Throughout the month of October, French President Emmanuel Macron projected himself into the global news cycle as the leader of a new crusade launched ostensibly to bring Islam into conformity with French Enlightenment ideals. In reality, his campaign is aimed at bolstering his chances of winning a second term in the 2022 presidential election.
Is Peace Religious or Secular?
The Muslim world’s reaction to Macron’s crusade has been one of stunned bewilderment. In an interview with Al Jazeera on Saturday, the president offered no apologies and instead sought to explain his motives: “I understand the sentiments being expressed and I respect them. But you must understand my role right now, it’s to do two things: to promote calm and also to protect these rights.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Engage in any action — however ill-conceived, unjust or destructive — that affords peace of mind to a politician worried about his diminishing chances of winning the next election.
Can President Macron be serious when he says that his actions and discourse have served to promote calm? Has the world or France itself become calmer since his speech at the beginning of October, when he declared that Islam was in crisis globally? Can he be unaware that when a Western leader announces what Al Jazeera describes as “his plan ‘to reform Islam’ in order to make it more compatible with his country’s republican values,” some may interpret that as a sign of aggression against their culture by a European who appears to have retained a neocolonial mindset?
Does Macron believe that by providing a supplementary motive to unhinged individuals driven by fanaticism and ready to engage in murderous violence against his own people he is promoting calm and protecting rights? President Donald Trump might claim the same thing when he encourages white supremacists and the police to attack protesters in the name of “retribution.” The only logical perspective that could lead to calm in the struggle he describes would be total victory. In other words, crushing and humiliating the other side. But even that would be a failed plan. Humiliation brings short-term peace but sets the stage for major revolt as soon as the winner’s grip begins to loosen.
Macron proudly announces: “I will always defend in my country the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw.” The only threat to that freedom can come from institutions with the power to repress it, not from individuals who react irrationally to what some people write, think and draw. Macron’s language is fundamentally dishonest. The controversy that has been going on for over a decade is not about the right to speak, think and draw. It concerns the possible social consequences of publishing, disseminating and amplifying messages that some may interpret as an expression of hateful and discriminatory intimidation.
Jules Ferry, the virulently anticlerical father of laïcité, created France’s modern public education system. As minister of education in 1883, he instructed teachers to speak “with the greatest reserve, whenever you risk even brushing against a religious sentiment of which you are not the judge.” He insisted that if “a single honest man may take offense at what you are going to say … abstain from saying it.” Macron has a different reading of laïcité. In fact, the controversy turns around a bigger problem at the core of today’s civilization: the role of the media. In its quest to increase its audience, the media routinely amplifies every difference of opinion or quarrel that it presents as a cause to be defended, on one side or the other. In such circumstances, every word and gesture may be perceived as a provocation of the other side.
By way of contrast, in a society that encourages healthy dialogue and debate, friction and tension will inevitably exist, but they contribute to building a culture of tolerance and open exchange. Social dialogue can have its ugly moments, as parties directly challenge each other. But respectful dialogue creates networks of understanding rather than pockets of conflict. As soon as debates are turned into defending “a cause,” dialogue disappears.
Causes kill debate by invoking a higher principle that often exists only in the purveyor’s mind. Emmanuel Macron’s formulation of the idea of freedom is far more absolute than its actual practice in France, where restrictions on freedom of speech, including libel and hate speech, incitement to violence and insulting public servants, exist and are enforced. Jules Ferry would have expected his teachers to reflect on whether the Charlie Hebdo cartoons fell into any of those categories.
French political culture has traditionally reserved a special status for satire. Its preservation ensures that the people may criticize the government and institutions of authority. The government is free to counter with its own arguments but runs the risk of being held to account if it goes too far in restricting citizens’ rights. The cartoons in question had nothing to do with the questioning of national authorities. They were much closer to nationalistic propaganda.
The controversy over the cartoons appears to cross an invisible borderline between satire and gratuitous and xenophobic insult. There is no readily identifiable borderline but a culture that pretends to be as rational as France’s vaunted Enlightenment culture claims to be should acknowledge the reality of the borderline. Even in his attempt at an apology in the Al Jazeera interview, Macron clearly refuses to do so.
It is a well-known fact that politicians distort everything to attain their ends. It is part of their job profile. Macron distorts even the idea of distorting. He complains about “distortions” that led people “to believe that the caricatures were a creation of the French state.” That is clearly a distortion on his part. No serious voice has made that claim. He then generously notes that “in the world there are people who distort Islam and in the name of this religion that they claim to defend, they kill, they slaughter.” That may be true, but the effect of his speeches has been to distort the nature what he calls the “global crisis” of Islam.
Al Jazeera’s senior political analyst, Marwan Bishara, sagely and humbly expresses the wish that Macron “should begin to improve the atmosphere between France, Europe, and the Muslim world.” Bishara nevertheless implies that is unlikely. On this occasion, he doesn’t mention the reason why, which he is well aware of. There will be a new presidential election in 18 months.
Samuel Paty, the assassinated teacher at the heart of all this, undoubtedly believed that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, originally published in 2015, belonged to history and could be treated as artifacts of the past when he presented them in a civics class. After all, political cartoons published in newspapers are essentially ephemera. They quickly disappear from everyone’s cultural memory. The Greeks understand that since their word for newspaper is εφημερίδα — ephemerida.
If Paty believed that the cartoons belonged only to the past, he was wrong. Because of the media’s and politicians’ obsession with causes and the fact that the Charlie Hebdo murder trial was currently underway, the issues around the cartoons were very much alive.
In the late 20th century, Ireland endured a prolonged conflict between Protestants and Catholics marked by terrorism. The IRA was better organized and better equipped than any of today’s loose Muslim extremist networks. We might wonder today whether it would have made any sense for Protestant cartoonists to publish cartoons of the pope as a terrorist? (They obviously could not have taken Jesus as their target because both of the warring religions were Christian).
The answer is simple. It didn’t happen. Everyone understood the conflict had nothing to do with religion and everything to do with communities and conflicting loyalties. This is perfectly illustrated in a joke from that time: It’s night and a man is walking on the streets of Belfast. Suddenly a shadowy figure leaps out and thrusts him against a wall in a dark alley. He feels a gun pressed up against his skull. A voice shouts, “What religion are you?” He thinks: “If I say Catholic and he’s Protestant, he’ll kill me. If I say Protestant and he’s Catholic, I’m dead.” Thinking quickly, he said, “I’m Jewish.” He then heard the voice blurt out, “I must be the luckiest Palestinian in Ulster.”
Now that is meaningful and effective satire. Though troubling, it can elicit a laugh from people of any religion.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.