Is radical Islam up against western secularism? A somewhat longish context may be necessary. It would seem so from the fast-paced developments following the cold-blooded beheading of a Paris school teacher on October 16 by a Chechen refugee, Abdullakh Anzorov. The killer, who within minutes of the beheading of Samuel Paty on a public street was shot dead by the police, had apparently felt enraged at the schoolteacher showing his pupils controversial cartoons of Prophet Mohammad to explain the constitutional right to freedom of speech.
The cartoons, first published by the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, were again in the news at the start of the trial of the accused in the 2015 massacre of 17 people by Islamist extremists. The jihadis were upset with the depiction of Prophet Mohammad in the cartoons. Five years later, undeterred by the threat of the Islamist militants, the magazine republished the cartoons on the resumption of the trial last month. Combing operations launched against Islamist militants following the Charlie Hebdo massacre, in turn, had triggered a series of jihadi attacks which has caused the death of over 250 innocent people in the last five years. In short, the French are beset by the very serious threat of Islamist extremism.
Since the beheading of the schoolteacher, in a show of solidarity, the French have held large demonstrations in major cities, reiterating faith in secularism. A central tenet of secularism bars any curb on the freedom of expression for the sake of respecting a particular community’s feelings. The French President Emmanuel Macron himself has most unflinchingly supported the right of the magazine to publish the cartoons, without in any way suggesting an approval of their intent and message. It was the constitutional right of every French citizen to express themselves freely, within the boundaries of the prescribed laws on libel and defamation. In public remarks, he has said Islam as a religion was 'in crisis’ and that he was determined to tackle radical Islam.
Arrests of the alleged accomplices of the killer of the Paris teacher have followed while a mosque in Paris was shut down for six months for allegedly instigating the killer to take revenge against the 'blasphemous teacher.’ This, then, is the background which caused the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to try and burnish his new-found image as the foremost defender of Islam in the Muslim world. He attacked Macron frontally in a televised speech on Monday, calling upon Muslims to boycott French products. Pouring scorn on Macron, he said the French President 'needed a mental health check’. Fuelling anti-Macron feelings in the Islamic world, Erdogan claimed that the French had unleashed 'a lynch campaign similar to that against Jews in Europe before World War II’.
Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan jumped into the fray in support of Erdogan, accusing Macron of 'attacking Islam'. Leaders of other Islamic nations did not publicly join the Turkish leader, but their citizens boycotted French goods. (How brave a defender of Islam Erdogan is can be gathered from his radio silence on the continuing persecution and forcible conversions of Uighur Muslims.)
Significantly, Erdogan and Macron support rival parties in the on-going conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia and among various factions in Lebanon. But Macron will draw comfort from the fact that in his public commitment to defend secularism against radical Islam, he not only has the support of a vast majority of the French people but following Erdogan’s crude attack, European leaders in unison have openly come out in support, calling the remarks unacceptable and defamatory.
That the Chechen attacker was granted asylum by France is lost on Erdogan and his ilk. The western world is supposed to protect and shelter the refugees from the ongoing conflicts in the Islamic world. It may be mentioned here that neither Russia nor China is known to have absorbed a single 'refugee’ from these internecine conflicts between various factions of Islam, be it in Syria or Yemen or other Islamic nations.
And the more important point is that once they get asylum, it is the host nation which is expected to change its way of life and embrace the world view of the migrants. The wide chasm between French secularism and Islamic radicalism may reflect a wider civilisational conflict. The wheel of enlightenment and progress has been generally slow moving in the Islamic world but in the case of jihadis, it seems to be definitely moving in the reverse direction. Macron could not have spoken more candidly.