A few years ago, in a House of Lords debate on the treatment of Christians in the Middle East, the late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminded his peers of some famous words of Martin Luther King: ‘In the end we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.’
That reflection may now be going through the head of the French president, Emmanuel Macron. In recent weeks he has been left alone on one of the most dangerous and delicate ledges of our time: that of Islamic extremism. And while he has already incurred the wrath of much of the so-called Muslim world — with French goods disappearing from many Arab supermarkets and Macron condemned from Ankara to Islamabad — it is the silence of everyone else that has been so striking.
A string of fast-moving events began early last month when President Macron delivered some remarks on what he called ‘Islamist separatism’ in France. In a major speech he warned that a portion of France’s roughly six million Muslims were forming a ‘counter-society’. Two weeks later later a French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, was decapitated in a Paris suburb on his way home from school. The teacher’s ‘crime’ had been to talk to his class about the importance of free expression. This included showing them some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Mohammed. A campaign of vilification occurred among some of the local Muslim community and soon an 18-year-old Chechen armed with a 12-inch knife was on the way to Paty’s school. As Macron said subsequently, Paty was killed ‘because he taught the…freedom of expression, the freedom to believe or not believe’.
Such speeches are now common after such atrocities. We say ‘Je suis Charlie’ and then forget about it. But Macron seems to be serious. In the best traditions of the Republic, he stressed the non-negotiability of French secularism. He then said things that any honest interlocutors in the Muslim world would have recognized, praising, for instance, the ‘Islam of the Enlightenment’. As in his previous statements, he made it clear he does not regard Islam as the problem. His enemy — France’s enemy — is a radical form of the religion to which more Enlightenment forms are the answer.
Sadly, honest interlocutors in the international arena are hard to find. And never harder than among those endlessly campaigning to be the leader of the world’s Muslims. The most eager candidate for would-be Caliph this time (as ever) has been Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Speaking to his party at the end of last month, the Turkish president said: ‘What is Macron’s problem with Muslims and Islam?’ He went on to claim that the French president requires ‘some sort of mental treatment’ over his attitudes towards Muslims in France. ‘What else is there to say about a head of state who doesn’t believe in the freedom of religion and behaves this way against the millions of people of different faiths living in his own country?’
From these comments, the world ought to have got a good reminder of how heroically dim or dishonest Erdogan can be. Either he actually fails to understand the very plain and sensible line that Macron has tried to draw — or he understands it very well but pretends not to in order to rile up a Muslim world of which he aims to be principal defender and leader.
Sadly for him, others are vying for the same job. For instance, the erstwhile cricketer and playboy who now leads Pakistan also likes to pose as the Muslim firewall against the secular infidels. Khan claimed that Macron had deliberately created ‘further polarization and marginalization’. He went on: ‘President Macron has chosen to deliberately provoke Muslims, including his own citizens, through encouraging the display of blasphemous cartoons targeting Islam and our Prophet.’
Macron and the Republic responded to each of these insults and misrepresentations as calmly and patiently as anyone could. After all, they know the game. Khan is prime minister of a country containing more than 210 million people with some of the worst living standards in the world. Offered the chance to try to raise his countrymen to anywhere approximating his own standard of living or pose as raving mullah, Khan naturally finds it easier to do the latter. But there is no reason why the French Republic should just accept such dangerous insults and misrepresentations. After all, in the Islamic world false charges can have bloody consequences.
Two weeks after the murder of Paty, a Muslim immigrant started attacking worshippers at church in Nice. Three worshippers, including a sacristan, were knifed to death by the 21-year-old Tunisian, who had recently arrived via the island of Lampedusa. In the wake of this attack, Macron upped his game. Europe must rethink the open-border Schengen arrangements and tighten its external borders, he urged, expressing something that many other people had said in recent decades but had not all been congratulated for saying.
Yet Macron has turned out to be interested in actions as well as words. In the weeks since his October speech he has ordered the recall of the French ambassador in Ankara and called for Turkey to be expelled from the EU customs union. Several radical organizations inside France have been dissolved and the numbers of government forces at the French borders doubled. Macron has also promised to bring his proposals for a rethink of EU border controls to the European Council in December. If he does, he will find some support from his eastern and central European counterparts, who may wonder what took him so long.
Throughout this whole shocking episode there remains one great question. Where are France’s friends and allies? Where has the German government been? Did Angela Merkel at any point join her French counterpart in condemning the pattern of violence followed by the exhortation of the extremists from the Turkish and Pakistani leaders? No — she remained silent, as though the protection of the principles of the French Republic are of no interest to Germany. The German press did publish words of support for Macron from one government minister: it was Anwar Gargash, an Emirati foreign minister, speaking to Die Welt. Muslims, he said, ‘have to listen carefully to what Macron said in his speech. He doesn’t want to isolate Muslims in the West, and he is totally right.’
The most support Macron has had from other western leaders is a tweet from Mark Rutte, the Dutch prime minister. ‘The Netherlands stands firmly with France and for the collective values of the European Union,’ he said — although the silence of his European counterparts will speak volumes about how much those values are defended. Justin Trudeau, prime minister of Canada, even seemed to side with the Turks. When asked about Macron’s defense of the right to show cartoons, he replied that ‘freedom of expression is not without limits’.
Most shamefully for us Brits, the prime minister and government of the United Kingdom have also remained silent. While we rightly focus on future trade relations with France and the rest of the EU, to ignore such a massive issue is a deep mistake. The principles France is defending may be subtly different from those of the UK, but at the most fundamental level they are shared.
Whether or not France’s allies are scared, Macron is not. In an interview with Al Jazeera at the end of last month, he pointed out that the people he says are ‘distorting’ the religion of Islam ‘teach that women are not equal to men. They teach that girls should not have the same rights as boys.’ Well, Macron went on: ‘Not on our soil. We believe in the Enlightenment.’
Of course, hanging over that noble claim is the question all our countries have avoided for decades. Which is that while it is all very well to do a better job of asserting your values, what (if anything) can be done with people who are in your country, who know what your values are and still reject them? Like all his European counterparts, Macron has put that discussion off for another day. But the rest of this civilizational issue he has decided to have out. He has decided — whether sincerely or politically barely matters — to make a stand on the principles of the Republic he leads. He deserves the support of his friends. To date he has not even got our words. To our shame, not his.