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SOURCE: TNN BLOG

The lifeblood of the modern French state has been violently extracted from the veins of renaissance reactionaries who murdered for liberty, equality and fraternity.

Since then, aside from the egregious and unpardonable excesses of the colonial era, the French state has by and large been an enthusiastic practitioner of secular values. If it has erred in recent times, it has been towards a pedantic secularism that has attracted controversy from avowed multiculturalists.

For example, laws in France permit the government to deny requests for citizenship to those who reject orders banning burqas on grounds of “lack of assimilation”. Indians would be familiar with an incident not so long ago when laws were invoked against turban-wearing Sikhs in France on the grounds that the head gear militates against French mores of social cohesion. The ban led to fervent protests in India that forced the Indian government of the day to raise the issue discreetly with its French counterpart. The French government responded by pointing out that turbans were allowed in public places but not in schools.

In a statement that is still available on the French embassy website the French government explains that the restrictions are in line with the “laws on laicite (the French principle of separation between the state and religious institutions) and practical solutions have been found to reconcile their (Sikh) religious practice with the principles of the French Republic”. From all indications French Sikhs seem to have understood this.

In France then, the right to offend or be blasphemous is near absolute. The French believe that, at their core, the tenets of religions could be naturally offensive to the adherents of other faiths. In the French scheme it is therefore inconceivable that a history teacher would have to pay for his life for an alleged act of blasphemy. In fact a vast majority of French people view Samuel Paty as an activist not a blasphemer. The history teacher’s decision to defy the mullahs and show his students cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad, during a lesson on free speech, was a symbolic one in protest against the terror attack on satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo for much the same reason.

It is in this limited context then that French President Emmanuel Macron has vowed to end “Islamist separatism” in the country. Religious extremism is anathema to secular democracy and Macron is only doing what every avowed secular-liberal would do in a situation like this: fight weaponised obscurantism. For, there can be no denying that only obscurantists among Muslims would take such an extreme step as to decapitate a teacher for encouraging students to defend the right to believe or not to believe.

It is therefore surprising that Macron’s attack on “Islamist extremists”, not Islam, has drawn such widespread criticism from around the world. Many Muslims have taken to the streets in their respective countries to accuse Macron of Islamophobia. Malaysian ex-PM Mahathir Mohamad in a 13-point harangue on Twitter ominously called upon Muslims to slay millions of French people for the massacres of the past. Worryingly, the demagogue found appreciation in some circles, raising the spectre of violence.

Are the shootings in Vienna and the French city of Lyon, or the attacks on Hindus in Bangladesh, directly attributable to Mahathir Mohamad’s invocation? One hopes not, but his absurd comments could open the floodgates for an unending cycle of worldwide revanchist violence. Will he justify Christians suddenly deciding to avenge unpunished attacks by Muslims in the past?

Beyond the ludicrousness, Mahathir Mohamad and those who “liked” his tweet are only betraying their poor understanding of the language of universal human rights. The defence of human life, liberty and freedom of expression is a moral and legal obligation of a rules-based society, not a phobia against Islam. Those who are not able to comprehend this fact are only authorising bigotry of the “other” side.

The Modi government is right to have supported President Macron. Sections of the opposition and disparate Muslim groups here in India, who are criticising Modi, are undermining well-established constitutional values. Instead of letting vote bank compulsions dictate their response, they would be better advised to demand consistency. The response to Muslim communalism cannot be an aggravating Hindu variant. There are vital lessons to be learnt from France, which is fighting religious extremism with hard secularism.