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OP-ED: A rational middle ground is missing

  • Published at 09:32 pm October 29th, 2020
France protest Macron
File photo: A picture of French President Emmanuel Macron is burnt by Palestinians during a protest, in West Bank on October 27, 2020 Reuters

Perhaps it’s time for an overhaul of the French notion of secularism

In a furious outcry across the globe, several Muslim nations saw people taking to the streets to protest what has been deemed an “insensitive” comment by the French president plus the persistence of a French satirical magazine to publish cartoons of the Prophet (pbuh). 

This issue about the cartoons have polarized people: One side, claiming to be avowed followers of free speech, are saying that there is nothing offensive, and in the name of freedom of speech, the caricatures should be accepted, while the other side feels such images hurt religious sentiment and disparage a faith. 

In the ongoing debate, both sides are becoming too dogmatic; consequently, a reasonable, rational middle ground is missing, which is unnerving, because with two extreme versions of beliefs, a violent outburst becomes inevitable.   

I am not a devout person but feel that there are certain areas which should remain above unnecessary lampooning. 

At the same time, imposing Western-style secularism on everyone in a diverse society seems more like an authoritarian move. Be it secular or else ...

I do not know what the French definition of secularism is, but maybe many will agree that they are making way too much noise about what they feel is a fundamental pillar of their society, disregarding the fact that as a colonial national which ruled and plundered many parts of the world and then allowed people from these colonies to settle in France, they have actually created a multi-faith, multi-cultural community where imposition of one set of rules is despotic. 

How secular is France or the West in general?

Since the current hullabaloo is about “laicite” or secularism, an in depth look into French society is essential, since many French citizens are from Algerian backgrounds, known as “Pied Noirs,” have been facing prejudices since they came to France once the colonies were granted independence. 

During the Algerian Civil War (1954-62), a large number of Harki people in Algeria fought to keep the county under French rule. However, when the struggle failed, they came in droves to find a life in France. Sadly, in France they faced ostracism and bias for a long period. 

This social division and neglect is at the heart of French society. Still today, large numbers of Muslims living in St Denise in France face integration problems. 

It would not be right to blame France alone, because the same situation is seen in many countries which were once imperial powers. At the height of colonialism, these states mindlessly exploited other countries and their people, took their resources, built their own industries, but baulked when it came to giving equal rights to people from the former colonies. 

The same happened in Britain too. In the late 70s, race-related attacks on people from South Asian communities were so common that schools in East London actually had a special rule allowing children from South Asian families to go home early to avoid being spotted by racist groups. 

Asian women never went to work alone because they were targeted by racist groups and their homes regularly faced post box arson attacks. 

The point is, instead of addressing the latent social divisions, there is constant babble about secularism and the right to poke fun at someone else’s faith. 

Freedom of speech vs freedom to stir unrest

The point has come now for France to address which is more important, freedom to say whatever one wants or to use the right to speak responsibly so social harmony is maintained. 

French society cannot expect everyone to conform to a set of rigid standards because by asking everyone to do so is similar to imposing one set of rules, which is simply undemocratic. 

Like I said earlier, no country which was once a former colonial power and has large communities from former colonies can expect people from other faiths to strictly adhere to a particular set of beliefs. 

Any effort to achieve that will only result in resentment, leading to more social polarization plus alienation from the social authority. 

Such a situation is the perfect incubator for radical ideas to proliferate. Let’s take the recent comment by the French president where he vociferously backed the right of a magazine to poke fun at religion. 

The repercussion of this will lead to a profound sense of disaffection within the Muslim communities in France, strain relations between France and other Muslim states, namely the rich ones in the Gulf, affect trade, be a death blow for the sale of French fighter jet, Rafale, and make anything related to France targets of hatred in Muslim countries. 

The boycott of French goods may seem puerile, though once this goes on for a few months, the French government will begin to feel the bite. No, it’s not just about ignoring French cheese, wine, or perfume. It’s about cold shouldering French technology, military hardware, and other items. 

In short, everything that has the “Made in France” label on it. 

Can Macron see that he is actually looking at France becoming an object of revulsion?

At the end of the day, the driving force of the world is trade; it’s for commerce, people keep quiet when a journalist is killed and dismembered, it’s for trade that the Rohingya plight is never given due importance by big nations and again, it’s for business that the US and China are currently locked in vicious mudslinging. 

Secularism be damned, can France survive the fall in trade, especially in a time when corona has already left the country reeling from economic woes? 

Lofty rhetoric will soon sound vacuous

The current narrative about freedom of speech may soon fizzle out of firepower, because if major Muslim nations decide to slowly edge France out, then Macron will soon be in a morass and Charlie Hebdo cartoons won’t be able to pick up his mood. It won’t be a surprise if Qatar decides to postpone the purchase of the second batch of Rafale fighters. 

But let’s look at another not so talked about fall out of the French stance on freedom of speech. The interest in the French language in Muslim countries may also see a decline, thus hitting hard at the centre of the Francophone culture movement. 

Bangladesh is also a secular nation where all children are taught to respect the faith of someone else and that’s why we have the saying: The religious festival of one community is a chance for people from all faiths to celebrate.  

In trying to irrationally defend something which is offensive, the French government is only provoking social fragmentation. 

The simmering discontentment over already existing racial bias will only exacerbate, leading militant ideology to gain ground.

As a former colonial country which has become prosperous by pillaging and oppressing others, perhaps it’s time for a complete overhaul of the French notion of secularism.

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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