Mahathir is always right – his comments about Macron need context. But so does France’s relationship with Islam

by | Nov 3, 2020 | Opinion Pieces

  • The French president’s statement that ‘Islam is in crisis’ reflects the country’s failure to address the challenges of immigration and colonial memory
  • Likewise, Mahathir was trying to rattle Macron, as well as other Muslim leaders – but he has also revealed his reliance on old political, religious and gender paradigms

The Muslim world has fallen out of love with France since President Emmanuel Macron this month stated that “Islam is in crisis”. Macron’s war with what he calls “radical” or “separatist Islamism” has been backed up by interior minister Gerald Darmanin, whose declaration this month that France was “at war with the Islamist ideology” was followed by the closure of a mosque in a city on the outskirts of Paris and the arrest of its leader.

These extreme measures and statements are responses to the murder of Samuel Paty, a French history teacher who was beheaded by an 18-year-old male from Chechnya after showing caricatures of Prophet Mohamad to his class to illustrate a debate on freedom of expression. These were the same illustrations published by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, which have left severe criticism and extreme violence in their wake.

Macron’s statement has drawn criticism from around the world, with particularly strong reactions from Malaysian politicians Mahathir Mohamad and Anwar Ibrahim – but some context is required to understand what lies behind the political postures in France and in Malaysia.

While we understand the French government is defending the country’s core principles and laws, it seems to systematically avoid the real debate about social and political schisms existing in France.

Rather this debate is stuck in manichean and sterile discussion between laicité, the French constitutional principle of secularism, and Islam or Islamism. Laicité was enacted in 1905 to define the strict separation between state and church, meaning religion in general, with its guarantees including the religious neutrality of the state and the right for an individual to practise their beliefs.

The controversy over France’s subsequent law against the burka and the niqab, as well the illegal expulsion of students from university class because they were wearing the hijab, have created tensions inside and outside France.

The concept of laicité and its related laws are often misunderstood by French people themselves, not just in the Muslim world. This confusion gives rise to a real fracture within French society and in the media over the definition and evolution of French norms and culture. The right/left spectrum here is no longer accurate, and the usual political lines are blurred.

However, debates about laicité or “separatist Islamism” as coined by Macron recently are symptoms and not the cause of deeper issues challenging French society as a whole. The French government is totally confused with the many definitions, interpretations and movements existing within Islam and the diversity of the Muslim world. The media’s oversimplification and the many opinions of unqualified experts only add to the confusion.

In this context, Macron’s strategy to take this “war” to the global level is an attempt to obliterate the social realities and political fractures back home.

This follows his – and his predecessors’ – failure to address the challenges of immigration, colonial memory, and the creolisation of modern French society, as evinced by Macron’s denial in reaction to the youth movement against racism and police violence that preceded the murder of George Floyd in the US, as well as the condescension of the French government in dealing with the social upheaval of the Yellow Vest workers’ movement that since 2018 has been calling for the reform of economic inequalities.

Rather than “a war against an ideology”, the French government is at war with its own people: the ones that would have been embraced by the country’s Republican ideals but whom decades of neoliberal policies have cast aside.

Inequalities have created porosity in the French model, and the susceptibility of vulnerable individuals to violent discourse and actions. However, the discrimination and injustice felt by segments of French society have not led most to commit any violence. In all contexts and at all times, radical ideas – whatever their religious or political inspiration – have found acolytes looking for the legitimisation of their actions.

We also tend to forget that in many cases, the same people responsible for terrorist violence are marginalised individuals, who are at odds with their communities, some of whom with criminal backgrounds, for whom religion is a means rather than an end. While many in French academia, politics and civil society are attempting to nuance and add weight to the debate, it seems these voices fall on the government’s deaf ears. Meanwhile, leaders in the Muslim world are on edge.
Most of the Muslim world, shall we remind the French, lives in Southeast Asia, with Indonesia being the world’s largest Muslim country. Malaysia is a major partner in the region for Europe in general and France in particular. While the two countries have had a few heated moments in recent years, ranging from the technicalities of submarine sales to controversy over the environmental friendliness of palm oil, the recent declarations of Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad on France’s official stance towards Islam have set a new tone.

While they compete for the role of democratic icon in their country, they also portray themselves as beacons of hope for all Muslims around the world – including those in France. While their invective is directed at the French people and Macron, their comments should be read in relation to the current political climate in Malaysia. In fact, they reflect a very shallow understanding of the French context, and reveal the limits of political posturing on international issues for domestic gains.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s criticism of Macron gave Anwar the push he needed to break his awkward silence since his failed attempt to overthrow the current government in Malaysia. But while Anwar’s historical misunderstanding of postrevolutionary “terror” barely crossed Malaysia’s borders, Mahathir’s comments went further in all regards.

Far from the sophistication of the political chameleon Anwar, Mahathir is colourblind and would rather proudly “speak truth” to people, more or less successfully. His tweet that “Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people” spread rapidly, but also confused the Western world. As a Malaysia specialist, I am being asked “Is this guy for real?” or “Is this a fatwa to kill French people?”. Again, we need some context: clearly, Mahathir does not want to kill French people, nor does he want to ban G-strings in Malaysia. So what is this about?

Since Malaysia’s internal political coup saw the rise of a new government earlier this year, Mahathir has attempted to take over leadership of the opposition coalition in place of Anwar. The creation of his new party, Pejuang, is a way to offer an alternative to the Anwar-led opposition.

Mahathir is a man of controversies who rises in times of crisis – especially the ones he initiates. We should also remember that Mahathir was born in 1925, he is one of the last representatives of the generation of nationalist leaders who have led their country towards independence.

He is (in)famous for his decades of criticism against the West, Israel, and his anti-Semitic prose. As a rule, Mahathir opposes superpowers like China, France or Russia, and often allies with other middle-power and/or Muslim countries in the Southern hemisphere. This is how Mahathir succeeded in putting Malaysia on the world map in the 1980s and 1990s.

This time, however, he has pushed the envelope by publishing a long post criticising Macron and what he (wrongly) believes are the French norms and way of life. More than anything, in this post, the nonagenarian has showed that his reasoning revolves around old paradigms and stigma on gender and women’s dress.

His problematic prose on Thursday contained this paragraph: “Muslims have a right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past. But by and large the Muslims have not applied the “eye for an eye” law. Muslims don’t. The French shouldn’t. Instead the French should teach their people to respect other people’s feelings.”

But rather than quoting the entire paragraph, most media outlets only seized on the first sentence, and that is what has been heard around the world – something Mahathir pointed out on Friday.

Mahathir made a successful attempt to create a shock wave, in the same way the Charlie Hebdo cartoons and Macron’s speech did. Mahathir’s aim was to prove that freedom of expression has some limits; a demonstration in which he shows that Muslims are being silenced but Western leaders are not. Facebook and Twitter’s decision to delete the sentence has proved him right, he would argue.

His post was meant as a slap in the face for the French president, but also for other Muslim leaders who have failed to take a strong position. Mahathir is a respected leader in the Muslim world, and his position does matter.

But this political positioning should not be overestimated – he does not claim to be a religious leader and is not perceived as such. He has long exposed and severely opposed bigotry and extremism in his own country, putting himself at odds with the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), a major political party in Malaysia and currently in the government coalition.

Twitter’s action against Mahathir has elevated – or downgraded – him to the level of US President Donald Trump, against whom it has taken similar action. This is a first in Malaysian political history.

At 95, Mahathir is eyeing another shot at the premiership in the next election, possibly to be held early next year, for a 25th year of rule. Mahathir has set another record: he might be the one of the only, if not the only, Muslim leader in modern history who is able to talk about women’s underwear and Islamic faith in the same foreign-policy-posturing speech.

This article first apppeared at scmp.com

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