Yes, Islam Is Facing a Crisis. No, France Isn’t Helping Solve It.
By championing freedom from religion while trampling freedom of religion, Macron is discrediting the Enlightenment in the eyes of Muslims—and strengthening the Islamists he vows to defeat.
“Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today.” That is what the French President Emmanuel Macron said on Oct. 2, while announcing his “anti-radicalism plan.” Just two weeks later, on Oct. 16, a devotee of that radicalism killed and beheaded a high-school teacher, Samuel Paty, in a Paris suburb, merely for showing the infamous cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his classroom. And soon after, three worshippers at a church in Nice were savagely murdered by another terrorist who seemed to have the same motivation: to punish blasphemy against the prophet of Islam.
In return, the French authorities initiated a crackdown on anything they deemed to be Islamism, and also projected the controversial cartoons of Prophet Muhammad on government buildings in France—only to provoke mass protests in various parts of the Muslim world.
All these events have initiated an ongoing debate about France, Islam, and freedom. Some in the West now see France as the beacon of Enlightenment values against the dark forces of religious fanaticism. Others argue that the main problem is Islamophobia, racism and the colonial arrogance of France in a world where—except for a handful of extremists—Muslims are the real victims.
As a Muslim who has been writing about these issues for about two decades, let me offer a more nuanced view: First, France—like any target of terrorism—deserves sympathy for its fallen and solidarity against the threat. Moreover, Macron is largely correct that Islam is facing a “crisis”—not “all over world,” but certainly in some parts of the world—and we Muslims need an honest conversation about that. Unfortunately, Macron is doing little to resolve this crisis and could actually be inflaming it, because the sort of freedom he claims to defend is full of painful shortcomings and cynical double standards.
Many Muslims would find any talk of Islam facing a crisis unacceptable, if not heretical, for they think of Islam as a divinely ordained, perfect, and eternal truth. Yet one can well believe in the divine core of Islam, as I do, while being critical of the many layers of human interpretation built on top of that. It is this human interpretation that gave us much of the Islamic fiqh, or jurisprudence, which has some harsh verdicts that conflict with what the modern world calls human rights and civil liberties—the notions that people should be free to believe or disbelieve in a religion, and free to evangelize or criticize it.
Let’s take the burning issue at hand: What should Muslims do in the face of blasphemy against the Prophet—or sabb al-rasul, as medieval jurists called it. They all agreed it should be severely punished. According to mainline Shafi and Maliki jurists, the blasphemer would be executed immediately, unless he or she repented. According to the stricter Hanbalis, the blasphemer would be executed even if he or she repented. And according to the milder Hanafis, there was no clear ground for execution, but the blasphemer could be jailed and beaten with sticks.
None of these verdicts had any basis in the Quran—like most similar verdicts in Islamic jurisprudence—but jurists inferred them from some targeted killings that reportedly took place during the Prophet’s battles with the polytheists of his time.
What is less noticed is that medieval Muslim jurists reasoned according to the norms of their time, where the concept of free speech simply didn’t exist. Indeed, their Christian contemporaries weren’t any more lenient to blasphemers or heretics. The Byzantine Empire, under the Justinian Laws of the 6th century, declared, “Men shall not … blaspheme God,” and gave the death penalty for those who did. Later, in Europe, the Catholic Inquisition took blasphemy law a step further by making this capital punishment just more painful with new techniques like auto-da-fé, or burning people alive at the stake.
Yet Christianity has changed immensely in the past four centuries—first with the lessons taken from the horrific Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), and then new ideas of tolerance advocated by Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke. Debates on freedom among Catholics continued well into the 20th century, but ultimately all mainline Christians gave up coercive power in the name of their faith.
However, the same transformation hasn’t yet fully taken place in Islam—and that lies at the core of the crisis, that not just Macron but also critical Muslims are talking about. Medieval Islamic jurisprudence is still there, with some violent and coercive verdicts unrefuted by most contemporary religious scholars. Most Muslims are not interested in these verdicts, let alone eager to implement them, but some are. Their zealotry, in the extreme, leads to vigilante violence and terrorism. In the mainstream, it leads to blasphemy laws that are in place in many Muslim-majority states—Pakistan being one of the most ferocious.
A fairly conservative but thoughtful American Muslim, Yasir Qadi, a popular preacher and a dean at the Al-Maghrib Institute, recently admitted this problem in an interesting post “on the French terrorist attack.” Most mainstream Muslim authorities condemn such terrorist attacks, he noted, but “don’t directly address the fiqh [jurisprudence] texts involved.” Especially on the issue of blasphemy, he added, “There are texts and fiqh issues that need to be discussed frankly—hardly anyone has done that (still!).”
Having such frank discussions on Islamic jurisprudence—and the underlying theological assumptions—could open Islam’s path toward its own authentic Enlightenment, the gist of which should be giving up coercive power in the name of the faith. We Muslims need this reform not to please Westerners, but to save our own societies from the sectarianism, bigotry, misogyny, and oppression that is being justified in the name of Islam, and to better reflect the true values of our faith.
In other words, Islam needs its own Enlightenment, but Macron is advocating the wrong sort of Enlightenment. And that’s a problem deeply rooted in France’s own history.
It is worth recalling that the Enlightenment was not a monolithic movement. As the late great historian Gertrude Himmelfarb explained in Roads to Modernity: The British, French, and American Enlightenments, there was rather a clear distinction between the French and the Anglo-Saxon paths: In France, Enlightenment often implied a combat between faith and reason. In Britain and America, it often implied a harmony of them. Therefore, the French path has been much more assertive, anti-clerical, and also bloody. The French Revolution, lest we forget, was an extremely violent affair, where hundreds of priests were killed—often by beheading—and the Church’s dominance of the public square was replaced, not by neutrality, but an alternative religion called the Cult of Reason.
Having subdued Catholicism long ago with this aggressive Enlightenment, France seems to be reviving it against Islam, especially under the banner of laïcité, its unmistakably illiberal form of secularism.
The French often say foreigners don’t understand laïcité. I do—because my country, Turkey, imitated the French model for almost a century.
The main problem of this specific form of secularism is its reliance on preemptive intolerance; assuming that religion and its symbols might become oppressive if they are visible, laïcité suppresses them in the first place. The result of such policies is often a simmering grudge among the religious, and ultimately a backlash, if not revenge—which is precisely how Turkey got its great Islamic avenger, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
Although Macron says the target of laïcité is not Islam, but only “Islamism,” the latter term is left quite vague in his rhetoric. In practice, it’s not vague at all. In France it has long been obvious that personal Muslim practices are targeted: For many years, Muslim women in France have been banned from wearing headscarves in public buildings, or so-called burkinis on beaches. Last September, a French politician from Macron’s party protested a young French Muslim woman for merely walking into the National Assembly while wearing a headscarf. And, in October, the French interior minister even took issue with halal food aisles in supermarkets—and kosher ones, too, signaling a threat to the religious freedom of just not Muslims, but other practicing believers as well.
In other words, what France requires from its Muslims is not just accepting the freedom of speech of blasphemers, but also giving up a part of their own freedom of religion. This is not only wrong in principle, but also myopic and counterproductive. It just makes it harder for practicing French Muslims to feel respected, accepted, and therefore fully French—precisely the sort of integration radical Islamists would like to avert.
In fact, laïcité has been counterproductive for the whole Muslim world, by giving secularism a bad name. I have seen this personally over the years among Muslim audiences around the world. Whenever I have advocated freedom, I often received the heated reaction: “What freedom are you talking about? The one that bans our sisters’ hijabs in France?!” It provides the perfect excuse for whataboutism among Islamists, and a recruiting tool for them, too.
Moreover, the shortcomings of France are not just in freedom of religion, but also what it claims to heroically defend: freedom of speech. It is true that in a free society people have the right to blaspheme against any religion, and religious believers should simply learn to look the other way—which is precisely what the Quran commands us Muslims. (When Muslims see mockers of Islam, the Quran says, they should just “not sit with them” —not kill or silence them.)
But the problem is that while France glorifies blasphemy against God, it bans blasphemy against “the Republic”—its own secular deity, so to speak. More specifically, French laws ban “defamation against government institutions and office-holders, as well as disrespecting the national anthem and flag.” Alas, “insulting the President” was a crime in France until 2013, when the European Court of Human Rights finally pushed for a legal reform. Even so, in 2018 French courts went after protesters who burned effigies of Macron. And just last September, the French Justice Minister proudly declared that “insulting a mayor” will also soon be “a criminal offense.”
So, those who argue that “France is not the free-speech champion it says it is” are quite right. And the whataboutism that this double standard will fuel in the Muslim world is quite predictable. The fact that the French government appears to be flexing its muscles in an effort to curb free speech even beyond its borders—as appears to have occurred recently in the pages of the Financial Times and Politico—only makes it harder to see Macron as a great defender of the freedom of expression.
If Macron really wants to help the crisis of Islam, instead of making it worse, what he needs to do is to raise France’s own standards of freedom of speech and religion, so that more Muslims can actually benefit from and appreciate these crucial values, giving them an incentive to make a clean break from the coercive understandings of Islam.
There is a country in which this experiment has already taken place—and its results are not bad. This country is, of course, the United States—the heir of the more religion-friendly Enlightenment, and the pinnacle of the “Anglo-Saxon liberalism” that is often disparaged in France. I am aware that the United States’ current political crisis can make it a hard sell, but from a broader perspective, it is a success story: It is a country with much higher levels of freedom of speech and religion than those of France—and a much better integrated Muslim minority, which increasingly appreciates liberal values.
This phenomenon, noted by research institutes or American Muslims themselves, have complex reasons, such as the United States’ lack of a long colonial history in the Muslim world, and a more middle-class immigrant population. But even its African-American Muslims, who have suffered racism, can feel proudly American. The secret to this success is freedom, which allows Muslims to live in America without giving up their personal piety and communal identity, being visible everywhere—including in Congress—with their religious symbols, and realizing that free speech works for them as well—in addition to economic freedom, which allows them to compete and flourish.
In other words, U.S. authorities are not sending secularism police to American beaches to make sure that Muslim women are sufficiently undressed, in order to create an “American Islam.” The latter just grows naturally. Because when people see freedom, and understand that it is really for everyone, they tend to appreciate it. And when they sense that freedom is only for those who look, live, and think in a certain way, they retreat to their cultural trenches.