Anne-Elisabeth Moutet, columnist for London's Telegraph and a contributor to the BBC and the New York Post, spoke to participants in a November 20 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about international reaction to French President Emanuel Macron's recent speech outlining his commitment to fight against "separatist Islamism."
Moutet recounted the criticisms lobbed against Macron by multiple organs of the Anglosphere media, which "accused him of being Islamaphobic, racist, in need of an education, et cetera."
Moutet said that her native France is "a country that has known terrorism for a very long time" and understands the threat, "knowledge ... we paid for in blood." In the sixties, "Algerian independentists" launched bomb attacks in Paris. In the seventies, it was Palestinian terrorists who threatened France. Then came Iranian-backed terrorists and various other Mideast proxies pressing their causes in France. In the nineties, France was "one of the main hinterlands of the civil war in Algeria," which unleashed Islamist terrorism on French soil. Following 9-11 came more bombings and beheadings, "the phenomenon that now ... everyone unfortunately has become familiar with."
Since 9-11, there has been a "creeping influence" of the "worst elements of Islamism" within the French Muslim community, which numbers 6-7 million people, almost half of which are of north African descent. Moutet said while the majority of Muslims in France generally distrust the Islamists and want to integrate into French society, "ecosystems" of Islamic extremism have developed among the Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated segments of the Muslim minority. In those Muslim enclaves, the French law of the land is defied and logistical support for terror attacks can be found.
Rather than seeking to advance defined political objectives, Islamists today increasingly kill "just because they don't like something ... drawn or written on paper." The 2015 massacre at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris can best be understood by recalling the fatwa issued against Salman Rushdie three decades prior for "insulting Islam" with the publication of his novel, The Satanic Verses. The fatwa accusing Rushdie of blasphemy and "condemning him to death" was looked upon in the West as "madness" issued by "one mullah in Tehran." Today, large numbers of Islamists claim that Charlie Hebdo cartoons are no different than the blasphemy of The Satanic Verses.
Macron made his declaration against "separatist Islamism" against the backdrop of the court case which was reopened against the surviving Charlie Hebdo killers. The magazine made the decision this past September to reprint the cartoons that provoked the killings, but French allies reacted with harsh criticism this time around, in contrast to the full-throated support they had voiced for France following the 2015 murders.
The French population supports Macron's government and his muscular response to Islamist terrorism. Moreover, President Macron took care in his speech about separatism to distinguish between the majority of French Muslims and the radical Islamists. But he has learned the hard way that the word "Islamophobia" has become an effective weapon for silencing any criticism of extremism in Islam.
Two foreign Muslim leaders seized the opportunity to revile both France and Macron. Turkish President Recep Tayip Erdoğan, who was angry at Paris for its defense of Greece, retaliated by insulting Macron and encouraging attacks against anyone aligned with Macron and the law of the French republic. A close second in piling on Macron is Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who declared that any Muslim is entitled to fight back against France – in essence a call to commit murder. Both Erdogan and Khan have funded the establishment of mosques in France, which affords them access to the Muslim enclaves that separate themselves from the greater French community.
It was in this atmosphere of incitement that the French teacher Samuel Paty was recently targeted and beheaded. Ironically, Paty was giving a civics lesson on freedom of expression and why caricatures are part of the French tradition and "not something that entitles you to kill people." Murdering Paty for displaying a cartoon critical of a religion is an assault on French political traditions, which can only be understood in the context of French history and the post-French-revolution establishment of "laïcité" (secularism) enshrined into law in 1905. Under this precept, the state "protects the practice of religion" while guaranteeing "the neutrality of the public space."
Macron's commitment has been exhibited through the French parliament's passage of laws strengthening France's counterterrorism agencies and dissolution of some associations that advocated murder and criminality. The way to "defang" some of the methods Islamists employ to spread their hate is to "follow the money" and disrupt it.
Moutet is "cautiously hopeful" that Macron, who has been sensitized to the scourge of Islamism, is committed to defending freedom of speech. "He is absolutely horrified that there is no way of getting your point across to some people, because they may understand what you say, but they absolutely disapprove of your being able to say it, and they [express their disapproval] with bombs."
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.