Emmanuel Macron will need France’s 6m Muslims with him if he is to root out the violent extremism that has led to two deadly terrorist attacks on French soil in the past few weeks. The president is at serious risk of failing. In the aftermath, his government has chosen instead to stoke moral panic about the “Muslim question”.
Last month, before schoolteacher Samuel Paty was decapitated by a Muslim attacker, Mr Macron laid out his approach in a speech dedicated to fighting “Islamic separatism”. The charge, which echoes the language of colonial-era French rule, evokes tropes of Muslims having split loyalties to foreign masters, or conspiracies about the imposition of sharia religious law. Mr Macron mentioned “denominational food menus” and the headscarf as possible signs of separatism in French society.
In a debate that is so emotionally charged, these words matter. Since Paty’s brutal murder, and a stabbing attack in Nice, phrases like “enemies of the republic”, “Islamo-leftists” and “collaborators” have become part of the French political vernacular.
Television networks serve up “anti-separatist” plans from government ministers such as banning polygamy (it is already illegal) or stopping supermarkets from selling halal food. One commentator even suggested Muslim women should remove their veils to express solidarity with Paty. France’s interior minister has said the upcoming anti-separatism bill will include a prison sentence of up to five years for people who refuse a doctor of the opposite sex.
As a British Muslim, now based in Brussels, I have seen similar debates that risk conflating conservative practice with violent jihadism play out in the aftermath of terror attacks in the UK. Suspicions of “political Islam” (a loosely-defined concept) are seen everywhere: in Muslim organisations, dress choices and even spoken Arabic. France’s finance minister sees female-only hours at public swimming pools as evidence of the state succumbing to its “insidious” influence.
But infringements on Muslim lives under the banner of secularism risks taking aim at the majority of law-abiding citizens rather than violent criminals. No woman in a headscarf has carried out a terrorist attack in France. That cultural signifiers are seen as seditious shows the debate has moved from upholding civil liberties into policing individual expression.
Mr Macron also laid out the need to create a “French Islam” of the “enlightenment” to help reform the religion’s global “crisis”. This hubristic aim should be met with suspicion by any secularist. If a “French Islam” means government-approved imams and strict curbs on private religious schools it betrays an instinct to use the state to prescribe a “correct” religion — something that has more in common with authoritarian Muslim leaders than enlightenment values of separating church and state.
European Muslims do not need the government writ to make Islam French or British or German. It already is, by virtue of the lives of millions who freely practice their faith and are active citizens in the countries of their birth. All over Europe, Muslims are being asked to prove their loyalty to the state and its values. But in France they are asked to do so while hiding visible signs of their religion for fear of offending the state. They are admonished for not condemning terrorism loudly enough and expected to bear collective responsibility for nihilistic crimes, which, in the case of recent attacks, were carried out by foreigners.
It does not have to be this way. The UK has battled the same violent extremism without the wholesale other-ing of its citizens. Muslims are a part of France’s history, its present and its future — something extremists on both sides hate to admit.
French Muslims should be Mr Macron’s biggest allies against violent terrorism. Yet rather than embracing them, he has chosen a strategy that serves the far-right and its electoral ambitions. It is a view that thinks a weak republic is on the cusp of being overrun by an enemy within.
Come 2022’s presidential election, Mr Macron will likely tell Muslims they should vote for him to save the republic from the far-right party of Marine Le Pen. That threat is in danger of sounding hollow for Muslims if they subject to a hostile environment from a liberal president.