France and Islam do not have to be enemies

Fri, 30 Oct 2020 Source: Salem Kalmoni

Yesterday, Thursday 29th October marked the birthday of the Muslim prophet Mohammed. It is celebrated all over the Muslim world, with many countries attaching enough significance to it as declaring it a national Public Holiday. Among these are several African countries including neighbouring Senegal, Mali, and Nigeria.

At this time, France is facing a showdown with the Muslim world instigated by the murder of a French teacher for teaching national curricula supposedly on “free speech” and showing demeaning cartoons of the revered Muslim prophet and founder – Muhammed. One of the cartoons shown, is prophet Muhammed naked, down on all fours with flatulence in the shape of a star coming out the rear end. The idea behind such teaching is a demonstration that France is a secular country and values “Freedom of Speech” !?! One 18 years old from Chechnya (Russia) could not take the insult and decided to murder the French teacher. As we know, teenagers are full of exuberance and naiveness.

Unfortunately, murders happen every day in big cities all over the world, among some are crimes of passion, and this could have been one of them. Instead of treating this as an isolated murder, France President Macron flagrantly defended the offending cartoons and decided to inappropriately attack the great religion of Islam: A religion of 1.6 billion adherents; stretched over 51 countries; with a glorious history of more than 1000 years! President Macron had said earlier that “Islam today is in crisis”.

He also said that Islamists want to decide our future (as a practicing Muslim, does that make me an Islamist?). This is very unfortunate. If he were to channel his condemnation to radical Islam; or Muslim terrorists, he would not only have the majority but I dare say “all” the leadership of the Muslim World on his side.

By doing so, he has steered the passions of hundreds of millions of Muslims, who revere their religion; yes, even if they don’t practice it. For Muslims believe any mistakes and errors they make are due to their personal shortcomings and lack of adherence to the tenets: They do not blame their religion and certainly do not blame their prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). I agree with Macron when he warned Muslims to be careful not to be steered by a “minority of radicals”. But I want to suggest, just the same, that he should select his advisors wisely and not be steered as well, by a “minority of secular radicals”. It is important that both sides jettison the radicals and not allow them to dictate the agenda. France is a proud nation with a history steeped in philosophy and science. There are many French intellectuals who do not agree with the wanton and irresponsible use of “ freedom of speech”.

It is common sense and common courtesy that you do not make fun of other people’s religion even when you do not subscribe to them. This is natural civilized behaviour that should be common sense. Why is it that Great Britain has not experienced such a confrontation with the Muslim world, but not France? There are lessons for France to learn from other great countries.

We all know that “freedom of speech” has its limitations. Even in France, I can think of several scenarios where you will be jailed if you cross the line. To say that making fun of Muslims’ religion is not the case, smacks of double-standards. Be that as it may, France needs to know and the fact remains, that these caricatures are seen by Muslims the world over as “insulting”. In such a setting, the civil and appropriate thing for Muslims to respond is certainly not to engage in violence but to NOT do business with those who insult you. I don’t think France is desirous of this outcome, just in order to defend their idiosyncratic perspective of “freedom of speech”?

Millions of Muslims hold France in high regard. They love its food and culture, send their children to study and do a huge business with it. Muslims value French science and respect their philosophers such as Descartes and Voltaire. Given that Muslims make a growing percentage of the French population; as well as being a growing economic force in the world, it does not make sense to fight Islam.

We agree with France, that immigrant Muslims or any other minority, should not form a separate sub-culture and should integrate into French society. This is a reasonable demand from any country of its citizens. At the same time, France needs to identify and isolate the “radicals” on both sides. There is no reason for France and Islam to fight, but every reason to “be on the side of human dignity and universal values” (Macron’s own words) Let the voice of civility and mutual respect prevail!

* The writer is the President of Baraka Policy Institute (BPI), a policy think-tank on development. He is also the Managing Director of Japan Motors Trd. Co. Ltd.

Columnist: Salem Kalmoni