You would think the murder of three Christian worshippers in Nice — a 60 year-old woman, the 55 year-old sexton and a 44 year-old Brazilian-born mother of three — coming on the heels of the beheading of a schoolteacher in a Parisian suburb, would convince American and British journalists and opinion writers that France really has an Islamic terrorism problem, and it’s not a figment of President Emmanuel Macron’s imagination.
Blaming the victim
The Associated Press “explains” to American readers that France’s “unusual attachment to secularism”, its stigmatization of Muslims and a “crackdown on Islamist fundamentalists” are why it “incites such anger in the Muslim world.”
It later changed the headline to “sparks such anger,” but it didn’t change the story.
A Bloomberg Opinion piece by Pankaj Mishra, an Indian writer, claims Macron is “intent on fomenting” a “clash of civilizations” with an “unprecedented crackdown on France’s Muslim community.”
The New York Times similarly accuses Macron of ordering a “broad government crackdown against Muslim individuals and groups.”
So does Vox, a left-wing opinion website, which headlines its report, “Muslims worldwide are protesting French president Macron’s crackdown on Islam.”
Vox, to its credit, provides detail of the alleged “crackdown” — unlike the AP and Mishra. The New York Times devotes a single paragraph in its 1,000-word story to the measures being taken.
But one of the elements of the “crackdown”, according to Vox, is that:
Authorities … didn’t stop images of the cartoons [of the Prophet Muhammad] from being projected onto French government buildings during the national remembrance.
H.A. Hellyer, a British scholar and author of Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans, argues in Foreign Policy that Macron is only taking a harder line against Islamism because he is worried about losing reelection to Marine Le Pen. (Whom he defeated 66 to 34 percent in 2017.)
Why else would a liberal and secularist oppose an ideology which, in Macron’s words, does not share “European humanist values, which are based on the free and rational individual, equality between women and men, and emancipation”?
Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, while condemning the attacks, took the opportunity to tut-tut Macron for his uncompromising defense of free speech:
We owe it to ourselves to act with respect for others and to seek not to arbitrarily or unnecessarily injure those with whom we are sharing a society and a planet.
An op-ed in Politico Europe by the Iranian-born academic Farhad Khosrokhavar (since pulled, but still available here) argues France shares blame due to “its embrace of blasphemy, which has fueled radicalism among a marginalized minority.”
It’s a reminder not to rely (entirely) on American and British media for news about Europe. They have a tendency to project their own preoccupations on the continent’s.
When Samuel Paty was beheaded by an 18 year-old Chechen refugee after showing cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad to his pupils, counterterrorism expert Liam Duffy writes that the news was framed in the United Kingdom and the United States as “an extension of the English-speaking world’s identity politics debate, a misreading that ignores reality on the ground in Paris and elsewhere.”
The New York Times “awkwardly framed” Paty’s murder “through the lens of liberal America’s anxieties over police violence,” initially headlining its story “French police shoot and kill man after a fatal knife attack on the street” before changing it to “Man beheads teacher on the street in France and is killed by police.” Which still avoided any clue about the young man’s identity or motive.
The AP claims France’s official policy of colorblindness “often fuels discrimination against those who look, dress or pray differently from the historically Catholic majority, instead of preventing it.” That may be the new conventional wisdom in the United States — colorblindness is racism, because it doesn’t correct the historical marginalization of people of color — but few Europeans see it that way.
The AP, Mishra, The New York Times, Vox, Hellyer, Trudeau and Khosrokhavar are in bad company.
Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the president of Turkey, where 79 journalists are in prison for criticizing the government, has demanded a boycott of French products and called Macron mentally ill for suggesting Islam is in “crisis”.
Imran Khan, the prime minister of Pakistan, a country that tortures and persecutes religious minorities under archaic blasphemy laws, has accused Macron of “Islamphobia” and urged Muslim countries to “collectively take the lead in breaking this cycle of hate and extremism, which nurtures violence and even death” — emanating from France!
Mahathir Mohamad, a former prime minister of Malaysia, where criticizing Islam is illegal, has justified terrorism:
Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.
At this point, you might think Macron had thrown thousands of innocent Muslims in jail, banned the Quran and shuttered mosques.
What has he actually done?
- Closed one mosque, which was run by a radical imam.
- Proposed to ban foreign-paid and -trained imams.
- Announced tax breaks and state funding for mosques which sign a charter underwriting the values of the French republic: democracy, secularism and the rule of law.
- Argued that free speech is absolute, even when it offends.
- Recognized that France shares responsibility for the radicalization of young Muslim men by confining them to suburban ghettos, where housing is poor and jobs are scarce.
- Promised policies to improve the prospects of the banlieues.
In addition, police are investigating 51 Islamic organizations for alleged extremist sympathies. Several arrests have been made.
The French people don’t think Macron has overreacted. His approval rating hasn’t budged. 87 percent of French voters agree secularism is under threat. 79 percent believe Islamism has declared war on the republic.
Thomas Chatterton Williams, an American author who lives in France, calls the suggestion that violence must stem from society’s marginalization of the terrorist “a cruel joke.”
Raphaël Glucksmann, a French filmmaker and center-left member of the European Parliament, argues in Le Monde — itself hardly a bastion of conservatism — that privileging antiracism over all other concerns minimizes the danger of violence being carried out in the name of Islam.
Glucksmann and Williams both argue that calling for restraint or limitations on cartoons not only blames the victim, but infantilizes Muslims, the vast majority of whom may take offense but don’t knife innocent churchgoers.
Hugo Micheron, a French jihadism expert, points out that the terms “Islam”, “Islamism” and “jihadism” are seldom found in American coverage.
What to read instead
Good English-language analysis and commentary about France is rare. I recommend Simon Kuper of the Financial Times, who lives in Paris. Tocqueville 21 is an Anglo-French blog with contributions from American and French academics. John Lichfield is the former Paris correspondent of The Independent who now writes for Politico Europe, The Guardian and UnHerd.