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24th Jan 2022

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Blasphemy and jihad: Macron launches EU debate

  • French president Emmanuel Macron at a memorial ceremony for Samuel Paty in 2020 (Photo: Ghislain Mariette / Présidence de la République)
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France has launched an EU debate on the "extremely sensitive" issue of blasphemy and jihadist violence, in a move that risks further alienating European Muslims.

"Recent episodes have shown the extremely sensitive nature of the notion of blasphemy, which rallies and mobilises all streams of the radical Islamist scene," the French EU presidency said in a recent memo to member states.

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  • France's Charlie Hebdo magazine also attacked for mocking the Prophet in 2015 (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

"This evolution of the threat seems tangible in several European countries," it added.

"Indeed, since early 2020, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany have faced a series of attacks whose execution seems to correspond to this phenomenon," it said.

"Such is the case for the last seven attacks perpetrated in France - particularly the series of four attacks in the fall of 2020, including the beheading of teacher Samuel Paty," France said.

The French memo, entitled Independent jihadist threat and seen by EUobserver, was circulated on 5 January.

It discussed trends since the fall of Islamic State [Isis], a jihadist regime in Iraq and Syria.

The "new type of threat" concerned individuals who had "shaken off the influence of terrorist organisations [such as Isis], both operationally and ideologically," France warned.

"This type of attack ... is perpetrated by isolated actors who have a tenuous or inexistent link to the radical movement and who were previously unknown to intelligence services", it said.

Some attackers suffered from "psychological instability or even mental disorders," it added.

"These terrorists use basic modi operandi, essentially with bladed or blunt weapons, which can however have a major symbolic impact when the attacks result in spectacular actions - such as beheadings - and target specific groups or people ... [including] individuals singled out as 'blasphemers'," France also said.

"Do the member states share the above stated view?", France asked.

The answers are to be discussed by EU home affairs ministers on 3 March.

And the talks are aimed at agreeing new EU recommendations on the "fight against terrorism" on 10 June.

But the discussions fall in the middle of French elections, due in April, in which president Emmanuel Macron will be competing for votes from three rightwing challengers - Valérie Pécresse and the far-right Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour.

The pre-election climate has already become toxic for French Muslims, with Macron himself and his hardline interior minister Gérald Darmanin pursuing what one NGO group, the European Network Against Racism, has called an "Islamophobic witch-hunt".

And for some commentators, such as the Brussels-based Shada Islam, Macron's decision to now discuss blasphemy and jihadism at the EU-level risks making matters worse.

"This is the kind of dangerous scare-mongering about Islam and European Muslims that the EU has to push back against," she told EUobserver.

Eric Zemmour is openly Islamophobic (Photo: Eric Zemmour)

Witch-hunt?

Macron has in the past linked jihadist crimes to the rise of Salafism, a hardline Islamic ideology, in France's suburban ghettoes, called "banlieues".

And he has tried to stamp it out on the advice of Gilles Kepel, a Sorbonne-educated academic and former advisor.

But for other scholars of the subject, such as Olivier Roy from the European University Institute in Italy, the French leader has been misinformed.

Roy said it was the Barlevi school of Islam, which originated in Pakistan, that teaches the kind of thinking which led to Paty's murder.

"The Salafis, on the contrary, reject any special devotion for the Prophet and do not stress the blasphemy dimension," Roy told this website.

"Macron's position seems to be that one should defend the right to blasphemy," Roy added.

But if Macron's version of defending "laïcité" [secularism] gains traction in European politics, it could alienate Muslims of any creed.

"Many young Muslims consider blasphemy against the Prophet as a way [for people] to express sheer Islamophobia and hatred for Muslims in general," Roy said.

And in any case, France's EU memo on the "new type of threat" posed by "isolated actors" got its facts wrong, according to Jessica White, an expert on terrorism at Rusi, a London-based think-tank.

The threat was "not new" and the attackers were "not often isolated", even if they did not act in the name of Isis, she said.

"Blasphemy has been a fiercely-held and defended issue since the beginning of religion and is certainly not specific to Islam ... in France, it isn't new either," she noted.

"Most of the individuals who act are connected in online communities ... where they find resolve and encouragement for violence," White said.

Worshippers at the Grande Mosquée de Paris (Photo: Ferdaus Chia)

Islamophobia

Meanwhile, the discussion on blasphemy is not the only French EU presidency project on the hot-button issues of identity and hate.

France also circulated draft EU recommendations On combating racism and antisemitism at a meeting in the EU Council on Monday (10 January).

The draft urged member states to "criminalise all forms of discrimination based on actual or alleged ethnic origin or religious beliefs".

It urged them to adopt a far-reaching definition of antisemitism "in particular for law-enforcement agencies as part of their efforts to detect and prosecute antisemitic crime".

The new EU recommendations are to be agreed by justice ministers on 4 March.

But if Islamophobia posed a problem alongside other forms of hatred in France or in Europe, then it was not even mentioned in the draft French text.

The draft text noted only that the EU had created a 'Coordinator on combating anti-Muslim hatred', but it also did not mention that this post has stood vacant since last July.

And for Roy, the blind-spot on Islamophobia arose from unanswered questions in French and European thinking on Islam.

"There is a consensus in Europe against hate speech, the problem is who is protected by such laws: if there is a consensus on race, gender, and ethnicity, what about religion?," he said.

"To be a Muslim is not necessarily belonging to a race, an ethnic group, or a culture," he noted.

"Is Islamophobia a generic term for targeting anybody with a Muslim background ... or is Islamophobia just criticism of a religion, in which case it is more acceptable under the terms of freedom of expression?," he added.

"Clearly the French position is that antisemitism is racism, while Islamophobia is just the rejection of a religion, and hence not defamatory against a race or an ethnic group," Roy said.

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