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October 14, 2020

Muslims in Macron’s views


October 14, 2020

The writer, a Chevening scholar, studied International Journalism at the University of Sussex.

What was on French President Emmanuel Macron’s mind when he delivered a long-awaited speech on October 2 to announce that his government would introduce a bill in parliament in December to strengthen the 1905 law under which France separated church from the state and officially became a secular country?

In a bold speech that focused on French Muslims and the role of Islam in their lives, Macron minced no words when he categorically stated, “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.”

Throughout the speech, he presented himself as a staunch defender of secularism who considered ‘Islamic radicalism’ and ‘Islamist separatism’ as posing threats to the integrity and secular foundations of French society. “Secularism is the cement of a united France”, he went on to add, though cautioning against stigmatizing all Muslims in the same breath.

In a typical show of what is popularly known as the ‘white man’s burden’, Macron vowed to ‘liberate’ Islam from foreign influence by investing in a new generation of imams through local certifications.

The French government believes that foreign influence has led to the growth of the radicalism that is at the heart of terror incidents in the country. The president’s project of reimagining the role of Islam appears loaded with ideological undertones: his administration is looking to forge a version of ‘enlightened Islam’ that is “compatible with the values of the Republic.”

Considered a centrist and a strong supporter of the market economy whose electoral victory in 2017 dashed the hopes of far-rightist Martine Le Pen, President Macron’s increasing tilt towards political conservatism reflects the formidable challenge posed by La Pen’s party.

Macron’s clear position is also an acknowledgment of changing demographics and the factors that will shape the voting behaviour of the electorate. Hence, an all-out effort on his part to win over a major chunk of voters, even if it requires publicly rebuking a whole religious community that now constitutes nine percent of the French population.

Macron’s categorical position on Muslims and Islam ahead of elections that are set in 2022 is in line with the key political themes and trends espoused by the far-right parties that are putting up a strong challenge to democratic institutions and values in the West.

The binary of ‘us versus them’ employed by President Bush to grant the moral legitimacy to his administration’s military expeditions against Afghanistan and Iraq is now fast finding its way into political discourses in the West. Now there is less talk on ideological divide and more on the sameness of visions offered by those contending for powers. This augurs ill for the future of the world as well as the nature of interfaith relations.

Another global trend conspicuous by its presence is the emergence of political appeal to the electorate, not on the basis of performance, electoral manifesto and the vision for the socio-economic challenges but on the back of emotions, divisive rhetoric, and a promise of a return to a ‘glorious’ past.

Finding an imaginary enemy (preferably a religious and ethnic community) as a scapegoat is a common feature in this movement’s march toward the far-right and exclusivist model of politics.

The rising trend of popular but narrow nationalism is not limited to Europe or America. It has been on full display in our neighborhood, reshaping Indian society by replacing the foundational Gandhian ideals with RSS-inspired Hindutva ideology.

At a time when the corona pandemic has been wreaking havoc in France, and post-corona revival requires solid policies to offset the losses to the economy, Macron has the gall to indulge in anti-Muslim rhetoric to attract voters. His speech has set the tone of electioneering 18 months ahead of polling day.

This means that, with the introduction of the legislative bill in December, the mainstream political conversation will centre on the role of Muslims in France, which will automatically expose them to the much stricter scrutiny of their educational and cultural institutions, and their places of worship.

At a broader level, President Macron’s views reflect the West’s struggle to understand the nature of its relationship with Muslims, particularly after 9/11. There is no dearth of literature that discusses Muslims’ perceived inability to integrate with Western societies; and in doing so, they do not hesitate from using terrorist and culturalist frames to suggest incompatibility of Muslims with the core values of their adopted societies.

The Western media has emerged as a key player in framing the perceptions of the host communities and articulating the implicit as well as explicit contradictions by conveniently settling on the use of a religious label when it comes to describing Muslims.

This is evidenced by the rise of a neo-Oriental outlook to frame issues involving Muslims. Neo-Orientalists have been at pains to propagate what they describe as Muslims’ inability to accept modernity and embrace the foundational values of democracy, inclusiveness, pluralism, and gender equality citing their religious teachings to be a major hurdle in the transformation.

While some of Muslim men and women have invoked the name of the religion and been involved in terrorist incidents, painting the whole community with the same brush by the Western political elite has been unprecedented.

When top politicians carelessly indulge in rhetoric against a religious community without weighing the pros and cons of their words, the way Macron has done, it essentially legitimises divisive rhetoric and commentary.

As has been witnessed in such cases, media readily picks up such themes and echoes them without subjecting the utterances to critical discourse analysis. This fosters the process of ‘othering’ those who have a different religious, social, and racial identity.

The treatment that the media has meted out to Muslim asylum seekers and immigrants is a case in point. Media, public opinion, and political discourses have an interactive relationship and feed off each other by setting an agenda, particularly in the lead-up to elections.

President Macron’s speech elicited a critical response. Turkish President Erdogan criticized his French counterpart by stating that his plan was an “open provocation beyond disrespect.” In a televised address, he asked, “Who are you to talk about the structuring of Islam.”

The scholars of Al-Azhar University, one of the oldest seats of learning in the Islamic world, were quick to denounce his remarks as “racist” and “hate speech”. Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy stated, “Such racist statements will inflame the feelings of two billion Muslim followers” and block the path to constructive engagement. The university’s grand Imam Ahmed al-Tayeb also expressed his “anger” in a tweet at the use of the term “Islamist terrorism” and warned against its use by others. Social media also heated up following Macron’s speech.

Given the precarious nature of interfaith relations, the contents of the speech are likely to inject further volatility. World leaders need to display an empathic approach, send out messages of inclusion and hope, and create opportunities for productive engagement between religions and nations.

Given the lethal challenges, there is no time for misjudgment and casual remarks.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @Amanat222