Deradicalisation, Islamaphobia and France

“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

Memoirs of a Scottish Prisoner in WW1: Part 1

In this special two-part post we would like to share the written memoirs of Corporal Gordon R. Johnston of the Royal Air Force from Tillicoultry. These letters were originally addressed to his parents who were concerned for his well being on his return home. Passed down in his family, some of which would emigrate to Australia, these letters have found their way back to Scotland to his remaining family in Kilwinning. Shared here on the site not only as a testament to the resiliency of people when faced with horrible circumstances, but as a candid reminder of the brutality of war and the unnecessary suffering it brings.

Dear Parents,

I promised to give you a short sketch of my life in Germany, so I will now try and fulfil my promise. I don’t like looking back on those days, but, here goes.

I left the aerodrome (somewhere in France) on a dual controlled machine with Lt. Jowett as Pilot, with the intention of taking photographs over the German lines. While flying at 6,000 feet between Bapaume and Cambrai, I sighted two “Fockers” making towards us. Being much faster machines than ours, they were soon within firing distance. I opened fire simultaneously with the enemy, and had the satisfaction of seeing one of them catch fire and dash to the ground. The other machine swooped down on us and Lt. Jowett was hit in the head, killing him instantly.

My machine started banking over to the right, so I left off firing to try and bring it under control again, but I was not long in finding out that the rudder controls had been shot away, leaving the machine practically useless. We came down from 6,000 ft. in five or six big spirals. When we hit the ground I was thrown out of the machine and landed about 20 yards away. When I recovered my senses, there were about 200 Germans surrounding me; I felt myself all over and was relieved to see that nothing was broken. Except for extensive bruising, I was alright. I went over to the wreckage and assisted the Germans in getting my officer out; shortly afterwards, a red cross car came along and took Lt. Jowett away – the doctor confirming that he was dead.

I was searched, then taken to a dugout and interviewed by a German officer who tried to get all sorts of information out of me. Then I was taken to a small place outside Cambrai where I slept for the night on some straw in a German guard room. The following morning I was taken by train to St. Quentin where I was put in a civil prison. I stayed there for four days; I was in a small stone cell; not allowed to go outside; I thought I would go mad. I put in a complaint to the officer in charge and was allowed out into the prison yard for 2 hours on the 4th day of my imprisonment.

The food here was very good but, as i found out later, half of it was subscribed by the French civil population of the town for P.O.Ws. Up to then I had had no ill-treatment from the Germans; but it was while I was being marched to the station at about 9pm that I saw the first brutality. The group of about 300 prisoners that I was in was made up of all nationalities so, of course, we drew some attention. There was a civilian curfew of 8pm – with blinds drawn across the windows, etc. Well, one lady had pulled the curtains aside to have a look at us, and a big Prussian – one of our guards – rushed up with fixed bayonet and rammed it through the window into the woman’s breast.

All this time, the Germans had taken me for an officer as I still had on my leather flying coat and, so when we got in the train, I was put with some British and French Officers who treated me just like and equal although they knew I was only a Corporal. In the early morning we travelled through the once lovely Louvain district, but which is now severely knocked about. We crossed the Rhine at Cologne and then through the large manufacturing district of Germany (Dusseldorf etc.) We arrived in Gutterslow which is an Officers’ camp at 8pm by which time I was completely fed up, having been on the train for two days and now feeling the full effects of my fall from the machine. So I was glad to stretch myself properly and try to work off the stiffness in my body. At the camp I had a cold bath which was very acceptable.

After three days I was sent to Dulmen which is a camp for N.C.Os and men, a fairly large camp which, seen from a distance, looks like a wooden city. I was very lucky landing in Dulmen, one of the best camps in Germany. Three chaps who had been captured at Mons in 1914 asked me to “muck in” with them until my own packets came through from England; so they kept me from starvation by sharing their home parcels. All the boys were very nice and, of course, I had to give them the news about how the Somme Offensive was going on, and how “Blighty” looked. etc. Being the only ‘flying man’ in camp, I was the authority on aeronautical subjects.

N.C.Os in Germany are not supposed to work, according to an agreement between the two Governments, and in this camp we did nothing but, as I will tell you later, everywhere in Germany is not the same. Morning roll-call is at 7am and working parties of Privates start work at 7.30am. Dinner from 12.00 to 1.00pm and Tea at 5.00pm when they finish work for the day, then another roll-call at 6.00pm. Lights out at 9.00pm winter and 10.00pm summer. Of course, this is only camp routine; where men are working on farms, coal-mines, salt-mines, munitions factories, etc., it is usually work from daylight until dark. Sunday is usually a day off in camp, when there is a church service.

Then we had a theatre run by the prisoners, where I saw some very good turns. We had a good hall which was built by the Y.M.C.A but the only drawback was that, if there was any trouble in camp, the Commandant usually stopped the gaff for a month or so. He gave out the order one night that the theatre would be stopped if any more prisoners escaped. The following morning three chaps escaped so, when he realised that this method was no good, he had to give up strafing us by this method. (Gott strafe England = “may God punish England”)

I had a try for the frontier from here; and was away for three days before being caught. It is only a distance of about 50 kilometres but the frontier is so well guarded at this point, that you have to be very lucky to get across. It will be much easier now than in 1916, as every available man is now on the firing line, and only wounded men are doing frontier patrol now. There was snow on the ground when I tried, so I can assure you that it was not a picnic.

If you remember we had very cold weather at the beginning of 1917; well, during the first four months of the year there were about 2,000 Russians died of starvation in Dulmen. From our compound we could look into the mortuary, and there were naked bodies – piled one on top of the other, just like frozen sheep. During the very cold snap we had, I have seen at least 20 Russians carried across in one day. I once saw a Russian burial party taking some coffins to the cemetery. While passing a cart laden with turnips, one of the turnips fell from the cart – without more ado the Russians dropped the coffins and made a dash for the turnip, and then ensued a free fight.

It was also a common occurrence to see them diving into swill-tubs and eating anything from fish heads to potato peelings and, I have been told, in 1914 – before the packets started coming – the British soldiers were in little better state. Nowadays, the Germans make the excuse that they do not have the food to give us but, whether they had it or not, the prisoners would not have it – because in 1914, before the blockade took effect, the prisoners were starving just the same.

Part 2 will be with you this coming Wednesday, in which Corporal Johnston further explains the conditions and how life was in the other camps he was moved to. Stay tuned!