French bishops scattered holy water throughout the Basilica of Notre-Dame in Nice on Nov. 1, first plunging the church into total darkness before restoring it to light in a “penitential rite of reparation.” Mass can once again be celebrated in the basilica after it had been violated by an extremist attack on Oct. 29. Two people were killed inside the church and a third victim escaped to a cafe nearby, urging people who came to her assistance before she died to tell her children that she loved them.
That violence came two weeks after the murder of a French teacher, Samuel Paty, who had been stalked then beheaded on a street outside his middle school in Paris. His offense? He had shared cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad with his students as examples of the French republic’s commitment to free expression.
In the aftermath of the mayhem, French President Emmanuel Macron doubled down on an intention first proposed in early October to root out what he called “Islamic separatism” from French society. He plans enhanced secular oversight of the Muslim community that will mean “an Islam in France that can be an Islam of the Enlightenment,” throttling down “repeated deviations from the values of the republic...which often result in the creation of a counter-society.”
Muslim organizations in France have been put on notice, even as groups representing the Muslim community in France quickly condemned this latest spasm of violence.
Since October’s bloodshed, Muslim organizations in France have been put on notice that they would be shut down if found to be promoting hatred, even as groups representing the Muslim community in France quickly condemned this latest spasm of violence. Muslim leaders urged French Muslims to cancel celebration of the Mawlid al-Nabī, a holiday that began on Oct. 28 and commemorates the birth of the Prophet Muhammad—their expressions of sorrow and horror overshadowed by other civic voices demanding new war powers against radicalized Islam in France.
Other voices in France seek a way out of the cultural conflict. Arnaud Bouthéon, co-founder of the Catholic group Mission Congress and a leader of the Knights of Columbus in France, acknowledged that caricatures of Muhammad, often obscene and offensive, have contributed to making many of the Muslim faithful “feel despised, opening the way to barbaric violence.” He urged French Catholics to face the challenge of being “peacemakers, with temperance and courage.”
“The Catholic community in France must not give in to sterile anger but must also have the courage to name and denounce evil,” Mr. Bouthéon said.
Jocelyn Cesari, a professor of religion and politics at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom and at Georgetown University in Washington, worries that the French president’s moves to counter the threat of homegrown Islamic extremism may in the end “boomerang,” leading only to greater alienation of Muslim youth from French society. Her counterintuitive advice for Mr. Macron and other Western leaders seeking to tamp down Islamic extremism is not to tighten controls over religious expression but to make more civic room for it.
“Macron is not saying anything new; this has been going on since 9/11,” Prof. Cesari said. “Let me be clear—I have been watching this for 20 years,” she said. “Once a state starts recriminations against one religion, it does them all.”
The phenomenon is not limited to France. In deference to security concerns, “since 9/11 across Europe, states have been more and more discriminatory to religious practices,” Prof. Cesari said. “Of course on top of it you have the Muslims, but the Christians and Jews are right there too. It is more and more difficult to express yourself as a believer.”
“The Catholic community in France must not give in to sterile anger but must also have the courage to name and denounce evil.”
José Casanova, professor emeritus and senior fellow at Georgetown University, adds that the profile of Mr. Paty’s teenage executioner, shot down by police at the scene of the ghoulish attack, suggests a young man not only disaffected from France’s determinedly secular society but also detached from his own Muslim, émigré community. The lone-wolf nature of the individual acts of terror makes them difficult to anticipate or defend against. He worries that Mr. Macron’s offensive may shore up political support for his government, but it will not hasten an end to the nation’s internal and perhaps by now self-propelling clash of civilizations.
Muslims in modern France, Prof. Cesari said, already live at a socioeconomic flashpoint, targets of heightened social surveillance because of religion, race, immigration status, poverty and “urban disenfranchisement.”
“The moment they step out until they go back home and turn on the evening news, everything tells them that Islam is wrong,” she said.
A decade of terror
The two October attacks are the latest in a long series of terror acts inside France by Muslim extremists. Thirty-six acts of terrorism over the last eight years have taken more than 200 lives. Nice itself had already experienced one of the deadliest terror events in national history when a man of Tunisian descent drove a 19-ton cargo truck into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day in 2016 on the Promenade des Anglais; 86 died.
There have been nine terror strikes so far this year. Why France remains a regular target of Islamic extremism is partly a reflection of its historic ties to the Islamic world, particularly North Africa. French troops continue to hunt down Islamic extremists in former colonies, and France’s prominent position within the European community, not only in political leadership but as an exemplar of secular order, compels the attention of Islamic extremists hostile to the West.
Muslims in modern France already live at a socioeconomic flashpoint, targets of heightened social surveillance because of religion, race, immigration status, poverty and “urban disenfranchisement.”
Mr. Macron himself has frequently acted as a lightning rod, lately as spokesperson for Western incomprehension of the homicidal rage engendered by acts perceived as blasphemy in the Muslim world. He has called for a “reform Islam” more at peace with the secular order in France and rewarded for such unsolicited counsel with personal attacks from the likes of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, happy to attend to the distraction, who questioned his mental competence.
Today about 5.7 million Muslims live in France, about 9 percent of the republic’s total population. As its Muslim population has grown in recent decades because of immigration and higher natality rates, France has struggled to absorb these newcomers.
Different strategies have been adopted in response. In 2000, France abandoned a 20-year experiment with integration, encouraging immigrants to participate in French society while retaining cultural distinctiveness (with the assumption many would one day return to their nations of origin), reviving an official policy that demanded deeper assimilation into French society and an embrace of its hyper-secular ethos.
That has proved a difficult adjustment. The secular tradition in French, laïcité, makes “illegitimate any visible signs of religion in public space,” said Prof. Cesari. France’s strict secularization was enshrined into law in 1905, but laïcité’s deepest roots can be traced to the historical trauma of various 16th-century wars of religion, she said.
French-born, Prof. Cesari is intimately familiar with the demands of laïcité. To appear “as a believer” in France, she explained, places “a doubt on you...a suspicion that you are not a good citizen.”
Mr. Macron himself has frequently acted as a lightning rod, lately as spokesperson for Western incomprehension of the homicidal rage engendered by acts perceived as blasphemy in the Muslim world.
She was raised to believe “religion is trouble in the public space,” its expression reserved for home or a house of worship—not always an easy proposition.
Catholics, Protestants and Jews have had decades to adjust to the rigors of laïcité, but many Muslims still struggle to understand “how do you do this as a believer? How do you cut out this huge part of your life?”
In countries more at ease with religious pluralism, personal acts and displays of religious expression in civic spaces, whether wearing a crucifix or a hijab, are widely understood as acceptable. But under laïcité the French state enforces secular unity by regulating religious expression, even clothing.
In recent years additions to laïcité seemed aimed directly at the Muslim community, even when they affected all believers. A 2004 law forbids the wearing of any “ostentatious” religious articles in public schools. Like Catholics before them, France’s Muslims have pushed back against laïcité’s boundaries, according to Prof. Cesari.
She recalled that much consternation in France was provoked by the desire of young Muslim women to wear the hijab, a headscarf or veil and an Islamic custom considered completely normal to their parents. That desire did not reflect a surrender among Islamic women to religious oppression, Prof. Cesari insisted, but an expression of personal piety that was simply incomprehensible as such to the broader French society. They were banned in 2010.
“You need a lot of political courage to draw the line between fighting against terrorism and tolerating religious conservatives.”
Professor Cesari worries that in France today it has become impossible to “distinguish between a radical politicized act and a religious act, so the more conservative you look as a Muslim, the higher the probability that you are going to be seen as a radical terrorist.”
Without being able to make such distinctions, she fears, security forces awarded elevated powers to contain the threat of extremist terror may only be contributing to more.
A clash over free expression
The latest extremist attacks derive directly from contemporary clashes between Western and Islamic worldviews over free expression. In 2006, the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo republished cartoons that included caricatures of the prophet Muhammad. Any depiction of Muhammad is considered blasphemous in much of the Islamic world.
Charlie Hebdo has pressed its case for the primacy of free expression by continuing to publish similar cartoons and has been targeted repeatedly in turn. In 2015, a military-style assault claimed the lives of 12 people in and around the magazine’s headquarters in Paris. (Two related incidents in Paris resulted in the deaths of five other people on Nov. 14 and Nov. 15, 2015.)
A trial of 14 alleged accessories in those assaults—the perpetrators had been killed by French security forces—began in September. Charlie Hebdo editors chose to reprint the cartoons once more, reviving old tensions.
That decision was staunchly defended by Mr. Macron. “I understand and respect that people can be shocked by these cartoons,” Mr. Macron said on Oct. 31, attempting finally to dial down tensions as protests continued in Pakistan, Lebanon, Turkey and elsewhere. “But I will never accept that someone can justify the use of physical violence because of these cartoons. And I will always defend freedom of speech in my country, of thought, of drawing.”
“This need of the unity of the laïcité, of the republic against communitarianism...the Rousseauian will of the people—it has to be opened up a bit.”
The attack at the basilica and the gruesome slaying of Mr. Paty are also traceable to Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons. Mr. Paty displayed some of the republished cartoons, first excusing Muslim students who thought they would find the images offensive from participation. The parent of one students raised an uproar over those lessons, and Mr. Paty was targeted by an immigrant youth who had come to France as a six-year-old refugee from Chechnya.
The right of free expression having been in a sense sacralized by secular France, this teenager decided to pit “my sacred against your sacred,” Prof. Casanova noted.
He described the drawings as reliant on racial caricature of a sort that might have been published in the past in the United States but which would be unimaginable to see printed in mainstream U.S. media today. Multicultural sensibilities in the United States even deterred the publication of the cartoons when other media in European states chose to publish them in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo editors after the terror attack in 2015.
“The United States has a sensibility for both racial and religious pluralism which is not there in Europe,” he said. “In Europe, the other is the other.”
Breaking the cycle
Ultimately, if a way out of the cycle of offense and recrimination requires an examination of French conscience, no less can be asked of the Muslim world, both professors agree. But Prof. Cesari argues that such a demand can be misdirected.
Contemporary extremism is not emerging from the actors in traditional Islam that would be swept up in new secularist controls, she said, noting that mainstream Muslim imams and organizations in France have already stepped forward to condemn the attacks of October.
Though ISIS have been driven from physical territory they once claimed, “they are winning” on the only battleground left to campaign across, the minds of young Muslims.
The “politicized Islam” that is driving much of the extremism connects most often with young people who have in fact become disconnected from communal sources of Islamic tradition, those adrift in the West who latch on to an alternative understanding of Islam, Prof. Cesari said, that they locate on the Internet or are led to through social media.
That Salafist reinterpretation of Islam, she said, has been promoted by a purported ally. “All this radical interpretation of Islam comes from Saudi Arabia, that has posited itself as a friend of the West.”
Demands for Islamic reform that do not take note of the role of Saudi Arabia in promoting Salafism are not likely to succeed in diminishing the terror threat, she argues.
“To my knowledge the Saudis have never stopped funding jihadi groups,” she added, even as Western powers continue to support and profit from Saudi political and economic ambitions. That contradiction is well-noted by contemporary Muslim extremists, Prof. Cesari said. How to turn back the politicized Islam they seek to promote requires campaigns far more subtle than brute force by security agents, she argues.
“You need a lot of political courage to draw the line between fighting against terrorism and tolerating religious conservatives,” Prof. Cesari said, in a time when “the lines have been blurred completely” and political dividends are awarded to leaders who can appear the toughest on Islamic expression. Vigilance is necessary, of course, but her research demonstrates “if young people are educated in their religion, they tend to be less vulnerable to radical claims.”
Prof. Cesari worries that France and the rest of Western Europe are missing an opportunity to counter the ideological appeal of Islamic extremists to a new generation. ISIS and Al Qaeda tell young Muslims that they are losing their souls, that France wants to prevent them from being Muslim. “You cannot fight this kind of rhetoric only with weapons.”
Though ISIS and other radical Islamist groups have been driven from physical territory they once claimed, “they are winning,” she said, on the only battleground left to campaign across, the minds of young Muslims. An imbalance between laïcité and religious freedom may contribute to the problem that French society hopes to overcome.
How then should Mr. Macron best proceed to escape that cycle of offense and recrimination? Prof. Casanova suggests he follow the lead of French Muslims who suspended the annual celebration of Muhammad’s birth in a gesture of solidarity. He should likewise seek out opportunities for symbolic gestures that demonstrate the acceptance of Muslims and an esteem for pluralism.
“Go to a mosque [and] make a clear distinction between the people in the Muslim community and the Islamofacists,” he said.
Mr. Macron would have to overcome strong political and cultural currents. “This need of the unity of the laïcité, of the republic against communitarianism...the Rousseauian will of the people—it has to be opened up a bit,” Prof. Casanova said, “but it has to be done in the everyday life, everyday level of inter-communitarian dialogue and recognition.”
He suggests that the Catholic Church, the 19th-century target of laïcité, could play a crucial role as mediator of that dialogue. Pope Francis has frequently put symbolic gestures and images to good use, he said, washing the feet of Muslim inmates and Muslim women.
“You have to have responsible leaders on both sides who are able to build bridges, not build walls,” Prof. Casanova said. “It is the culture of encounter...You have to recognize the other.”
With reporting from The Associated Press/Religion News Service