Amid the brutality of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s attacks on France, which include claims that French President Emmanuel Macron needs “mental treatment” and calls for a boycott of French products, there’s been a temptation in Europe among some intellectuals, journalists and politicians to let France lead the fight for freedom of expression and against obscurantism on its own.
While Portuguese, Italian, Dutch and German officials have expressed their unwavering support for France and for freedom of speech, as well as the French government’s attempts to stymie the rise of radical Islamism, Erdogan’s insults were met with silence in London and other European capitals.
Equally worrying, many journalists and intellectuals have spent the last few days focusing on France’s alleged Islamophobia as the driving force of so-called “Islamic separatism” within France when they are not discrediting Macron’s concerns over this very real phenomenon. Macron’s worries are not just the concern of French politicians, but also by Hassen Chalghoumi, the Imam of Drancy, and many other prominent imams in the country.
And yet, British scholar H.A. Hellyer made the case in Foreign Policy that Macron was not worried about radical Islam, but was only worried about Marine Le Pen in a cynical electoral move. The Washington Post lambasted France for wanting to ‘reform Islam’ instead of “fighting systemic racism.” Mehreen Khan from the Financial Times has been tweeting repeatedly about Macron’s “anti-Muslim racism” for weeks.
Europeans should make sure they do not become complicit in the idea that France is at war with its Muslim population or let the ludicrous claims made by a chorus of unsavory geopolitical actors pushing this separatist agenda go unchallenged
Furthermore, this dystopian narrative of a racist French society beyond repair does not hold up to scrutiny. According to the Pew Research Center, some 85% of French citizens said they would be willing to accept Muslims as neighbors, which puts France above the European average and ahead of the UK and Germany.
Even laicité, France’s form of secularism which is often accused of providing an intellectual justification for Islamophobia, enjoys wide support among French Muslims. In the words of Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, the calls to boycott French products are made by those “who have always used Islam for political ends.”
He has rightly called for Muslims to be vigilant “in the face of this false propaganda aimed at discrediting our country, France.” Hafiz’s messages are unlikely to get picked up by France’s critics, who are too consumed by the idea that France is racist and would rather listen to radicals who will tell them what they want to hear.
Not only are these attacks baseless, but they are also profoundly poisonous for French society. Days after Samuel Paty was beheaded by a young Moscow-born Chechen refugee for having shown cartoons of Mohammad during a class on free speech, Al-Jazeera held a debate titled “Is France’s at war with its Muslims?”
Islamist agitators of all stripes have long been pushing the idea that France was on the verge of a “Muslim genocide.” This dystopian rhetoric only encourages radicalization and justifies “preemptive” attacks. By lending credence to these theories, we provide fodder to the Islamist separatists and their narrative.
Moreover, Europeans who think that France had it coming and argue they should stay out of this are terribly myopic. If we allow Islamists to get away with imposing alien blasphemy laws on a modern, European nation, they will not stop here. We may think we could get away with sacrificing freedom of speech and the press, but they will feed off our weaknesses and push for ever-increasingly stringent demands. What if tomorrow mobs boycotted a European country over its teaching of history or biology? Or over a law that allowed companies not to hire employees that refused to shake hands with their female colleagues? What other values will we be ready to sacrifice? Will we also have to sacrifice gender equality to keep religious peace with Muslim employees?
One should also add that Erdogan’s attacks did not simply single out France. In that same speech, he attacked German Chancellor Angela Merkel, claiming she ordered a “police attack” on a mosque (a defamatory falsehood). He added that “in some European countries, hostility toward Islam and Muslims has become a policy encouraged and supported at the level of the head of state” and accused these heads of state of being “the real fascists” and “links in the chain of Nazism.”
We do not have to like Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons – many of Charlie’s cartoons are unfunny and tasteless – but we do, however, have to defend our freedom of expression and fight against Erdogan and his Islamist allies’ attempts to create de facto international Muslim blasphemy laws. If Europeans cannot close ranks with France, only days after a particularly brutal terrorist attack over freedom of speech – one of the Western world’s foundational values – when it is attacked by a caricatural autocrat, then when will they?
Over the years much has been made about the lack of a European demos, a European people. Differences of language, culture and history make the creation of that European identity nearly impossible, and no “Hamiltonian moment” could realistically bridge that gap.
However, if there is one area where Europeans have a shared legacy it is in the foundational principle of common liberal values. Influenced by the rich works of Ancient Greece and of the Catholic Church, inspired by the French revolutionaries who declared the Rights of Man, scarred by the great totalitarianism of the 20th century, Europeans have come around to enshrine the importance of liberty.
If Europeans cannot even defend that common legacy that unites us all, that most basic common denominator, do we have any right to expect a European demos to emerge?