“I hope the time is not far off when I shall be able to unite all the wise and educated men of all the countries and establish a uniform regime based on the principles of the Quran which alone are true and which alone can lead men to happiness.”
― Napoléon Bonaparte
France’s attitude to Islam has been complex and mixed for almost as long as it has existed. The French national myth began when Charles the Hammer smashed the Muslims at the battle of Tours in southern France, and marked the end of Islamic expansion in Western Europe. From here the French would go on to form a mighty kingdom that would dominate their corner of Europe, and even provide the lion’s share of Crusaders to retake the holy land. This is not to say that the French relationship with Muslims would remain solely hostile.
Despite the prestige of being Christianity’s defender in its time of need, France would eventually become the only major Catholic ally of the Ottoman Empire, which had proclaimed itself the Islamic Caliphate; a political arrangement that tarnished the French image as arch defender of the Catholic faith, that at the same time put increasing pressure on the nation’s Austrian rivals. France eventually even charmed and pressured the Sultan in Istanbul to elect France as the protector of all Christians within the Ottoman borders.
France would also play an indirect role in the decline of the Islamic world. Before the French Revolution, if you were Christian, Hindu, Jewish, or Muslim, the only place you could live in relative peace with people of other faiths was under Islamic rule. The Islamic world was seen as a bastion of tolerance, but that all ended when France was consumed in revolutionary fervour, and where once there had been an absolute monarchy that ruled through divine right, there was now a republic, and that republic offered something better than the tolerance you could find in the Islamic world, it offered equality. Suddenly being safe as a second class citizen wasn’t the best offer in town, you could be a French Protestant or Jewish French and have the same rights as your Catholic co-patriots. It’s not a coincidence that once France embraced egalitarianism that the Islamic courts and palaces started to empty of their intelligentsia. Why be a well treated servant of the Sultan, when you could be free and equal in France?
To say the French relationship with Islam had been complex is an understatement but recent developments don’t show any sign of this relationship become any more simple, or even any less conflicting.
Macron, the president of the Jupiterian French Republic recently made statements describing Islam as a religion needing reform while promising to further strengthen the separation of church and state in the country, and these comments paint the backdrop for the tragic beheading of a teacher earlier this month and another mass stabbing in Nice this week. The teacher of a freedom of expression class was targeted by Islamists for showing depictions of the Prophet Mohammed during lessons. These tragedies have again ignited the narrative that the West’s love of free speech exists in opposition to the values of Muslims and Islam as a whole.
Macron specifically called out the rise of separatism within French Muslim communities in his speech where he referred to the Islamic faith as “in crisis”. This came about as he introduced new legislation to reinforce the separation of church and state, something historically treated very seriously in France, to the point where supermarkets have been closed in the past for refusing to stock pork or wine. This same speech was criticised by many, including Portuguese political scientist Bruno Maçães for breaking from the norm in the West when discussing Islam by not differentiating between Islam- the faith practiced by nearly a third of the world’s population- and Islamists, a minority that carry out violent actions. While others have drawn attention to the fact that during a time of increasing strife in France- with the ongoing Covid Pandemic and Yellow Vest movement- it was strange that the President choose now to call out his Muslim citizenry in such an inflammatory fashion. This may hint at a worrying trend in France where Macron, who in 2017 easily beat out the far right candidate Le Pen, might not stand as firm come next time, considering the course his presidency has taken, and might instead be attempting to beat the Rassemblement National at their own game.
While this might prove politically expedient for Macron, this manoeuvring has allowed Turkish President Erdoğan to yet again position himself as both President of the secular Turkish Republic and Ghazi defender of the Islamic faith. While not quite unravelling the Black Standard and going to war (not just yet anyway) This is a position the Turkish President has found himself quite happy to fill whenever Muslims communities suffer, whether in China, Myanmar, Palestine or New Zealand, Recep is happy to talk about human right violations. If I was cynical, I would say that if Recep was genuinely worried about people suffering human right infringement or political attack, and his compassion came from a honest place, he wouldn’t have to look outside Turkey’s borders to find them. Instead, these incidents of human suffering are used by the Turkish President to leverage his position on the world stage, and as a way of legitimising himself to the religious right that form a key part of his voting bloc at home.
Now France has appeared in Erdoğan’s firing line. What initially started as a war of words, with the Turkish President saying that his French counter part needed a mental check, this has now resulted in diplomatic envoys being recalled, Recep calling on a boycott of French products and Macron, in turn, calling on his allies in the EU to essentially back him up. Both Presidents seem happy to stroke their egos in public and stoke tensions if it means political gains at home but this vain posturing does take place on a dangerous foundation, namely a reckless placing of “Western Civilisation” against “The Islamic World”.
Stepping into this tense arena of religious struggle and clashing civilisations was Mahathir Mohamad, former PM of Malaysia, who added to the conversation by launching into a strange tirade, saying if Muslims believed in the concept of an eye for an eye Muslims would have the right to kill millions of French, before making another strange rant about western decadence being caused by bikinis. Twitter had the good sense to delete the former PMs strange posts but I think it stands as a good example of how world leaders are using these rising tensions as an opportunity to revel in their pseudo-intellectual idiocy and as a reminder that even if someone was formerly a head of state, that doesn’t mean their opinions aren’t to be dismissed.
Returning to France, and Macron’s comments we have to examine the recent history of Muslims in France, and the fact that the largest minority that makes up its Muslim population is Algerian. Algeria has had a special place in the French colonial empire in that it was the only part of the empire outside of Europe that wasn’t governed as a colony, but instead as an integral part of France. This didn’t mean that Algerians were treated any better than other parts of the empire, instead that Paris took a far more direct role in exploiting, and controlling the region. This didn’t foster a love of France in the colonised peoples, and even furthered an ideological divide. An interesting example of this is when Stalin died in 1953, the French colonists celebrated, partying and drinking in the streets, the Algerians instead took to mourning.
Naturally a people so abused and oppressed by their colonisers would struggle for national independence, both in Algeria itself and France. In one particularly tragic clash in 1961 French police murdered 400 peaceful protesters in Paris, and threw the bodies into the Seine river.
As with any war, symbols were as important as bullets and in a strange twist of fate football took a centre stage in this national struggle in 1958. Four French Algerians were shortlisted to play in the French national team in the World Cup in Sweden. Although flattered, these players had other ideas; instead of representing France, they decided to flee illegally and represent the nation of Algeria. In a plot straight out of a Hollywood film, these players left the country via Switzerland and assembled at the headquarters of the FLN, an organisation and army fighting for independence. This wasn’t a simple defection or emigration, these men were giving up a lot, many had got very rich from playing football in France and some were still to complete their mandatory military service, on top of charges of desertion, accusations of radicalism also followed.
This is but one example of the multifaceted link between Islam and the French empire, as well as its link to liberatory nationalism that Paris saw as a threat; across the empire, other Muslim majority nations felt the boot of French imperialism on their necks. From Mali, to the tragic assassination of Thomas Sankara in Burkina Faso, to policies of neo-colonialism in Western Africa, forcing states to keep their national reserves in Paris, and more recently in Lebanon where France is using the tragedy of the Beirut explosion and its economic devastation to re-exert French influence in the region.
These nations are diverse, and their experiences under French rule and with Islam are unique to each people; the uniting experience is not that France likes to rule over Muslims, instead that it will attempt to maintain its power on the world stage at any cost, and part of that arsenal is the use of Radical Islam as an enemy that can be linked to anticolonial movements. Indeed, even calling Lebanon or Burkina Faso Muslim majority nations erases a large, non Muslim part of the national identity of these states. France doesn’t want to rule over Muslims, it wants to rule over people.
At home however, this relationship to Islam is a lot more direct and a lot more blunt. France has introduced a deradicalisation program that, by its own admission, targets those in prison for crimes that are not linked to radicalism, and instead selects people that the state views as vulnerable to radicalism. These people are taken away from the general population and instead put into a deradicalisation program; similar attempts in the past ended in failure and instead were accused of only working to make contractors rich off of French taxes.
Deradicalisation is not a French “War on Islam”. Instead, it’s a tool the French capitalist and political classes use to impose their economic weight abroad and control populations at home. Its not a coincidence that its anti-Islamist policies gives France an excuse to deploy its soldiers all over the world, from the Middle East to Africa, and Islamophobia at home gives the French state an excuse to monitor and oppress a population that it ultimately views as a possible threat.
While it is true there are radicals in the Muslim community that use violence to achieve their evil political goals, this fringe minority does not give the French state apparatus an excuse to paint a population of nearly 2 billion with the same brush, and attempts to do so should rightly be opposed. Even a broken clock is right twice a day- this doesn’t mean Macron has Muslim’s best interests at heart, and it does not mean we can pretend any reformist movement in Islam will come from people seeking to benefit France, and solely France.
“Napoleon would lie in bed reading and dictating to Bourrienne. His principal reading was from the Quran. Like Alexander the Great before him, he intended to absorb the religion of the people over whom he would rule. He insisted that, if necessary, he himself was willing to become a Muslim—an intention that, at least initially, he would show every sign of wishing to fulfil. However, it should also be noted that in Napoleon’s shipboard library the Quran was shelved under “Politics.” At the same time, he also busied himself with dictating his “proclamation” to the Egyptian people.”
― Paul Strathern