France Cracks Down on Everyone to Avoid Singling Out Islamic Terrorism

On September 2, 2020 a trial, postponed because of COVID-19, openedin Paris concerning those alleged to have been involved in the deadly attack in 2015 on Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical weekly magazine.  Besides recounting the gruesome account of the details of terrorist activity, the trial implicitly invokes the conflict in France between freedom of speech and freedom of thought and religion and hate speech in the context of terrorist activity that has caused deaths of innocent people.  Freedom of conscience like freedom of speech is protected by the 1789 Declaration of Human and Civil Rights and by the Constitution.  In France, as in all democratic countries, free communication of ideas and opinions is vital.  However, the law also prohibits hate speech, and laws protect individuals and groups from being defamed or insulted concerning identification with ethnic, national, racial, religious, sexual, gender orientations.  Inherent in the present French issue is whether blasphemy, specifically against Islam, is a crime.

Accusation of blasphemy was the alleged basis for terrorist activity in France.  In September 2005, the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten published twelve satirical cartoons about Islam.  The one considered most offensive by Muslims was the cartoon showing the prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban.  The French magazine Charlie Hebdo, C.H., in a special issue republished the cartoons on February 9, 2006. As a result, criminal proceedings for insulting the prophet on grounds of religion were brought against the chief editor, Philip Val, but he was acquitted in a trial in March 2007.  C.H. published other satirical cartoons of Mohammed in September 2012.

Declaring they were avenging the prophet, on January 7, 2015, two Islamist gunmen, the Kouachi brothers of Algerian descent, forced an entrance into the Paris headquarters of C.H., killing 12 people and wounding another 11.  The two gunmen shouted, Allahu akbar, God is great.  Later, the Yemen-based Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility.  After the attack, there were rallies in French cities, and the words "Je suis Charlie," became the symbol of support and sympathy for the murdered journalists, and more generally for the principle of free speech.

Two days later, a terrifying act of anti-Semitism occurred when a terrorist, Amedy Coulibaly, who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, ISIL, a friend of the Kouachi brothers, attacked a kosher supermarket, Hypercacher, in the 20th arrondissement in Paris, killing four, all Jews, and holding 15 others hostage during a siege before he was killed in a fight with police.  The 32-year-old Coulibaly had already killed a policewoman the day before.

Islamist terrorist attacks in France followed, all claimed by ISIL.  They took place in cafés and restaurants, the Stade de France in Saint Denis, and especially at a concert at the Bataclan theater on November 13, 2015, where 130 died, including 90 in Bataclan, and more than 400 were injured in coordinated attacks.  The risk of further attacks remains.  Over 8,000 are on a national database warning list of Islamist extremists. 

On September 25, 2020, another attack took place near the former office of Charlie Hebdo, a knife attack by a 25-year-old Pakistani, who injured two journalists, employees of a TV production agency.  The assailant had not realized that C.H. had moved to a new secret location.

The trial began on September 2, 2020.  Fourteen alleged associates of the Islamist gunmen, the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly, who attacked C.H. and Hypercacher, went on trial.  Three of them, perhaps dead, are being tried in absentia, including a woman named Hayat Boumeddiene, who apparently fled to Syria via Turkey and entered the Caliphate.  The group, minor players, were accused of assisting in terror attacks, supplying weapons, and financing the three jihadists.  The trial is being filmed because of the importance and emotion stirred by the attacks and by the fear of national and international terrorism.

On the occasion of the trial, Charlie Hebdo republished the controversial cartoons.  Its new editor, Laurent Sourisseau (Riss), who had been badly wounded in the original attack, and who now lives under round-the-clock protection, does not regret the original publication.  The cartoons, he said, belong to history, and history cannot be rewritten or erased: "if we don't fight for our freedom, we live like a slave, and we promote a deadly ideology."

President Macron is preoccupied with the resurgence of COVID-19 as well as with the continuation of strikes and the economic decline in the country.  Nevertheless, now he is concerned with fighting violent extremism and with social divisions, and with what he calls "Islamist separatism" in a country with an estimated six million Muslims, 8% of the population.  France is a secular country; it is the cement of a united France.  Religious symbols, including head scarves, are banned from schools and educational institutions, as are face veils of women.  Central to France is secularism, laïcité, based on the 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.  The secular society permits people to belong to any faith they choose but does not allow displays of religious affiliation in schools or in public service.  As recently as September 27, 2020, a member of Macron's political party walked out of the parliamentary meeting because a young woman student in the audience, a leader of the National Union of Students in France, was wearing a hijab.

Macron declared that it is necessary to defend the Republic and its values.  One must fight those who go off the rails in the name of religion.  This would bolster our ability to live together.  He did not condemn Islam as such and had no plan against Islam, but he did say it is a religion that is "in crisis all over the world."

Macron acknowledged France is to blame for current problems to some extent.  The colonial past, especially French rule in Algeria, left scars on French society, which "has not unpacked our past."  He continued in partly conciliatory fashion.  France created its own separatism, in essence ghettos, in some areas.  We have created areas where the promises of the Republic have not been fulfilled.  France concentrated populations of the same origins, the same religion, and this created economic and educational difficulties.  Most important, Macron warned of the peril of "communitarianism," communities governing themselves.  The task is to aid the integration of Muslims into the wider society.

In a speech in the city of Les Mureaux on October 2, 2020, Macron outlined his plan to deal with Islamist separatism.  His basic aim is to limit foreign influence on Muslims, which has led to radical ideas and terrorist attacks.  This would foster an Islam that is compatible with the values of the Republic.  Among his suggestions are education in Islamic culture and civilization in public schools, reform in housing, and ending gender segregation at municipal swimming pools.  Extremist religious teaching in schools and mosques must be eliminated.  All children from the age of three must attend state-registered French, not religious, schools, where Arabic instruction would be included but the state has control over the courses.  Schools Macron held, are the heart of secularism, where children become citizens.

Above all, France must end the system of importing imams and teachers from abroad.  Since 1977, a program allows nine countries to send imams and teachers to France to provide classes that are not subject to supervision by French authorities.  France wants to prevent Islamist radicals from taking control of mosques.  Imams should be trained and certified in France, must speak French, and must not spread Islamist views.  This would end "consular Islam," a process by which Algeria finances the Grand Mosque of Paris, which then distributes funds to mosques throughout France, and trains the imams in Rabat, Morocco.  Four majority-Muslim countries and Turkey send 300 imams to France every year.  Turkey is able to control a number of mosques under its Diyanet, directorate of religious affairs, which is used as an instrument of Turkish foreign policy.  It states that it is the legitimate representative of Muslims of Turkish origin in France, and that they are expected to show loyalty to Turkey.

The religious beliefs and practices of Muslims differ, and there is no consensus on a link connecting the religion and the inherent assumption of Islamic orthodoxy and abetting acts of violence and terrorism.  Yet it is wise to be cautious of a religion that often claims that its laws are superior to those of the state, and whose extreme adherents justify murder in the name of Islam.

Image: via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

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