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Macron Is Right To Defend Free Speech In France, Denounce Islamists
French President Emanuel Macron in 2018.
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Macron Is Right To Defend Free Speech In France, Denounce Islamists

Paul Marshall

The Oct. 16 terrorist beheading of French schoolteacher Samuel Paty has galvanized France and led to increased international tensions.

France has suffered many and more bloody terror attacks. On July 14, 2016, in Nice, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel deliberately drove a truck into crowds celebrating Bastille day. His attack ended following an exchange of gunfire, during which he was shot and killed by police, but not before he had killed 86 people.

The single deadliest attack was on Nov. 13, 2015, when ISIS staged three coordinated suicide attacks. A bomber struck outside the Stade de France in Saint-Denis, during a soccer match. There were then mass shootings and a suicide bombing at nearby cafés and restaurants. Gunmen carried out another mass shooting and took hostages at a concert in the Bataclan theatre, leading to a stand-off with police. The attackers were either shot or blew themselves up when police raided the theatre. The result was 131 dead and more than 400 wounded.

Then there were the attacks on the staff of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015 and 2020, killings of priests and Jews and more than a hundred other incidents. 

A turning point? 

Each of these caused an eruption of popular sentiment, and then French President Hollande called the 2015 Stade de France and Bataclan attacks an “act of war.” But the moment passed and has been gradually displaced by a sentiment, an official sentiment anyway, that the problems of Islamist terrorism should not be exaggerated. Charlie Hebdo was again criticized for being insensitive.

This resignation may come about again but early signs suggest that French opinion may have reached a turning point. The fact that Paty was a schoolteacher and was killed for what he had taught in class may be one factor since this implicated the French state itself. President Macron stated that he had been killed because he “embodied” the values of the French Republic.

Paty was teaching a class about free speech and had used the Charlie Hebdo cartoons as illustrations of the issue—but only after first telling the class that those who did not want to watch could step out of the class without penalty or simply not look.

It was precisely his defense of free speech that led to his death.

It also led Macron to be especially active. Paty was awarded the Legion d’honneur, France’s highest award. There were dozens of police raids. A pro-Hamas group, the Cheikh Yassine Collective, was dissolved for being “directly implicated” in the murder. The group’s founder, radical Islamist Abdelhakim Sefrioui, was held by police for publishing a video on YouTube that insulted and threatened Paty. The government promised to create a new criminal offence that would punish anyone who endangers another person by publishing their details online. Cabinet ministers discussed a fight against “cyber-Islamism” with social network leaders.

Macron is also outspoken. He had earlier criticized Islamist separatism, opined that “Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world,” and stated that Paty had tried to teach his pupils how to become citizens. “He was killed precisely because he incarnated the Republic…. He was killed because the Islamists want our future. They know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it.”

Here Macron portrayed the conflict not as a lone terrorist attack but as a war between Islamists and the Republic and that we “will not give up our cartoons.”

International responses

As might be expected, the French President’s blunt words have drawn criticism and insult from overseas. Pakistani Prime Minister Imram Khan accused Macron of “attacking Islam” by defending the publication of “blasphemous” caricatures: “It is unfortunate that he has chosen to encourage Islamophobia by attacking Islam rather than the terrorists who carry out violence, be it Muslims, White Supremacists or Nazi ideologists….”

Khan also wrote to Facebook head Mark Zuckerberg asking him to ban “Islamophobia and hate against Islam.” The death and carnage caused by Pakistan’s own blasphemy laws continues. On July 29, 2020, Tahir Naseem, an American citizen, was murdered in court during a bail hearing after he was accused of blasphemy. Religious minorities are disproportionately accused of blasphemy and killed. 

Meanwhile, there were demonstrations against France in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Iraq and Turkey, and calls for boycotts of French goods in Kuwait, Jordan, Qatar, Libya, Syria and Gaza. The Iranian newspaper Vatan-e Emrooz claimed that “French extremists” were burning copies of the Koran. 

Parallels with the “Danish cartoons”

Turkey’s President Erdogan also waded in with his customary diplomatic tact. Not content to criticize, he quickly moved to insult. In a speech he asked, “What’s the problem of the individual called Macron with Islam and with the Muslims?” and asserted “Macron needs treatment on a mental level.” In response, France recalled its Ambassador to Turkey and advised French citizens abroad to be especially cautious.

These events have echoes of the famous “Danish cartoons” published by Jyllands-Posten, the largest newspaper in Denmark, in September 2005. Subsequently, there were killings, riots, boycotts and protests. Most people now assume that these events erupted spontaneously after the cartoons appeared, but that was not the case. The cartoons came out in September 2005 and immediately afterwards very little happened. Some Danish Muslims peacefully demonstrated outside the office of Jyllands-Posten and said the newspaper shouldn’t have published the cartoons and that they should apologize.

The protests and attacks in Nigeria, Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Middle East actually came in January and February 2006, four to five months after the event. The Organization of the Islamic conference, with some 56 countries and territories, changed the agenda of their January 2006 Mecca meeting from dealing with terrorism to dealing with insults to Islam. Out of that meeting came a plan of action which involved boycotts of Danish and other products, demonstrations and protests. Many of these spiraled out of control leading to violence and killing.

It was only five months after the cartoons came out that a variety of governments decided to make an issue of them and put time and money into the effort. Of course, Muslims do get genuinely hurt and angry about perceived insult or blasphemy. But, in most cases, if there are widespread demonstrations and death, it’s usually because some governmental figures, or other powerful people, want that to happen and stoke the resentment and anger.

In the case of Erdogan, Turkey and France are already at odds. On Nov. 29, 2019, long before the latest controversy over blasphemy, Erdogan told Macron, “You should get checked whether you’re brain dead.” Macron has criticized Turkey’s warring in Syria. In the Eastern Mediterranean, France is opposing Ankara over hydrocarbon reserves and maritime boundaries and supporting Greece and Cyprus in their rejection of Turkey’s expansive claims. Turkey has challenged the French navy at sea. France has even deployed fighter jets to the area. 

In 2006, Turkey, with Erdogan as then prime minister, parlayed its criticism of Denmark into concessions in NATO, and later used the cartoons as bargaining chips in negotiations with the U.S., including with President Obama, in order to gain leverage for two high level Turkish appointments to NATO. Turkish pressure now could include a similar drive to use religion for political leverage in the disputes in the Mediterranean.


Whatever the international maneuverings, Macron is generally to be commended on his refusal to mince words, to describe an ideological battle for what it is, and for calling France and free societies to realize the importance of and defend their freedoms.

As the late Abdurrahman Wahid, former President of Nahdlatul Ulama, the world’s largest Muslim organization, and former President of Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim-population country, declared, coercively applied blasphemy laws “narrow the bounds of acceptable discourse… not only about religion, but about vast spheres of life, literature, science and culture in general… Rather than… encourage Muslim fundamentalists in their efforts to impose a spiritually void, harsh and monolithic understanding of Islam upon all the world – Western authorities should instead firmly defend freedom of expression….”

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