France Got No Choice
France’s republic is based on the principles of Liberté, égalité, fraternité or liberty, equality and fraternity. Emmanuel Macron, the French President, is facing a backlash against some Muslim-majority for allowing the publication of caricatures that insult Prophet Mohammad.
Macron’s actions have risen a debate about whether caricatures that hurt religious sentiment can be allowed or not. Many people across the world, including many Indians, supported Macron’s statements. Some Indian Muslims condemned his statements. However, many people do not seem to realise that the same caricature, if originated from India, would lead to arrests of the publication.
France is a unique secular country. France’s form of secularism is about separating the religion from the State, this is one of the reasons why France has banned headscarves and burqas in public places and all forms of religious symbols in public schools. France’s version of secularism is an idealising concept but can be belligerent towards staunch followers of many religions. France believes that religion should be a private affair with minimum public broadcasting.
Such a thought process cannot work in a country like India. India’s secularism has space for religion in private and public life. Barring students from wearing headscarves, turbans, vibhuti and tilaks in schools or public places is impossible. This is reflected by a funny incident that happened in 2019 when Saamna, a Hindutva right wings newspaper, called for a ban of burqas citing national security reasons. The political party associated with this newspaper said that this was the opinion of the editor and not the stand of the party. This just shows how difficult it is for India to take any steps against religious customs.
Coming back to France, Macron has to be applauded for upholding Samuel Paty’s class on freedom of expression. In such polarised times, France has taken the courageous steps of defending caricatures that would be hurtful in many parts of the world. One can get offended by those caricatures but it does not give the right to take anyone’s life.
Faith and religion is a sensitive topic for many practitioners irrespective of religion. Something like caricatures or images of the prophet is not allowed in Islam. Many Muslims around the world would be offended by those pictures but calling for violence and acting upon it is a form of radicalisation that needs to be looked into and dealt swiftly. Many liberals condemn the killings but also take a stance that such caricatures should not be published as it can lead to hate speech and can further polarise society.
We are living in times of polarization and great divides. Society has been divided not only based on economic grounds but also on social, political, religious and racial grounds too. In such a divided society it is extremely easy to offend anyone, as the level of tolerance of inclusiveness is less. Whether it is India, France or the US, we are seeing xenophobic tendencies creeping in the society that is pushing us into comfortable xenophobic bubbles. These bubbles can be Whatsapp or Facebook groups, Twitter followers or subreddits that follow the same kind of ideology that we follow. Naturally, one bubble has a pre-determined judgement about other groups. Thus the great divide continues to increase and creates cleavages in our society.
By defending free speech in a polarized society, France’s move is extremely dangerous and bold but it is a step in the right direction. France is willing to go back to its roots and is not compromising on its ideology based on today’s divide. It is willing to offend a large section of the society by allowing caricatures at the risk of offending the extreme factions too. France will face an unseen backlash because of this but Macron believes that France’s ideals can no longer be compromised.
France’s special feature of separating religion from the State makes it easy for it to adopt such a path. Ideally, liberal democracies in the world should take similar actions but we know it will be impossible to carry out.
However, this move is dangerous as well. All the attacks that happened in October 2020 were people who were self-radicalized individuals that were not affiliated with any group. Additionally, none of the terrorist groups claimed responsibility for the attack. The French intelligence network said that all perpetrators were unknown to them. The disbandment of the ISIS from West Asia was just disbandment at the physical level. ISIS’s ideology framework still exists in the digital world where many youths continue to be influenced by such content thanks to the polarised world where they feel their culture and religion is being victimised by different forces. It is extremely easy to get radicalised in such an atmosphere.
France’s upholding of press freedom does not give it a clean pass. France has seen discrimination based on religious ground. Incidents of CVs being dumped because of a candidate’s names were being reported. Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan is a thriller show that did try to show that discrimination will lead to the hate for the republic. France has a lot to learn and introspect within itself to avoid further division of society.