GP Insights # 433, 1 November 2020
On 30 October, a knife attack by a 21-year-old Tunisian killed three in the city of Nice in France, leading President Emmanuel Macron to increase his national campaign to fight Islamic extremism. He said that the country is under attack by "Islamist and terrorist madness." Macron defended free speech and increased the deployment of troops to protect public places across the country from 3,000 to 7,000.
Prior to the attack, a verbal spat bordering on abusive language has emerged this week between the heads of the state of France and Turkey. On 25 October after Macron promised that France would not "renounce the caricatures," a furious riposte emerged on social media under Arabic hashtags, and subsequently, several Muslim countries came out in criticism of Macron's tough stand on Islam. The strongest response has been from the Turkish President Erdogan, who on 28 October announced a boycott of French products in addition to asking the French President to undergo a "mental checkup" for his new policies. On 29 October, the verbal row between the two countries worsened after Charlie Hebdo published a front-page cartoon, showing Erdogan in his underpants drinking a can of beer and revealing a Muslim woman's naked backside. Erdogan called out the satirists as "scoundrels" and threatened to take legal and diplomatic actions.
What is the background?
First, Macron's defence of free speech. Following the two incidents of murder in the name of protecting Islam, Macron has sought to defend France's national values of secularism and free speech. Beginning October, he delivered an address promising a national strategy called "Islamist separatism." Under these proposals, it will be harder for imams with staunch views to relocate to France; all imams needing certification in France to practice; and all religious organizations that run sports clubs would be required to publicly pledge support to the "republican values" in exchange for funding. In addition, the vast deployment of troops has made Macron's strategies highly security-driven. His policies are not new and are aimed to respond to the French's fear of life from any individual with a Muslim identity. But his strong comments such as "Islam is in crisis" are targeted for the domestic constituency preparing for the 2022 elections. Similarly, Erdogan is fanning the flames of nationalism when he is juxtaposing himself as a leader of the Muslim world when a Christian leader calls out on Islam.
Second, the response of Turkey and the emerging battleline in the Middle East. In addition to domestic positioning, both Erdogan and Macron are also making international calculations. This seems like a golden opportunity for Erdogan to come forth as the defender of Islam and the Sunni leader of the Arab world and for Macron to further increase his sphere of influence in the Middle East. The two countries have clashed with each other in Libya, the Eastern Mediterranean, and in Karabakh. A strong response by Turkey has been followed by an equal call for a boycott of French goods by several Muslim countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia. This rallying behind Erdogan could also consolidate Turkey's position in the Middle East.
Third, increasing lone wolf attacks in Europe. France is no stranger to Islamist terrorism, especially after the 2015 Paris attacks that killed 130 and the 2016 Nice truck attack that claimed 86 lives. The society in France has become highly polarized where being a religious-secular is slowly losing its public rationality. The same trend could also be observed in the rest of Europe where the rise of Islamist terrorism has coincided with the rise of white extremism as well such as the Halle attack or Jewish synagogue attack in Germany and lone knife attackers in the UK.
What does it mean?
First, the row between France and Turkey will cost Erdogan more than he thinks. The boycott of French goods for a country dependent on the West for its automobile and daily commodities means an economic recession when the Turkish Lira is witnessing a free fall. With a Franco-German leadership in the EU, a possible sanction would prove costly for Turkey. Second, a civilizational divide between West and East could widen with the row between Turkey and the West. Tensions between those supporting freedom of expression and those wanting to protect religious values are rising further. And if political leaders advocate an equal divide, the formal and ideological relationship of religion with the state stand changed.