Poland is cross about a cross. Specifically, the one that, last week, a French court ordered to be removed from above a statue of Pope John II. A gift in 2006 to the mayor of the Breton town of Ploërmel, the 7.5 metre-high statue depicts John Paul II praying beneath an arch adorned with a large cross. But the cross will be dismantled because it violates French strict secularism, enshrined in the 1905 ‘laïcité’ law separating Church and State.
The Poles are furious. Prime Minister Beata Szydło accused the French of ‘censorship’, warned that the removal of the cross was another blow to Europe’s Christian heritage and would lead only to the further rise of ‘values which are alien to our culture, which leads to terrorising Europeans in their everyday life’. There were dire warnings, too, from the French right. MP Valérie Boyer called the decision ‘madness’, and Louis Aliot, vice president of the Front National, thundered that France was witnessing ‘the destruction of our Judeo-Christian society’.
There was no comment from the Islamist community but one images that they too will be dismayed by the decision. Bang goes their oft-expressed outrage that laïcité is there solely to victimise French Muslims. It’s a claim one hears often but the 1905 law does not discriminate against one religion, it’s just that in the last decade one religion in particular has repeatedly pushed back against secularism.
‘France’s secular tradition is being adapted to target a specific group,’ complained Tariq Ramadan in 2006. ‘This is the law. But at the same time, being a democrat means that you continue to discuss the merits of the law and call for change.’ For years Ramadan, professor of Contemporary Islamic Studies at Oxford University, has been the go-to Muslim scholar for the British liberal media, although that may no longer be the case given he’s facing multiple allegations of rape and sexual assault, charges he denies.
Ramadan has also been a hero to swathes of young French Muslims, using his charisma to great effect in the inner-cities, exhorting them to wage an ‘intellectual jihad, an educational jihad’. Perhaps it was no surprise, therefore, that when, last week, Charlie Hebdo mocked Ramadan on its cover, the satirical magazine subsequently received numerous death threats.
The police are investigating the allegations against Ramadan (as they are the threats against Charlie Hebdo) but regardless of the outcome the smooth-talking intellectual may have met his match in Emmanuel Macron. Unlike Donald Trump, who believes the way to defeat the Islamist ideology is to bomb it ’10 times harder’, the French president understands that the West will only win this ideological war by showing its young Muslims that there is an alternative to martyrdom, that life is preferable to death.
For France the stakes are higher than for any other Western country, and so is the size of the challenge. Last Thursday saw the conclusion to the month-long trial of Abdelkader Merah, the elder brother of Mohamed, who in 2012 shot dead seven people. According to one of Tariq Ramadan’s long-standing opponents, professor Gilles Kepel, that attack was the first in the wave of Islamic terrorism perpetrated by France’s ‘Third Generation’ of Jihadists (Kepel says the First Generation was inspired by Afghanistan’s Mujahideen in the 1980s and the Second by Osama Bin Laden).
The last of the 239 victims of the Third Generation was Father Jacques Hamel, killed in his Normandy church in July 2016. Since then the collapse of the Islamic State in Syria and improvements in counter-terrorism strategy have prevented any further attacks. So what now for France? Will there be a Fourth Generation? The trial of Abdelkader Merah revealed the extent of the Islamification of the Toulouse suburb where the family lived, where kids rejoiced at Mohamed’s rampage and hailed him a ‘martyr’. As they did in numerous other French inner-cities where children leave school with scant qualifications and scant chance of finding honest employment. Hate not hope rules these suburbs, making the disengaged kids ripe for radicalisation. ‘Terrorists want to erode the foundations of our country and our Republic in order to spark a moral collapse and trigger a civil war’, said Macron in August. ‘They’re also fuelled by historical, economic, social and contemporary frustrations…that’s why our response to terrorism can only be multiple, to include all these dimensions. It must be not only security-related but also economic, cultural and educational’.
The reforms to France’s education and economy, already underway, are intended to boost the opportunities for the country’s young and make the Fourth Generation aspire to be techies and not terrorists. Simultaneously, Macron must silence the preachers who peddle the Islamist ideology. Last month, two more radical mosques were shut down, bringing to 19 the total number closed in the last two years.
Also dismantled recently was France’s two year state of emergency, imposed after 130 people were slaughtered in Paris in November 2015. Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, described the decision as ‘criminal’. But boots on the ground won’t win France this war. To defeat this ideology you have to starve it of oxygen. Demonstrating to the country’s Muslim community that laïcité isn’t there to victimise them is a small but significant step in depriving the demagogues of the energy of outrage.