Below Khadija Khan looks at how sections of the media misrepresent Macron’s attempt to deal with Islamism as an attack on all Muslims, and how this marginalised more liberal Muslim voices.
Islamism is an extreme political version of Islam that seeks to impose a radical religious interpretation onto the wider society and endorses violence against innocent people for political gains. Since the brutal beheading of French history teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed for illustrating a lesson on free speech with a caricature of the Prophet Muhammad, the baleful reality of radical Islamism has resurfaced in France. The influence of Islamist ideology is no longer limited to terrorism in Western societies.
Parallel societal norms originating in the regressive Salafis outlook have been established within certain sections of Muslim communities, leading to radical interpretations of their religious beliefs. In the wake of recent terror attacks, French President Emmanuel Macron has taken a decisive stance on tackling the threat of Islamism upfront. This is long overdue.
Deliberately or unwittingly, some who think of themselves as politically progressive people, often from the broad left of politics, play into the hands of Islamists, when they endorse the concept of Islamaphobia as being a step too far breaching religious sensitivities of a minority group vulnerable to the racism that is said to sit at the heart of all British society. The ensuing confusion provides Islamists cover to foster hatred and prejudice in society and justify their nefarious ends. Some politicians, national and local, have to perform ethical distortions as freedoms celebrated for non-Muslim women are often seen as expendable when applied to Muslim women if they threaten to offend conservative sensibilities of extremely culturally conservative elders who they have cultivated for their own political ends.
Some mainstream western media outlets have left no stone unturned to keep the water murky following Macron’s public intention to deal with Islamism by, among other things, strengthening Republican values (which is not to say Macron is consistent in his application of liberal values). In presenting one-sided, highly partisan accounts about the French handling of Islamists in their midst, sections of the media have stirred up baseless fears have amongst Muslims by conflating legitimate criticism of radical Islamism with anti-Muslim bigotry. Such displaced rhetoric runs a risk of shutting down debate around Islamism altogether. In the absence of a counter narrative this could result in giving a free pass to extremist elements to flourish in western societies unchallenged.
France’s proposed bill seeking to curb Islamism mainly focuses on provisions related to online hate speech and transparent measures to scrutinize foreign funding of some mosques and imams. The French Council of the Muslim Faith raised these issues themselves in 2016. There is hysteria among media pundits over the alleged “ultimatum” for Muslim organisations to sign a charter of republican values, but this seems uncalled for. Macron is concerned to ensure that Muslim children, particularly girls, attend state school regularly, but accusations that the government are in conflict with French Muslims or planning to create a register to single out Muslim children are unsubstantiated.
French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly made it clear that the crackdown on radical Islamists and people suspected of affiliations with Islamist organizations is being conducted to tackle the threat of Islamism in French society. Nonetheless, despite all, the twisted narratives remain credible enough to be published in esteemed media organisations. Karen Attiah of the Washington Post has apologized for distorting the facts about Macron’s separatism bill and an article published in the Financial Times was taken down for misquoting the French president. There seems to have been a well-thought out effort to create the impression that French authorities are targeting Muslims and their faith.
On the other hand, French Muslims who resist religious intolerance and unequivocally condemn Islamism have hardly any representation in the mainstream media. These Muslims firmly believe in French secular values and condemn “those who would seek to plant the seeds of discord within the French national community.” But unfortunately, these progressive voices don’t make headlines and are left to face the wrath of Islamists alone.
Hassen Chalghoumi, president of the Imams of France conference, has rightly warned Muslims against the Islamist threat within their communities and has been forced to live in hiding in his own country France. Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Paris Mosque, has spoken against radical Islamists with laudable courage and clarity. In his recent interview with the Geneva tribune he stated:
“I say it clearly: if the President of the Republic begins a process of struggle against Islamist separatism, I am his partner. There is indeed in France a form of Islamist separatism, and if we do not tackle this problem head-on, it will get worse. Me, I defend a peaceful Islam, not a political Islam nor an Islam tending to question the society in which I live.”
These Muslim dissidents know hatred begets hatred. They know the danger Islamism poses to Muslim communities and the value of hard-earned freedoms in a democratic society. And yet extremists, justifying violent outrage in response to the publication of religious caricatures, are given more space in social discourse than these rational, progressive voices. Instead, regressive and manipulative narratives dominate the headlines. It is a sad state of affairs when such forceful Muslim voices, speaking in defence of French secular values and condemning radical Islamism, are underestimated and undervalued in the fight against extremism.
The excuse that their voices are supressed to protect the Muslim community is disingenuous – a reckless attempt to deflect from the real issues. Islamaphobia, like racism, is used to imply that the majority of people require careful handling lest any criticism of a minority group results in the unleashing of latent bigotry on the part of the majority. The argument is insulting to both the majority of Muslims and non-Muslims. It exposes that cries of “Islamophobia” aren’t meant to protect Muslims as people, but to shut down the discussion about how to tackle Islamism. Radical Islamists and their apologists block the spontaneity of progressive ideas and instead encourage religious fundamentalism within the community. The implications of this nonchalant attitude are graver than mere “errors,” made at the stroke of a pen.
The discussion about what constitutes anti-Muslim bigotry and how to curb the threat of Islamism needs more nuanced reflection, for which an honest and truthful representation of ground realities is essential. The response to extremism should be to reaffirm our support for those who resist it within and outside of the Muslim communities. One shouldn’t forget how theocratic societies violate human rights by using the pretext of insulting religious sentiments to suppress freedom of expression. Following in their footsteps would undo the prevailing secular democratic progress of the West.