A Melancholy Reflection on Race and Religion in France

In this time of COVID-anxiety, we’re among the fortunate ones in that the losses that we grieve have all been due to natural causes other than COVID-19 – if one can describe that as a fortunate sort of dichotomy, especially since so many of these losses are of family or friends younger than we are. But even the older ones whose demise might not be so tragic were it not for their historic or political significance have added a melancholy to the environment – John Lewis or Ruth Bader Ginsburg come to mind, both of whom have been memorialized in recent commentaries on this website. But it has been even more traumatic when the world suffers from the police brutality of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis or from the terrorist brutality of Samuel Paty’s murder in a Paris suburb.

My emotions spill over into agonizing grief over their loss of life and the harm to their loved ones as I try to understand the nature and circumstances of these two horrible murders. The shock and lingering horror take me straight to the issues of racial justice and radical Islamism and who can say what to whom these days. This is definitely taking on a level of heightened awareness in part because of the strangeness of the global pandemic world. And it applies to both of these dreadful events.

Inspiration from afar for Reforms in the USA

On the impact of George Floyd’s death on my state of mind, I have been motivated to engage in a virtual dialogue on racism with family and friends, starting, in my case, with recollections of a Minnesota childhood. The geographic and emotional link to the murder of George Floyd was the inspiration for looking anew at that childhood time. This had led to collecting an array of remarkable insights, first from the Internet but then from my sisters, cousins, in-laws and friends.

The pragmatic link to this event, meanwhile, comes with an appreciation for the reforms and transformative initiatives sweeping across America and especially the Black Lives Matter movement. Building further on the childhood recollections, I have reflected on lessons learned about American-style racism in three subsequent phases of my own life – at Oberlin College, in North Carolina, and at AT&T. All of these predated my moving to Europe and so are quaintly historic, even if they included my efforts to make them relevant in each case to more contemporary observations.

Melancholy over both Racism and Separatism in France

On the other hand, my efforts to link my American perspective to the French environment where I now find myself (and where I have been off and on over the past 20 plus years while living the life of an international civil servant based in Geneva) have failed miserably. Well, not completely. I just posted a comparative commentary on municipal elections in France and the US and hope to do more with this relatively non-controversial approach. But my earlier essays on laïcité and Islam or on migration and absorptive versus integrationist strategies have been set aside. The uniquely French history of republicanism and secularism has evolved into a passionate campaign against Islamist separatism -.and even against “Islamophobia”.

In early October (2020), President Emmanuel Macron delivered a long-awaited speech on policy to address what is being described in France as the “separatism” of “radical Islamism”. While reiterating the strong French tradition of secularism in public life, he lamented the crisis of extremism in Islam, both in France but also all over the world today. He called for an “Islam of France” that could link Islam with French values through an “Islam of Enlightenment”.

As I mulled over the implications for my own views about Islam in France, the public debate was suddenly swamped by the horrific murder of a French schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, by a Chechen Muslim refugee. This was a terrorist act triggered by a rabble-rousing Muslim cleric aligned with the father of a Muslim student protesting Mr. Paty’s teaching of freedom of expression by showing a couple of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons blaspheming Mohamed in his classroom.  More than ever, French public opinion seems to be hostile to any sympathetic defense of Islam – and especially to what is being blasted as “Islamo-gauchisme” of the left. The way this tragedy has been triggered by the profound French belief in defending freedom of expression to include blasphemy against any and all religions, including Islam, has altered the political climate dramatically.

I share here the passionate remarks about this from my son, Ralph Doggett Junior, whose formative growing up years were predominantly in France and Switzerland and who now lives in the USA. He wrote to me the following:

Feel free to share this. – I love you mom. I’m glad to hear you are safe. I have been somewhat following the news about France after I heard the news about the beheading of the schoolteacher in the Paris area several days ago. I think that sounds like a horrible way to go and I sympathize with the idea of trying to create an image of strength and national unity in the wake of such a tragedy. But I think I am at odds with how the French had responded. I think that projecting Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting and mocking the prophet Mohammad on French government buildings in Montpellier and Toulouse was provocative and disrespectful. I knew when I read about that that it was a terrible idea.

I am a firm believer in free speech and just yesterday there was a senate hearing on the subject here in the US. The GOP subpoenaed the CEOs of social media to question them on right wing media censorship basically. Every general election they say this, but this might be the most important election of our lifetimes. Disinformation and election interference are major concerns and so is incitement of violence. Our society and particularly internet society should do its utmost to combat these issues. I think that freedom of speech is so important, especially at a time like this, but I don’t support speech that puts lives in danger. That is honestly what I think the French government in those towns did. It was wrong of them to blast those images as part of their national identity.

For me, an advocate of multicultural diversity in the Anglo-Saxon and American tradition, I understand my son’s views. The events have brought about a stunned reconfiguration of my own thoughts and views. But before these events, it was the murder of George Floyd that drew us out. There were widespread protests and heightened demands for reforms in policing and criminal justice in the US and across the world, including here in France.

Appreciating the Debate on Racism in France after George Floyd

In our COVID-19 cocoon, we did not join the protests in person, but I certainly resonated to the agony in the revelations of chronic and systemic racism in my own life and in the world around me. Applying the lens of racism to the French scene in the midst of these protests revealed a parallel occurrence of a French-Malian youth, Adam Traore, who had died in police custody in 2016 following a similar chokehold to what had caused the death of George Floyd. French protests against police brutality in the summer tied what happened to the two of them with similar implications of racial discrimination. The Interior Minister at the time, Christophe Castaner, even suggested the possibility of banning the practice of chokeholds by the French police, among other reforms.

A few weeks later, however, President Macron announced a major cabinet reshuffle, including a rightward shift in the selection of a new Interior Minister, Gérald Darmanin. Mr. Castaner eventually reappeared in the political lineup as the parliamentary head of the Macron party, while one of Mr. Darmanin’s first moves was to meet with the French police union’s leadership to assure them he was on their side. Since then, Mr. Darmanin, whose political background is center-right, in contrast to the center-left background of Mr. Castaner, has stirred controversy with making such remarks as the “ensauvagement” of a part of French society, but that is the racial context of his controversial record. What has happened more recently is proving to be the more fundamentally problematic issue of Islamic terrorism.

The Islamic Debate confronting secularism and freedom of expression

The racial justice debate has been displaced by the Islamic debate, and here the issues are different, although one could argue that the discriminatory treatment of any group is a common issue. It’s just that the Islamic debate is fundamentally about religious beliefs and practices that are inconsistent with the French beliefs and practices that all people are and should be treated the same but in a secular and non-religious uniformity. This is reinforced by French acceptance of things like cartoons that mock religious practices, with no distinction for what some might call blasphemy against Islam. There is, then, a legitimate question of freedom of speech to portray religious figures in a cartoon that are intentionally disparaging versus freedom to practice one’s religious beliefs that object to being exposed to any kind of portrayal of a religious figure.

How does this relate to the US? Above and beyond the obvious legal difference that the US Constitution protects freedom of speech, there is the matter of how this has been legally interpreted over the years. The memory that immediately comes to my mind is the objection raised by a certain right-wing US Senator against a photography exhibit in North Carolina that featured the portrayal of a crucifix immersed upside down in a glass of the photographer’s urine. This particular photograph has been in numerous exhibits over the years and continues to attract charges of blasphemy, even though the photographer, Andres Serrano has insisted that he is himself a lifelong Catholic and that it is no different from contemplating how Jesus must have suffered while dying nailed to a cross. I did not know this until doing an Internet search to confirm my memories, but I discovered that a print copy of the photograph was also shown in an exhibit in Avignon in 2011 where it was vandalized “beyond repair” by a group of Catholic protestors.

I remember being quite upset with that US Senator for proposing that the photographer should be denied any future funding from the National Endowment for the Arts but also with the North Carolina gallery for caving in to the Senator’s pressure and removing the exhibit (as I recall). At least, though, the photograph has continued to be shown elsewhere, even in France! This then suggests that the Charlie Hebdo cartoons should also be unrestricted. There are differences, of course – one being the intention of the creator of the photograph versus the creator/publisher of the cartoon. But that is really a slippery slope. And the most recent calamity was associated not with an art gallery or media publication but with a classroom setting (fourth level or eighth grade, as it were) for a discussion on freedom of expression.

A lot of harsh reactions have set in. The radical cleric who evidently was the link to the terrorist is now in custody and subject to charges of accessory to the murder or deportation. Islamic centers that are associated with advocating radical separatism or of criticizing Samuel Paty personally are being closed down, along with their associations and their social media platforms. Over 200 individuals who have been monitored for their radicalism are likely to be deported. More broadly, though, the Macron government was already preparing legislation to combine new restrictions on foreign imams and home-schooling with broadened outreach to the moderate Islamic leaders and programs to counter discrimination in education, jobs and neighborhoods. And these administrative actions are simply part of what is likely to be an expanded legislative agenda on linking French Islam to the French Renaissance, as it were.

The Global Perspective

Meanwhile, President Macron is being condemned in the Islamic world for his description of Islam in crisis around the world, the government’s actions against radicalism in Islam and the French tradition of irreverent cartoons by the likes of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and others in the Arab world (Jordan, even but also Kuwait, Qatar) and beyond (Pakistan and Bangladesh). President Erdogan has even called for a boycott of French products – and provocatively questioned the “mental health” of President Macron. Some observers think that this friction actually plays into the hands of both Erdogan and Macron who are embroiled in other more significant diplomatic spats over refugees, or maritime exploration rights or Syria, or Libya or Nagorno-Karabakh and a host of other brewing issues.

Add to this the repeat of yet another terrorist attack in Nice with three apparently random people brutally murdered by an undocumented recent migrant from Tunisia and one has to wonder how to calm things down. At least the new lockdown measures in response to the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic may help with both case control and some breathing space for controlling passions. Will the outcome of the US elections next week make any difference? One can hope that we will at least have new signs of reasonableness and moderation to stop this escalation externally, while President Macron and his cabinet focus on the domestic crises and a calming process of dialogue and understanding.

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