This autumn, France witnessed three terrorist attacks on its soil. The response of the international community has been nothing short of shameful.
It began last month, when a man stabbed two people outside the former office of Charlie Hebdo — the suspect later admitted that he wanted to punish the magazine for its famous cartoons of the prophet. Weeks later, a middle school teacher was beheaded for displaying the very same caricatures during a class-discussion about free speech. Days later, a terrorist attacked a Church in Nice, slitting the throats of three peaceful worshippers.
In response, French people expressed their heartfelt support for the victims, as well as their unwavering determination to defend freedom of speech. President Macron called laïcité, or France’s tradition of secularism, “the glue of a united country.” The French government then announced a series of measures designed to combat the rise of extremism. For foreign imams to preach in French mosques, and for religious NGOs to seek public funding, all will have to sign a charter on secularism and go through rigorous background checks.
Time and again, Macron praised the “Islam of the Enlightenment,” insisting upon difference between the vast majority of French Muslims — who respect and revere laïcité — and the handful of murderers who sully Islam. In an interview with Al Jazeera, Macron declared that his enemy — France’s enemy — is not Islam itself, but a radical interpretation of the religion.
This distinction has been largely ignored in the American media. The Financial Times, for example, misquoted Macron by replacing “Islamist separatism,” the term he used time and again, with “Islamic separatism” — the important difference being that while the term “Islamist” differentiates between Muslims and extremists, “Islamic” does not.
Some met the French government’s response with fury. Imran Khan, Pakistan’s Prime Minister, deemed Macron’s response “provocative to Muslims in France and worldwide.” We should note that Pakistan, a country where 37-year-olds get sentenced to death for “blasphemous texts,” has never issued an official condemnation of China’s treatment of Muslims in next-door Xinjiang. For Khan, Macron’s words seemed more offensive than the CCP’s prison camps. Is Khan truly interested in fighting Islamophobia, then, or his grandstanding merely a convenient way to hide his abysmal mismanagement of COVID-19?
Mahathir Bin Mohamad, the former Malaysian Prime Minister, took to Twitter to argue that Muslims have “the right… to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” Unbothered, Twitter initially refused to censor these comments — which, I’m sure, were less dangerous than the New York Post article about Hunter Biden that Twitter removed in seconds.
To be clear, I am not arguing that laïcité is beyond reproach; nor do I claim that rampant Islamophobia does not exist in France. What I do think, however, is that Western politicians and journalists have failed to stand up for liberal principles throughout this crisis. To put it bluntly, their response (or lack thereof) has been contemptible.
I would like the reader to put herself in the shoes of the French people for a moment. In the midst of a deadly pandemic, terrorists attack your country three times. Your compatriots are beheaded for the crime of believing in secularism and freedom of speech. Worse still, countless leaders insult and boycott your country.
How would you feel if, in this very situation, your closest allies offered no support whatsoever?
This is not a thought experiment, for Western democracies did fail to stand with France. For weeks, Angela Merkel stayed silent. So did Boris Johnson. When asked about Macron’s defence of Charlie Hebdo, Justin Trudeau replied that “freedom of expression is not without limits.” Apart from the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and a few others, European leaders by and large refused to offer their unambiguous support to France or the values it defends. In fact, by siding with Macron against Erdoğan, the Emirati foreign Minister Anwar Gargash defended liberal principles more vocally than the entire Anglo-Saxon world.
Meanwhile, Politico’s only reaction was to publish an op-ed called “France’s dangerous religion of secularism,” a piece so baseless and slanderous that the editors removed it after considerable backlash. After the attacks, the New York Times ran the following headlines: “France’s Hardening Defense of Cartoons of Muhammad Could Lead to ‘a Trap’,” “Is France Fueling Muslim Terrorism by Trying to Prevent It?,” “A Teacher, His Killer and the Failure of French Integration,” and “After Terror Attacks, Muslims Wonder About Their Place in France.” At no point did the “paper of record” issue a tribute to the victims themselves.
Besides, consider the following claims made in the last article: “French officials have vowed to … [close] a mosque, proposing to ban several Muslim groups the government considers extremist” The problem with the piece is that it fails to mention two things. First, the decision was the result of a month-long, independent investigation into these groups that found connections to extremist groups. Second, and most importantly, the shutdown was authorized by a court decision. In other words, while the article makes the government’s decision seem like a discriminatory and arbitrary measure, its response was in compliance with the rule of law. Of course, targeting Muslims would be simply unacceptable. Nevertheless, as it stands, the article misleads its readers into believing that the French government’s response was more sinister than it actually was.
After 9/11, French newspapers ran the headline: “We are all Americans.” Imagine if, instead, they had run the following headline: “After decades of disastrous foreign policy in the Middle-East, America faces consequences.” Would it have been incorrect to say that American interventions abroad had something to do with 9/11? No. Would it have been inappropriate, if not disgraceful in the circumstances? Absolutely.
When the founding values of liberal democracy are attacked, when teachers are beheaded for showing cartoons in class, and when worshippers are stabbed at Church, our reaction should be one of unambiguous solidarity. The French’s determination is their honour; our failure to support them is our shame. As Martin Luther King Jr. put it, “in the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His column, titled, “Through the looking glass,” runs every Wednesday. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.