The reproduction of Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) recently was no surprise. What was frustrating though was French President Emmanuel Macron’s open endorsement of them and his claim that “Islam is in crisis”. He has made orientalist, neo-colonial statements such as, “I want to build an Islam in France that is compatible with the Enlightenment.”
The first thought that came to my mind when I listened to him was “clash of civilisations”. A few months ago I had a discussion with a Muslim academic in the US who insisted that we should stop teaching Samuel Huntington’s controversial and reductionist theory to students. “Clash of civilisation,” she claimed, reinforces the rigid and mythical boundaries of “East vs. West”, “Muslim vs. Christian” and “Us vs. Them”. Her argument, in which I saw some value, was that migration and globalisation has blurred the boundaries between the “East and West” and that religion and culture cannot be related to a particular “civilisation” any longer. Islam is found in the “West”, and the “West” and its values can be found in those living in the “East”. Macron’s latest speech and support of blasphemy made me realise that maybe it is not so much about the “clash” but the “politicisation” of civilisations and their ideologies.
This is not the first time that blasphemous acts have targeted Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) in Europe and elsewhere. A decade ago a Danish newspaper published similar cartoons and outraged Muslims around the world. This is all about “freedom of expression”, we are told, but if it is apparent to any reasonable person that derogatory remarks or acts against Islam, the Qur’an or the Prophet will prompt a strong reaction from Muslims, why does the cycle keep repeating? Why do the advocates of free speech light the flame and then express surprise that a fire follows thereafter? Why do they feel the need to offend simply because they can? At this point it seems almost intentional. It has become a means to express dominance through which the “superiority” of the Western philosophy and beliefs is being asserted upon Muslims. And I say “Muslims” because it is we who have been singled out for “enlightenment” by Macron and those like him.
As a Western-educated academic from and working in the Middle East, I have for long been frustrated by the Eurocentric approaches of political and social theories. They are not only being taught in institutions globally, but also provide the framework for international politics which reinforces power hierarchies and justifies neo-colonialism.
The whole rhetoric of Charlie Hebdo, which was emphasised aggressively by Macron, was framed within the concept of “freedom of expression”. He claims that this is one of the main values of the French Republic. To be free in France, he said, means to have the “freedom to believe or not to believe. But this is inseparable from the freedom of expression.” This deification of “freedom of speech” is actually a politicised myth. If it is as logical and rational in France as Macron claims it to be, then why is denial of the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide banned in France? Or insulting the French flag and national anthem? Freedom of speech in France is not without ideological connotations.
To contextualise my position, Europe’s history of attacks on the Prophet and Islam predate the concept of free speech itself. It is rooted in the religious, ideological and political history of Medieval Europe and Christianity over a millennium; I do not have the space to explain the details here.
A turning point in modern European history, the so-called Enlightenment, not only established a Eurocentric approach to “modernity”, rationality and logic, but also further institutionalised the language of hatred against Islam. Enlightenment philosophers like Voltaire and Kant who are hailed as the founders of “human rights” used offensively vicious language to describe the Prophet. These celebrated intellectuals and their philosophies inform constitutions and political structures in the West and other parts of the world. Enlightenment philosophers established hierarchies in knowledge production. Kant, who glorified “moral philosophy” to which Macron referred in his speech, was also a racist. Hence, this philosophy of logic, reasoning and human rights is inherently flawed because it is “exclusive” to European experience. There is no “universal” here. We have to look at who established these “universal concepts”. Marx, Burke and Mill, for example, saw colonialism as modernising the “backward” and viewed the non-Western world as “barbaric and savage”, and yet their work is taught in academic institutions all over the world even as we also try — in theory at least — to build more “equal” and “tolerant” societies.
My point is that Macron and his ilk are a result of socialisation through structures within which the racist and orientalist ideologies produced by the “Enlightenment” were politicised and normalised. To find solutions to this hatred and marginalisation of certain religious groups, we need to look at the root cause, which lies within the fundamental philosophy of these states and their structures.
The French president’s anti-Islamic rhetoric is also, inevitably, linked to his re-election campaign strategy. Such a populist approach appeals to the right wing. Having said that, his political motives have manifested in hate speech towards Muslims in general, not just in France: “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today,” claimed Macron, and so he wants to “liberate” Islam in his country. His neo-orientalist approach builds on the popular nationalist debate on what it means to be a “proper” French citizen. “You don’t choose one part of France,” he insisted. “You choose France… The republic will never allow any separatist adventure.” He claims repeatedly that he is a proponent of secularism and aims to “defend the republic and its values and ensure it respects the promises of equality and emancipation.” Through his attempts to fight “Muslim separatism” in France, he has in fact further politicised religion and, ironically, marginalised Muslims.
France has a long history of colonising Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East. French colonialism was ruthless as it sought to wipe out indigenous cultures and create replica French citizens. It has never apologised for the thousands of people killed and exploited in this colonial process. Today, “enlightened” France is, like many other countries in the West, once again trying to assert its hegemony on the Muslim world through ideological rather than physical means or legal sophistry.
When Macron went to Lebanon in the wake of the massive explosion that devastated Beirut in August, he was in full European saviour mode; he professed his “love” for the Lebanese people without acknowledging the damage that French colonialism did to their country. Such double standards also apply to his endorsement of blasphemy when the target is the man held dear by all Muslims around the world as well as their faith. He demands that French Muslims must “respect” the values of the French Republic but he has no respect for Islam or Muslims. His is the language of domination and the assertion of neo-colonial power.
The issue here is not just the framing of blasphemy within the concept of freedom of speech. It is the hegemony of Eurocentrism and hypocrisy within which selective “freedom of speech” is promoted. It is the politicisation of the larger ideologies of universal “enlightenment”, “nationalism” and “secularism”. As fascism and populism are on the rise in Europe, such ideological clashes may become more frequent and worse in their impact. Instead of working to combat the real crisis of structural, systematic and ideological racism in France, though, Emmanuel Macron would rather “reform” Islam.
Anyone offended by the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should be asking what solutions or alternatives we have to these inherently biased political and social ideologies. What exactly are we being asked to boycott, and why? Can a protest boycott of material goods conquer the structural and systematic flaws in international political philosophy? Maybe not, but it will at least draw attention to the latter, and that’s as good a place as any to begin this important discussion.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.