The horrific attack in the French city of Nice in which a person beheaded a woman and killed another woman and a man inside a church, will be condemned unequivocally by all sensible and peace-loving people. India did right by expressing solidarity with France in its moment of shock and grief. As with another incident earlier this month, in which a teacher was killed in a Paris suburb for showing his students cartoons of Prophet Mohammed, France has described the attack in Nice as yet another act of Islamist terrorism on its soil. In both cases, the killers appear to be radicalised Muslim men, who arrived in the country recently. France has been a repeated target of terrorist attacks since 2012, when the satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo published cartoons of Prophet Mohammed. With each attack, France’s sense of vulnerability to an extremist ideology that uses religion to terrorise and kill to achieve political ends has only grown.
The latest incident will only harden the resolve in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, to crack down on what President Emmanuel Macron, in a controversial speech, earlier this month, called “Islamist separatism”, describing Islam itself as a religion in crisis, and vowing to reform Islam in line with French values, including laicite or secularism. France is preparing a new legislation that will arm law enforcers with powers of surveillance, to pull children from home-schooling back into school, deport individuals and shut down mosques if they are perceived to be violating the “French way of life”. This is a legitimate course of action in the face of terrorism. But the larger challenge for France is to negotiate a way of life that can accommodate its multi-culturalism with its first principles. As has been proved elsewhere in the world, holding a religion culprit for the actions of a few followers is not the wisest way forward. Holding the right to be offensive to others as the true test of freedom and equality diminishes the spirit of France’s founding ideals, especially when it is directed at another religion, and when the bulk of the followers of that religion perceive themselves to be powerless as an underclass.
The concern that what happens in France does not stay in France anymore has been borne out by protests across the globe at Macron’s speech. President Recep Tayipp Erdogan of Turkey, and former Malaysian President Mahathir Mohammed have much to answer for in instigating these reactions. One imagines himself to be the new leader of the Ummah, the other seems not to have got used to his retirement. Neither has conducted himself in the manner of a world leader. India is one of the few countries that has come out in support of Macron even as he was being accused of Islamophobia. And it did so without condoning the controversial cartoons.