Global Currents article

From Danish Cartoons to French Separatism: Mobilizing Culture Wars

“A Walk in Paris.” Photo Credit: Flickr user Carl Cambpell, 2016.


Some things change, and some things stay the same. The current furor around France’s relationship with its Muslim citizens in recent weeks seems new, but contemporary European history would teach us otherwise. The question is: Did we ever learn those lessons?

In 2005, the Danish newspaper, Jyllands-Posten, published an article with cartoons the newspaper claimed depicted the person of the Prophet Muhammad. In the article, the culture editor of the newspaper wrote:

Modern, secular society is rejected by some Muslims. They demand a special position, insisting on special consideration of their own religious feelings. It is incompatible with contemporary democracy and freedom of speech . . . we are on our way to a slippery slope where no-one can tell how the self-censorship will end. (emphasis mine)

The assertion was clear: contemporary democracy, freedom of speech, secular society—even modernity itself— is “rejected” by “some” Muslims. The “some” here refer to those who object to the cartoons. The culture editor, in making this claim, tied together modernity, secularism, and democracy into the broader ideological frame of Western civilization.

It’s important to reflect on this statement in the aftermath of the October 2020 killings carried out in France by radical Islamist extremists, as well as Macron’s previous claims of a “crisis in Islam.” In the wake of these killings, many of the same issues have been raised.

The French elite, French President Emmanuel Macron included, cited “separatism” as the cause of these events. Macron explained what he meant by “separatism’ in an interview on November 1, 2020 in the following way (emphasis mine):

When I talked about separatism, what does it mean, and why does it correspond to what I was describing to you earlier? Because there are groups, which I call these violent extremists who act in the name of Islam and by hijacking religion. Who teach [and] explain within the framework of associations, using all the freedoms and rights that the Republic offers, that our country offers: they teach that we must not respect France, that we must not respect our law; that we must somehow get out of our laws; they teach that women are not equal to men; they teach that little girls should not have the same rights as little boys. Not our values! I’m telling you very clearly: not our values! We believe in the Enlightenment, and that women have the same rights as men. It is vital. And so, I will never, never, never accept an association, even if it would be in the name of a religion, that would promote these [claims], in any case, one that would say a little girl is not the equivalent of a little boy; that she will not have the same education, that she will not be given the same opportunities; because these are not our values. People who think like that, let them do it elsewhere, but not on French soil. So, I say, these groups that are on our soil, that want to establish their claims, in order to separate a part of society, we must fight against them. Very clearly, because they decide to separate.

In the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings, I was appointed as deputy convenor of the UK government’s working group on tackling extremism. Years before, I was targeted by the radical group “al-Muhajiroon” for condemning al-Qa’eda’s attacks in East Africa, and then targeted by similar extremists, particularly in the Arab Spring era. I note this only to point out that I take such issues quite seriously. But the French authorities’ response to the attacks in France is not simply about violent extremism. Rather, it’s inextricably bound up with a larger culture war, one which inevitably will be instrumentalized for partisan political purposes.

Take the point made by the culture editor of Jyllands-Posten when he describes the rejection by some Muslims of modernity, secularism, democracy, and freedom of speech. The direct implication here is that those who opposed the publication of these cartoons were somehow against all of these things. In framing the discussion as such, he essentialized what it means to be a Dane in contemporary Europe and delegitimized anyone who does not fit that definition. Those among “Danish society” who do not agree with this understanding of Danish identity are simply afraid of the consequences—i.e., they are cowards who are unwilling to stand up to the dangers that Western civilization faces. And those who defend a more pluralistic account of Danish identity are wrong-headed.

Of course, that’s not the situation in reality. Many non-Muslims in Denmark rejected the publication of the cartoons. And the cartoons were not a litmus test of very much. The same culture editor wrote to the illustrators’ union in 2005, asking them to draw the cartoons. Out of all the members, only 15 responded—the rest didn’t bother. Of the 15, 3 declined. One called the project vague and only one said he was afraid to participate. Different Danish academics subsequently noted that the project “lacked validity” and “fell short of sound journalistic basis.” But the culture war argument sticks.

[T]he French authorities’ response to the attacks in France is not simply about violent extremism. Rather, it’s inextricably bound up with a larger culture war, one which inevitably will be instrumentalized for partisan political purposes.

And the argument itself is not a new one. The idea that European civilization is being threatened from “within” by a rabid Muslim horde, aided by weak indigenous Europeans, is a long-running one. It was established by the “EurArabia” myth of the late 90s and early 2000s. While it was once a tremendously marginal idea, it has more recently become mainstream in public discourse.

Indeed, simply dividing supporters and opponents of the cartoons into either the “free speech” camp or the “Muslim camp” is problematic in and of itself. European society most definitively does not have absolute free speech and, as Europeans, we are not ashamed of that. We do have protected speech, but we also have unprotected speech. We do not, for example, universally protect Holocaust denial, because of what the Holocaust signifies for many European identities. We do not universally protect insults to national symbols (French law included). We have laws about libel and defamation all around the continent.

“F-Haine nothing has changed, except the facade.” Photo Credit: Flickr user doubichlou14, at a 2017 protest against the far-right in Paris.

The question was never about free speech per se; it was about what we, as Europeans, considered to be sacred in the public sphere, and how we, as Europeans, continually redraw the lines of inclusion and exclusion in our political, social, and cultural spaces. Muslim Europeans and Muslim non-Europeans generally have an attachment to the Prophet that would treat insults against him to be far more reprehensible than insults to themselves. Is that so difficult to understand, even if ultimately, European legislators do not choose to claim a negative depiction of him as unprotected?

In Macron’s statement that ‘Islam is in a crisis,’ we see a similar issue at play. Macron’s November 1, 2020 interview makes it clear: he’s not simply going after violent extremists in France due to the killings. If he was, he might get a great deal of sympathy around the world, including from Muslim-majority countries. It is, after all, Muslims who have fought such extremism the most, and also died from it the most.

Rather, Macron’s target is far wider than that: he’s after conservative Muslims, even ultra-conservative Muslims, who do not quite fit the mould of the European Enlightenment, at least as he chooses to deploy an impression of that for political purposes. That’s not counter-terrorism, or even counter-extremism. That’s a culture war, carried out on the back of a terrorist atrocity.

But none of that should be particularly surprising. The French public sphere has long had an issue with Muslim visibility. The face veil (niqāb), the headscarf (ijāb), and many other exhibitions of commitment to conservative or traditional Muslim values have been subject to discriminatory regulation. Indeed, the minister of interior indicated intentions of drafting a law against “separatism,” including the forbidding of individuals from refusing to be treated by doctors of the opposite sex, with penalties of 75,000 Euros and 5 years imprisonment. In the draft released in mid November, such penalties are not mentioned, but the stated intention alone is concerning

For all the talk about the separation of religion and state in France, this particular political trend aims directly at opposing a different kind of religiosity, even if it is engaged in utterly voluntarily, due to the coercive power of the state. After all, what is the constant campaign against the headscarf, which clearly does not affect anyone but the wearer, by French officials, except a promotion against a certain religiosity?

That is many things—but it is not secularism.

Or is it? That’s the question one may want to ask in the aftermath of all of this.


H. A. Hellyer
Dr H.A. Hellyer researches the interchange between politics, international studies and religion, in the West and the Arab world. A senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington DC, he publishes on different forms of extremism, and religion in modernity. Dr Hellyer is currently on the steering committee for the EU-funded project on “Radicalisation, Secularism and the Governance of Religion,” which brings together European, North African, and Asian perspectives with a consortium of 12 universities & think-tanks. Previously a Brookings Institution Fellow, Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Research Associate at Harvard University, Dr Hellyer’s analysis has been published in various international outlets including CNN, the BBC, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Mada Masr, and the Guardian. Among his books include Muslims of Europe: the ‘Other’ Europeans and A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt

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