Pierre Soulages, Untitled

This essay, on responses to Islamist terrorism, was my Observer column this week. (The column included also a short piece on Poland, abortion and the power of polar protest.) It was published on 8 November 2020, under the headline “Fanatics have no right to censor critics. But neither does Emmanuel Macron”.

Letters complaining about newspaper articles are unexceptional. Not so letters from the Élysée Palace. 

Last week, the Financial Times published, after the killing of teacher Samuel Paty in Paris and of churchgoers in Nice, an article by its Europe correspondent, Mehreen Khan, critical of French president Emmanuel Macron’s policies towards Islam. Macron’s desire to “use the state to prescribe a ‘correct’ religion”, she wrote, has “more in common with authoritarian Muslim leaders than enlightenment values of separating church and state”.

Macron responded with a letter-cum-article defending himself and his policies and accusing Khan of “misquoting” him – he insisted he had never talked of “Islamic separatism”, as Khan suggested, only of “Islamist separatism”. 

By the time the FT published Macron’s letter, however, it had removed Khan’s article for “factual inaccuracies”. One could read the criticism but not what was being criticised. Newspapers do sometimes excise articles – I’m sure the Observer has done so. But they should do so only in truly exceptional circumstances, and then give a full account as to why. 

The removal of offending articles after criticism is, however, becoming a more acceptable part of our culture.A few days before Khan’s article was pulled, Politico Europe published a highly disingenuous op-ed by leading French academic Farhad Khosrokhavar. The reason for Islamist terror, he wrote, lies in “France’s extreme form of secularism and its embrace of blasphemy”. Intellectuals who “came out in praise of blasphemy” should have “considered their words more carefully”. While French secularists are “fighting for freedom of expression”, he wrote, “innocent people are dying”, conveniently ignoring the fact that it’s not secularists doing the killing. 

You will have to take my word for all this because, after a barrage of criticism, Politico Europe removed the article for not meeting “our editorial standards”. I profoundly disagree with Khosrokhavar’s article. But I disagree, too, with its removal. This is not how journalism or public debate should work, or can work, especially when engaging with contentious issues.

At the same time, arguments such as Khosrokhavar’s must be robustly challenged. The claim that secularism and blasphemy help radicalise Islamists is false and dangerous. France has suffered grievously from Islamist terror – 267 people have died in terror attacks since 2012 – but it is far from a unique target. A week after the Nice killings came an Islamist terror attack in Vienna, with four people shot dead. Austria, unlike France, has a highly restrictive blasphemy law, which has been used to criminalise critics of Islam

In between the attacks in Nice and Vienna came terror strikes in Kabul and Peshawar, on university students and a Qur’an study class. The vast majority of jihadist killings are in Muslim-majority countries with obnoxiously tight blasphemy laws. Secularists and “blasphemers” in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and elsewhere have long faced murderous assaults, from both jihadists and the authorities. These are the people betrayed by western critics of blasphemy.

To say this is not to say that one should therefore defend Macron or his policies. For these policies, like much of the French response to Islam and terror, are shot through with hypocrisy and illiberalism. For all its claimed attachment to free speech, France has tough laws against speech deemed unacceptable, from Holocaust denial to insulting the French flag. It has criminalised those who call for a boycott of Israel. It has banned protests against Charlie Hebdo, and, after the 2015 massacre of the magazine’s staff, dozens of Muslims were arrested for suggesting sympathy with the killers, including a boy who posted on Facebook a cartoon mocking the magazine. A proposed law threatens academic freedom in the name of “the values of the republic”. Another would outlaw any filming of police in which officers may be identified.

Police brutality against those of North African origin is well documented. There is deep-seated racism in many spheres of social life from employment to housing, though figures are sparse given French reluctance to collect ethnic data. Being “colour blind” is all too often cover for being blind to racism.

Racism and double standards cannot be challenged by caving in to those who wish to restrict speech or the right to blaspheme. Nor can free speech be bolstered, or terrorism contained, by ignoring double standards, racist bigotry and the illiberalism of much of Macron’s policies.

The struggles for free speech, in defence of secularism, against racism and to counter terrorism are inextricably linked. Self-censorship in response to Islamist threats needs resisting. So does self-censorship in response to the displeasure of democratic leaders.


  1. Regarding French secularism or Laïcité, there appears to be two competing versions and so I guess from your article, you are more in favour of the more liberal version compared to the strict one.

    As you point out, the strict version does have inherent contradictions regarding freedom of expression in that…

    1. Wearing overt religious symbols in public life is unlawful and so is a State imposed limitation of freedom of expression by law despite this expression not causing harm, loss or damage except to the integrity of strict Laïcité or secular fundamentalism.

    2. It is unlikely that the French State will condone grossly insulting cartoons of strict Laïcité with your article pointing out aspects of French law that outlaws criticism of the French Republic. That is to say, overt criticism of French Laïcité would no doubt result in strong condemnation, ie be regarded as blasphemous, by significant sections of the French population. So again freedom of expression is limited.

    These two examples show that strict Laïcité is not based on liberty but selectivity and not based on equality but inequality.

    Overall then, it would seem to me that strict Laïcité is not based on the French Enlightenment ideals of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity but Selectivity, Inequality and Assimilation.

    This might be because of recent history as well as the not so recent history regarding secularism in that during ww2 the national motto during Nazi occupation was “Travail, Famille, Patrie” or “Work, Family, Homeland” which might well have influenced the support for strict Laïcité especially in terms of assimilation and a subliminal cultural fear of invasion.

    That said, I personally think it is morally unacceptable to teach kids that it is perfectly ok to grossly insult other people’s religions and beliefs. Critique, debate and discuss yes but grossly insult no. I can only see this subtle intolerance leading to increasing intolerance between different cultural groupings as well as being potentially hypocritical if it isn’t OK to grossly insult Laïcité. In this context, I’m sure someone can think up a blasphemous cartoon of secular fundamentalism and test that hypothesis.

  2. Florence binard

    Undeniably there are Many serions issues With racism in France. I am, however, surprised that you seem to reproach France with not collecting ethnic data. Incidentally, It is done in indirect ways- but that is not my point. Ethnic monitoring, as you have Convincingly argued in thé past, Creates racist boxes. So my question is : do you think thé French gouvernement should put in place official mesures of ethnic monitoring?

  3. A really helpful article. The challenge is approaching cultural diversity always as a judicial issue (understandable in the face of extremist violence). The principle of a liberal society should be celebration of diversity and respect for belief and identity. Extremism should be policed for what it is, violence, not what it represents, differing beliefs.

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