France and Islam on collision course as Emmanuel Macron says republic’s laws must be supreme | World News

Emmanuel Macron is the focus of intense protests and criticism across the Muslim world.

At the heart of the controversy is a clash between secular and religious values, but there may be more to it than that.

The French president’s supporters say he is simply defending his country’s secularism.

Demonstrators hang an effigy of Emmanuel Macron near Herat in Afghanistan
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Demonstrators hang an effigy of Emmanuel Macron near Herat in Afghanistan

His angry critics say he has offended millions of Muslims and even accused him of trying to reshape Islam, thereby touching off resentment about France’s colonial past.

France has a long tradition of staunch secularism. In 1905, a law entrenched the principle of laicite (secularism) in law.

It was designed to protect the rights of individuals to practise their own faith, but also to keep religion – namely the Catholic Church – out of state institutions, particularly schools.

Other laws protecting the right to blaspheme go back further – there was a determined effort to keep the church out of state affairs in the wake of the French Revolution.

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So whereas in some countries cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammad in an unfavourable light might be banned by blasphemy laws, that is not the case in France, where it is legally permissible to denigrate a religion, if not an individual because of the religion they practise.

There is a very clear clash between those principles and the values of Islam which forbid any image of the Prophet, let alone those that mock or ridicule him.

Protesters burn a portrait of French President Emmanuel Macron in Tripoli
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Protesters burn a portrait of President Macron in Tripoli

But the controversy goes deeper than that.

President Macron is also provoking anger for a bolder, more critical position he has taken on what he calls Islamist separatism.

The problem is an “ideology which claims its own laws should be superior to those of the republic”, he said in a speech earlier this month.

Islamist separatism, he said, threatens French secular values and the very future of the French Republic.

Unlike the Christian tradition, Islam has no separation between church and state. The Prophet Muhammad was both a spiritual and temporal leader.

Strictly speaking, Islamic religious law should be supreme. This has always created a tension in western countries where Muslims practise their religion – and in France in particular, given its secular tradition and particularly now because of the Charlie Hebdo controversy.

Mr Macron appears to be taking a stand against even the more innocuous forms of “Islamic separatism”, saying they undermine French values, and he appears determined to protect freedom of expression and speech in France.

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Macron: France is ‘under attack’

Religion is an idea, according to those values, and citizens should therefore be free to discuss and even mock it.

Some of the president’s critics say he is going further than defending French values by criticising Islam and trying to remould it in a western light.

They say he is acting in the colonial and imperialist traditions of his country’s past.

There is also no doubt that some leaders and extremist groups are using the controversy for their own ends, to win more support and to increase recruitment.

Tragically, it is also being used to justify outrageous acts of brutal violence.

The complexities of this debate are probably academic for many of those protesting across the Muslim world.

For them, the sight of a French leader apparently defending a blasphemous cartoon of their prophet is enough to bring them onto the streets.

In a religion where it is prohibited to draw their leader, the faithful are deeply offended by a picture denigrating him and cannot understand the refusal of the French government to allow it to happen.

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