French President Emmanuel Macron seems a worried man. He first proposed to reform Islam along French lines. Then after the vicious killing of a schoolteacher by a Muslim teenager, he extended France’s support to caricatures of the Prophet that most Muslims see as blasphemous.
Many Muslim countries erupted in protest. Criticism also appeared in the British and American press. Macron now claims he was misinterpreted, clarifying in an interview to Al Jazeera that he was defending “the freedom to speak, to write, to think, to draw.” He wrote to the Financial Times this week to denounce “media articles that divide us.” The newspaper removed an article Macron to which objected from its website.
Nevertheless, the damage has been done — and not just to the principle of free expression. Two of the loudest voices against Macron — Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan — have exploited Macron’s missteps to deflect attention from their domestic excesses and failures. There has been more terrorist violence, in France, Austria and now Saudi Arabia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel struck the right note at a video conference of European leaders this week; she cautioned against talk of civilizational clash between Islam and the West, and chose to focus on how “our democratic social model” could deal with terrorism.
Certainly, it is one thing to defend freedom of expression — an obligation of all democratic leaders. It is quite another to deploy a whole nation behind a particular expression of that freedom.
In one striking instance of rising majoritarian sentiment against an already alienated minority, high schools across France plan to circulate booklets with degrading images of the Prophet in order to affirm “the values of the Republic.”
Part of the blame for this unfolding disaster must lie on Macron’s increasingly desperate wish to beat his explicitly anti-Islam rival Marine le Pen at her own game in presidential elections due in 2022.
But Macron and many of his supporters are also misled by ideological dogma. Much has happened in recent decades, from the rise of Islamophobic troll factories in India to recrudescent anti-Semitism in Europe and Facebook-created “bubbles” in the U.S., to complicate the quasi-religious faith that free expression is an absolute value, an unambiguous sign of moral and political progress.
France’s close neighbor Germany has been criminalizing defamatory “fake news” and cracking down on social media companies. France itself has declared the denial of the Holocaust to be a crime — a contradiction that bedevils its advocacy of free speech.
A perplexed Muslim today may well wonder why calumnies against the Prophet and Islam should become the true test of a heavily and frequently compromised principle.
Determined to resolve once and for all the “crisis” of Islam, Macron and many of his supporters assume that the right to offend the devout is an essential step in mankind’s passage from religious superstition to secular enlightenment.
The historical evidence for this belief may seem strong in the case of France, which in the late 18th century began to define its modern identity against a powerful and oppressive church.
But the country now has a substantial non-Christian minority, largely from the Muslim countries it once brutally colonized, and it seems highly unlikely that Macron or anyone else can manage to offend this historically humiliated population into an Enlightenment.
As Le Monde reported, Macron sneered during a cabinet meeting at American “multiculturalism,” calling it a “form of defeatist thought.” In fact, there is much he can learn from the United States, the impregnable bastion of free speech.
The “N” word, indissolubly linked to centuries of slavery, was once freely deployed across the U.S. Only the most bigoted white supremacist today will claim that the banishing of such free speech from public life is a blow to freedom.
The First Amendment didn’t have to be canceled in order to stigmatize such offensive discourse. Rather, anti-racist activists created broad social acceptance for their moral conviction — that the dignity of a once systematically degraded people be respected.
Contemptuous of America’s experience, Macron could at least look to Simone Weil, the rare French thinker to take into account the presence of her country’s colonial subjects and to understand that 18th-century articles of faith cannot remain the sole guide to human co-existence.
Examining France’s catastrophic political and moral collapse in the late 1930s and early 1940s, Weil came to see duties and obligations rather than rights as the basis of an irrevocably mixed society. For her, words like “I have the right” evoke a “latent war and awaken the spirit of contention.”
As Weil saw it, “to place the notion of rights at the center of social conflicts is to inhibit any possible impulse of charity on both sides.”
The spirit of contention, grown nasty, even lethal, is ravaging societies around the world today while the impulse to charity grows ever more feeble. Macron can do a lot more to squash the impression that insulting the core beliefs of nearly 2 billion Muslims is what will sustain the core beliefs of French people.
Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.
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