Yesterday, Miguel Ángel Moratinos Cuyaubé, an obscure Spanish diplomat, who rejoices in the title of UN High-Representative for the Alliance of Civilizations, was abruptly introduced to the ephemeral glory of trending on French Twitter.
A former Socialist MP, Mr Moratinos had just issued an official statement, in which he expressed “deep concern” about the “growing tensions and instances of intolerance triggered by the publication of the satirical caricatures depicting Prophet Muhammad, which Muslims consider insulting and deeply offensive”. He went on to “stress” that “insulting religions and sacred religious symbols provokes hatred and violent extremism leading to polarization and fragmentation of the society” and called for “mutual respect of all religions and beliefs and for fostering a culture of fraternity and peace,” and so on, and so on.
Mr Moratinos’s statement was uncharacteristically picked up and blown into a full, straight-faced story by the savvy middle-market daily Le Parisien, which doesn’t usually make a habit of reporting on UN agencies. Within minutes, the reactions – on left and right – amounted essentially to “mutual respect starts with not chopping people’s heads”, “ask women not to wear short skirts as well, why don’t you?”, or “simple coward or collaborationist?” (These were the polite ones.)
The false equivalence between caricatures, however savage — a very special French tradition since the 1500s — and sanctioned murder seems doubly insulting here. The French remember that, when eight Charlie-Hebdo staffers were mown down by terrorists wielding Kalashnikovs in 2015, France’s respected Jesuit journal Études published far more insulting Charlie caricatures of Jesus Christ, the Pope, and assorted clergy, mostly in obscene postures, making the point that they as Frenchmen understood the joke, and perhaps also that their God couldn’t possibly be harmed by a few drawings.
France, still under the shock of the beheading two weeks ago of Samuel Paty – a schoolteacher who showed (among others) the Charlie caricatures of Muhammad during a civics lesson included in the mandatory curriculum – had woken up to the murder of three more people (including the beheading of a 60-year-old woman) by yet another Islamist fanatic, at the Notre-Dame de l’Assomption Basilica in Nice.
The country’s anger was compounded by what the French feel as an inexplicable abandonment by the most of the world. The murder of Samuel Paty, and Emmanuel Macron’s statement that France would not yield to Islamist terror (commented upon approvingly by Mohammed Moussaoui, the president of the French Council of the Muslim Religion), and that caricatures would never be banned here, were followed not by expressions of support; but by a wave of anti-French rage and hatred, calling for a boycott of French goods — and worse.
This was led by a strange alliance of authoritarian leaders with domestic economic and political problems — Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Pakistani prime minister Imran Khan — joined by the newly-Wokeified American quality press. The Washington Post , for instance, had no qualms about reducing the banning of Islamic networks masquerading as NGOs, who had fanned the flames and possibly concretely aided the murder of Samuel Paty, to “France mobilizing against Muslim groups”, while op-eds bemoaned France’s “intolerance” and “institutional racism” in an echo of American concerns born out of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Anglo journalists, the French feel, have no problem drawing equivalences between the radicalism that chops heads, and what they call, with intent, “radicalised secularism”, i.e. France insisting on her own multi-centenary tradition of a secular state.
Yes, there were statements of support from foreign leaders from Angela Merkel to Giuseppe Conte, but they were strangely muted. The feeling here is that Salman Rushdie, nowadays, would be blamed for the 1989 fatwa by Ayatollah Khomeini condemning him to death for blasphemy in his magical-realist novel The Satanic Verses.
Rushdie lived in hiding for decades, escaped several assassination attempts, but at least he had the broad support of international public opinion. Fast-forward 30 years, and it seems the Ayatollah has won, with the unlikely help from the “big Satan” — the new-style American imperialism that refuses to consider French culture and civilisation.
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