting a lot of individuals that were directly related with the terrorist attack, but unfortunately also arrested many individuals that had no links with terrorism whatsoever.
Everyone asked how the government even issued such investigations and arrests against Muslims who didn’t have any link to terrorism and neither were suspects.
In response, the interior minister said that the government was just “passing them a message”. This, surely, is against basic human rights and seeks to separate and stigmatise Muslims further, in France.
It makes all Muslims culprits and removes the assurance that the government is out to protect them – something any democratic and just government should guarantee. This goes to show how the government isn’t out to get just the “extremists”, but sees all Muslims with suspicion.
Will this add to the peace of the country? Aren’t such actions and rhetoric “separating” French society?
The boycott and change in narrative by the French government
All these elements, coupled with Emmanuel Macron’s call for displaying the cartoons of the Holy Prophetsa everywhere, triggered the attention of the Muslim world.
In response, many Muslims and Muslim countries began boycotting French products. In the beginning of the boycotts, Macron didn’t care about his statements about free speech and the need to publish the cartoons further. But when other Muslim countries began extending this boycott, he changed his narrative and began leaning, ever so slightly, towards showing that he cared for sentiments.
Of course, economic worry was the cause of the change. His foreign affairs minister immediately sent a message of peace to the Muslim world and the French President, himself, responded to questions of Al Jazeera, following the intensity of boycotts.
Interestingly the slight change in narrative was due to economy related reasons; the underlying cause of restlessness in French society today. Also, before Macron replied to Al Jazeera, the very same media outlet was considered as an “Islamist media” in France, not worthy of any respect.
Did Macron’s reply to Al Jazeera make him an indirect promoter of Islamism? These types of rhetorical questions are often used against Muslims in France.
During the past week, students (8- to 17-year-olds) were told to rise in order to pay respect to Mr Samuel Patty and to promote free speech. A few young students said that they didn’t want to rise because of the nature of the cartoons, which they saw as offensive. Those students (8, 9 and 10 years old) have been declared to the local prosecutor. What a strange way of honouring free speech; students face criminal threats if they disagree with something!
Secularism as a new state religion
Secularism in France is defined as the progressive distance that the general population has towards religion (which can be a form of socio-atheism). “Laïcité” tends to promote the neutrality of the state towards any citizen and the aim of this ideology is to treat everybody equally and not to consider any privilege, even for religion. Laïcité desires religion to be separated from the rule of law, but still ensures the free practice of religion.
If the principle is good in its essence, it has been deviated by some extremist atheists who impulse in the public debate the ideology that atheism is secularism. According to that deviated ideology, the state shall not only recognise any religion but also combat any religion that will not match the republican laws and regulations.
Therefore, any religion that does not recognise same-sex marriage shall be considered as an enemy of the republic. Any religion that prohibits shaking hands with women shall be considered as enemy of the republic. That does not leave much freedom of religion in France! And this is certainly not what secularism actually promotes.
This ideological movement has intensified its propaganda since the terrorist attack of 2015. The French general population was found to be keen on the topic. This anti-religious movement, by enforcing that secularism equals atheism, is leading the French general opinion in misunderstandings and misconceptions.
Unfortunately, they don’t understand that religion is necessary for the peace of society. They also, ironically, don’t realise that the right to practice a faith is a constitutional right.
We can only pray and try to educate people to move away from this destructive and polarising ideology, but the repetition of terrorist attacks is giving them the proper ground to flourish and prosper in the next couple of years.