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France’s New Religious Wars

France has experienced a moment of political and media madness following the Harvey Weinstein affair. And all the ingredients are there for more of the same: disproportionate comments triggered by a cartoon in Charlie Hebdo of Muslim scholar Tariq Ramadan (accused of rape); Twitter providing the ideal tool for reacting without thinking and starting the fire; religion-related issues providing fuel for it; grandstanding by a discredited politician (ex-prime minister Manuel Valls) who thinks a wholesale attack on Muslims will revive his political career. And to top it all, the now established rule that every subject, even the sexual harassment of American women, will eventually come round to the question of Muslims in the French Republic.

Such disruption has a history. In October 1989, before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Islam became a theme of public confrontation in France with the ‘headscarf affair’. Controversies of this sort, incessantly pushed by the growing number of private television stations thirsting for ratings, could be linked to the very real global expansion of a politically conservative form of Islam, then strongly backed by the US and Saudi Arabia: throughout the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan (1979-89), the western press and its pundits expressed keen support of jihad. And spoke of the relegation of Afghan women under sharia as almost endearingly exotic (1).

The recent media dust-up between Edwy Plenel (publisher of online journal Mediapart) and ‘Riss’ (Laurent Sourisseau, cartoonist and publishing director of Charlie Hebdo), two senior journalists who agree on many things (and played their part in getting the current French president elected), omits this context, and so shines no new light on the issue. Impulsive and egocentric, Plenel was so offended by an (unfair) cartoon that shows him denying all knowledge of Ramadan’s alleged offences that he called it a ‘war on Muslims’ and dared compare his own plight to that of French Resistance members killed by the Nazis. Riss, taking advantage of Plenel’s outburst, accused him of issuing a ‘call to murder’ that ‘will absolve those who will kill us tomorrow’ (2).

Plenel’s phrase ‘war on Muslims’ (meant metaphorically) might have been misunderstood by Riss, who saw many of his Charlie Hebdo colleagues gunned down before his eyes two years ago. But his overreaction was supported, and repeated, by several prominent columnists who didn’t have personal tragedy as an excuse. Le Figaro even came up with a quote from the head of an antiracist organisation in the guise of a criticism of Plenel: ‘The reason why there isn’t a single Jewish pupil in Seine-Saint-Denis’s state schools is Islamo-leftism’ (3).

In France, wars of religion have not always stayed metaphorical. Doesn’t an already widely discredited press have better things to do than prepare for the next one?

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Serge Halimi is president of Le Monde diplomatique

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