Once again I am grateful to RT International for prompting me to get my mind around one of the top international news developments of the day and to respond to their interviewer on live television, which by its nature demands tight logic lest you appear to be a bumbler and lose your rights to the next invitation on air.
The phone call solicitation took place yesterday morning at 10.00am Brussels time and I was given 20 minutes to pull together a commentary on President Macron’s statement to the French nation on the brutal murder of a history schoolteacher in a suburb of Paris which I had noted briefly from the corner of my eye in my daily post-breakfast read through the Financial Times and New York Times newspapers on line, but had not read attentively.
Now, in preparation for the interview, I dutifully went straight to Le Figaro to see what middle of the road French elites were saying about the event. Decapitation, as occurred in this case, would surely bring to the surface the emotions most relevant to the fundamental issues.
I was not disappointed. The editorial in yesterday’s Figaro was blunt and to the point: “Liberty versus Barbarism.” Indeed, the whole tragic incident was cast in terms of a civilizational divide. The tone went well beyond defending the values of the French Revolution which still govern political thought in the country today, namely separation of state and religion, or secularism, the famous French laïcité. Freedom of expression was, in American political parlance, being instrumentalized as the “dog whistle” to bring on popular outrage yet again against the Muslims in their midst. And who are they? They are 15% or so of the general population consisting traditionally of 1960s arrivals from former French colonies in North Africa and their progeny, but more recently also of Muslim refugees from further afield, like Chechnya, the ethnic origin of the Moscow-born assailant in Friday’s murderous attack.
For those who might question going into such a television interview on the basis of reading a couple of news bulletins, I hasten to add that the points I was about to raise had been on my mind ever since the bombing of the editorial offices of the irreverent, sarcastic and often outrageous French news rag Charlie Hebdo five years ago. I had kept my silence over that tragedy, though I had believed the editorial board had abused freedom of speech to publish images that would be knowingly deeply shocking and offensive to the Muslim faithful. Quite without baiting, they are a population in France which is often highly resentful of the powers that be going back to the vicious treatment they received in the Algerian war of independence, which was topped up ever since by resentments over their economic hardships as an under-class in modern France. They live in gilded cages of social housing at the periphery of metropolitan areas like Paris where they are cut off from the economy and where integration into the broader culture is hindered.
Charlie Hebdo dared to poke Muslims in the eye because the editorial board was confident, and rightly so, that the anti-Muslim disposition of French middle classes and intellectuals would back them up. It was all about freedom of expression, adding to their laurels while attracting new readers and subscribers. Wrong! It was crying “Fire!” in the midst of a cinema screening.
Allow me to dot the “i”: my personal acquaintances from among respectable, intellectually sound French middle class people leaves me in no doubt that they are deeply prejudiced against their Muslim compatriots. Let me use a more pungent word: they are bigoted. It shows up in their smirks when anti-Muslim jokes circulate at cocktail parties or when making small talk at table. Everyone can express wistful regret over the taxes being paid to support Muslim men, their harems, and numerous offspring at the expense of the French state.
My heart goes out to the family of the brutally murdered school teacher, Samuel Paty. We are told today that what he did to attract the attention of those now in detention who aided and abetted his murder was not very different from what many other schoolteachers across France have been doing in their classes ever since the Charlie Hebdo bombing of 2015: he presented to the class copies of the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed published in that weekly, with the intention to illustrate the topic of freedom of expression and secularism. Indeed, not only because of the shocking nature of the murder but also because of the generalized practices of their profession, schoolteachers across France are coming out onto the streets today to express their solidarity.
They are wrong.
Monsieur Paty knew well that there were in his class a goodly number of Muslim believers who could find the cartoons deeply offensive and he proposed that they leave the classroom to be spared the mental anguish. That is to say, he openly divided his classroom into Christians and Muslims and bade the latter to step out of the room. Is that wise? Does that contribute to what we in “values driven” Europe like to call inclusiveness? Without meaning to, he was tempting fate.
It is paradoxical that France can practice openly anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric under cover of secularism and freedom of speech at the very time when the United States is experiencing a paroxysm of political correctness whereby you can lose your employment for giving the slightest hint of offense to high visibility minorities such as LGBTQ or Blacks. Both extremes need corrective action so as to apply the rule of reason if we are to enjoy societies that are peaceful and also free.
As regards President Macron, whose address to the nation denouncing Islamic terrorism was the starting point of my talk on RT International, there was one point in his proposed remedial actions which I can freely support: introducing study of Arabic into the public schools so as to draw the Muslim youth away from the mosques and their radicalizing imams. It would be better still if he began to direct attention to the economic roots of Islamic radicalism in his country. Closer attention to immigration policy, in particular to the issue of family reunifications might also be very helpful in curbing the tendency for new immigrants to resist integration into the broader society. This is another issue where Liberal values run straight into contradiction with common sense.©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020 [If you found value in this article, you should be interested to read my latest collection of essays entitled A Belgian Perspective on International Affairs, published in November 2019 and available in e-book, paperback and hardbound formats from amazon, barnes & noble, bol.com, fnac, Waterstones and other online retailers. Use the “View Inside” tab on the book’s webpages to browse.]