–Kakali Das |
According to a report by Al Jazeera, “Tens and thousands of Muslims – from Pakistan, Bangladesh to the Palestinian territories – poured out of prayers to join anti-France protests on Friday, as the French President’s promise to protect the right to caricature the Prophet Mohammad continues to roil the Islamic world.” Apparently, there were about 40 thousand people in Bangladesh that marched in the capital of Dhaka, there have been calls to apologise, calls by the Heads of State to boycott French products and it has had the public on edge. The new law outlined by the President of France, Emmanuel Macron against religious ‘separatism’ reads, “The measures include placing Mosques in France under greater control and requiring that Imams are trained and certified by France. The aim would be to “liberate French Islam from foreign influences” and particularly funding. Islamic organisations that receive funding from the French State will have to sign a ‘secular charter’” – The Guardian. “Our challenge is to fight against those who go off the rails in the name of religion… while protecting those who believe in Islam and are full citizens of the republic,” Macron said.
Religious extremism has been transparent in the dynamics of the world history since ages. In 2012, when the film came out which depicted the prophet in court, there were protests in which the US Ambassador to Libya was killed. On 7th January 2015, when Charlie Hebdo in France brought out a cartoon of Prophet Muhammad with a tear in his eye and holding a ‘Je suis Charlie’ sign (‘I am Charlie’), he had suffered a terrorist attack in which 12 of his staff members were killed including the editor. Where religious feelings are upset, they are upset with different religions in different parts of the world and in different times. This has become an excuse or a trigger for terror groups or for people who are criminal minded to carry out criminal activities. In 2020, we have witnessed Islamic countries officially making statements about France which perhaps haven’t quite witnessed in the past, since there had been movements in the world towards trying to find consensus and amend problems in the previous times. In fact, the last time when we had witnessed a large scale boycott of French goods was perhaps in 2003 when the American population was incensed because France refused to participate in the war against Iraq. Americans, then, renamed French Fries as ‘Freedom Fries’, but it wasn’t witnessed as an official state policy. Here, we have the Turkish President making an official state policy where he is of the view that the French President needs mental treatment. Some of it may be a reaction to the French President’s comments about the need for reform in the religions aspects and radicalism around the world.
France and Turkey have been at loggerheads on a range of issues, particularly over Turkey’s original hopes that it could join the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), including the 2015 cartoon issue. There is a push in Turkey for the leadership of the Islamic World. Turkey’s positioning itself versus countries like Southey Arabia, UAE – the Gulf Countries that have traditionally held the leadership of the Islamic world and Turkey in consonance with countries like Pakistan, Iran, Malaysia at times had in fact tried to position itself as a leader of the Islamic world.
France practises and interpret secularism, perhaps, differently from other countries. The average European countries have a Muslim population of less than 5%, France’s Muslim population is closer to 9%. And the law that Emmanuel Macron outlined in October stated that the government plans to regulate the practice of Islam in France. So this would actually form the background of everything we have seen play out over the last two weeks. France has a higher percentage of Muslims and many of those are immigrants from countries where France had been a colonial power and hence, shares an old relationship or power structure inside. France’s secularism policy, which is called as the policy of Laïcité or ‘of the people’ is more than two centuries old now in terms of France’s decision to become a secular republic. France practises it very differently from other pluralistic countries like India where there is a complete mixing of cultures, religions and where there aren’t really strong frameworks when it comes to expression of religion. United Kingdom followed the policy of multi-culturalism for a long time which often meant that if a religion was in majority in a particular area, they had to right to choose even over what the State’s policy was. France has been very specific, external symbols of religion have been absent. In fact, surprisingly Laïcité was brought in to try and divide the Catholic Church from the State; even to wear a Cross in a French public school isn’t allowed. A few years ago there was a huge controversy about the fact that India requested the French President to allow Sikhs to wear Turbans in public institutions since they weren’t allowed earlier. There have been many debates in France about the use of the head scarfs like – if the veil should be allowed and what kind of veil it should be, as French women in the countryside, including Catholic nuns do cover their heads, and how much of the face should be visible – these are the very critical areas that gets discussed in France. So, these have built the bedrock of France’s secularism policy which is why they trap religion in a personal box to defend the freedom of speech and even in President Macron’s speech we find blasphemy being defended. To other countries it may seem like a controversial position but to France this is their policy – their right to defend is a part of freedom of speech.
France has seen a larger number of what they call as ‘lone wolf attacks’. The idea that people who are radicalised, incensed and are attacking innocent civilians because of the sense of outrage is being seen more in France than other countries of Europe. If this is the new form of terrorism, then how will countries protect their citizens from these kinds of terror? Are we going to have to police individual citizens with kitchen knives from now onwards? These terror attacks will be fiendishly difficult to prevent and this we saw happen a couple of years ago in France on Bastille Day when one individual drove a truck through a crowd. Terrorism, being the attack on civilians intended to engender fear or create larger impact has rapidly increased in France and so the country has to find new ways to grapple with it.