France learns the bitter truth about Islamic fundamentalism; need for concerted global action

EU is now acknowledging what India, through its counter-terrorism dialogues with the West, had been warning for years, that Islamic fundamentalist networks and sleeper cells are active across the EU, writes Amb Bhaswati Mukherjee (retd) for South Asia Monitor 


A fundamental change in the international approach to Islamic fundamentalism and international terrorism became apparent after 9/11. The scale of the devastation changed global perceptions forever. These multiple attacks within the US, followed some years later with India’s own 9/11 in Mumbai and terrorist attacks thereafter in Paris, London and across Europe was a wakeup call to the West that no continent or country was immune from this scourge.

France’s belief that its much-publicized secularism (laicite) was a protection against Islamic fundamentalism was severely shaken by the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ murders in January 2015. This was followed by  attacks in Paris in November 2015 and the Bastille Day attack in Nice in July 2016. Since March 2012, France experienced 36 attacks by Muslim fundamentalists. More disturbing, during 2014-16, about 1600 French Muslims had joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria, the IS.

The challenge posed by Islamic fundamentalism to the established international order was in evidence, more than ever before, on 16 October 2020 in Paris. On that day, an 18-year-old Chechen refugee in France became judge and jury and beheaded a teacher, 47 year old Samuel Paty. His supposed crime was to have shown a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed to his students to illustrate freedom of speech, ‘laicite’, and absence of blasphemy laws in France.

These cherished values stem from the French Revolution of 1789 and the ensuing long struggle to separate Church and State. Religious symbols are banned from government institutions. Sikh students cannot wear turbans in government schools. There are no blasphemy laws in France. French citizens, especially immigrants, are expected to absorb French and Western values and be ‘assimilated’ into French society.

This interpretation is in contrast to India’s secular values which guarantees freedom to practice one’s religion and ensures that the State protects all religions.  In India, the emphasis is ‘accommodation’ rather than ‘assimilation’. Religious caricatures would be considered offensive and inappropriate and can be challenged in India’s courts.

France’s Muslim population number over 5 million, which is almost 9% of its population. Because of its colonial history, the earlier immigrants came from Francophone North Africa. They were more easily assimilated than the later waves who came from non-French speaking ex-French colonies and whose strict Islamic values clashed sharply with those they were expected to accept and absorb.

The growth of marginalized groups of such Muslim minorities, holding French passports, alienated from the mainstream values and with no loyalty to their new motherland, poses a threat to the raison d’etre of one of the most important EU member states, a Permanent Member of the Security Council and a key NATO member. Today, France and the EU confront the threat from within.  There are no easy answers.

French President Emmanuel Macron tried to address this threat in February 2018.  He underlined the importance of anchoring Islamic values within the cherished national values of the Republic, noting “Islam is a religion that is in crisis today all over the world… Islam is plagued by radical temptations and by a yearning for a reinvented jihad which is the destruction of the other”.

On 2 October 2020, in Les Mureaux, near Paris, President Macron warned of the dangers of “Islamist separatism” in France and the need to develop a French version of Islam which he defined as an “Islam of Enlightenment”.

It is regrettable that instead of expressing solidarity with France after the brutal beheading of Paty, Turkey supported by Pakistan tried to whip up public sentiments within Islamic countries, accusing Macron of "Islamophobia". Turkish President Erdogan, went to the extent of questioning Macron’s mental health and calling for a boycott of French goods.

India strongly and immediately condemned these attacks at the government level. It was followed on 7 November 2020 by a press release signed by a group of 22 former ambassadors, including two former Indian foreign secretaries, and some former ambassadors to France unambiguously stating the implications of these attacks for India and for the international community. The statement read: “The recent brutal terrorist attacks in France by Islamic fundamentalists have implications for all democratic countries based on pluralism and rule of law.

France, because of its history, is deeply wedded to freedom of expression. France’s Muslim population has a very different perspective of the relationship between the State and religion as well as on freedom of expression. The moot point to consider is whether religious justice can be meted out unilaterally without due process by an individual in a constitutional democracy in accordance with a belief system that has no place in local jurisprudence?

India has rightly expressed solidarity with the French president personally and France as a country with which our ties have remarkably deepened strategically in recent years. India has been a victim of state-sponsored terrorism for decades and is especially sensitive to issues of terrorism. Under Prime Minister  Narendra Modi, India has inscribed the issue of international terrorism as a threat to international peace and security on the international and multilateral agenda.

It is important to note that there is an international consensus reflected repeatedly in documents that no cause whatsoever justifies resort to terrorism. In this context demonstrations in India against France and President Macron are contrary to that international consensus, the government’s position and the excellent bilateral relations between India and France. India stands with France at this difficult moment and fully supports the Government of France on this issue.

The European Council, which was initially slow to respond, did issue a joint statement a few days later, condemning the attacks. Several measures are reportedly being considered, including the promotion of religious education and training of imams within the EU “that is in line with European fundamental rights and values.”

More significantly, EU leaders have added a discussion on ‘Religious Extremism’ to the agenda of their December summit. The worsening relations with Turkey will also be discussed. There are suggestions that the ministerial statement being drafted by Germany, which currently holds the Presidency, call for developing “a shared language at European level which distinguishes between Islam and Islamism.” The draft reportedly includes warnings for immigrants and asylum-seekers saying “integration is a two-way street: providing support, but expecting more in return.”

Reluctantly conceding what India has been urging of the importance of social media not fanning hatred and discord, the EU is now planning new regulations on creating  an “instrument” that will be enforceable across borders “for the effective removal of terrorist content within less than an hour of its being reported.” This would ensure: “Social media and other hosting service providers have a responsibility in making sure that their services are not used for illegal activities or to promote crime, terrorism or hatred.”

EU is now acknowledging what India, through its counter-terrorism dialogues with the West, had been warning for years, that Islamic fundamentalist networks and sleeper cells are active across the EU. Inadequately policed earlier, Europeans are slowly and reluctantly introducing security measures across Europe which has permanently changed European lifestyles, ways of living and freedom of travel. India, unfortunately, had to introduce these curbs which are a challenge to human rights, fundamental freedoms and democracy much earlier.

We live in challenging times where the world order is being re-shaped, on one hand because of the perceived decline of the West, and on the other, because of the threat posed by Islamic fundamentalism. EU has come a long way in understanding and acknowledging that the danger is from within. 

Marginalized citizens who have no stakes in the security and prosperity of their states are a fundamental danger to democracy,   rule of law and pluralism. In this millennium, this threat poses an immediate challenge to the established international order. A coordinated global response and a speedy conclusion to the protracted and stalemated negotiations on the Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism is the only way forward.

(The writer is a former Indian ambassador and an expert on European affairs. Views expressed are personal)