PARIS (AP) – Many countries, especially in the democratic West, defend freedom of speech and allow publications that scandalize the Prophet of Islam. So why is France the target of demonstrations and calls for boycott in the Muslim world, and so often the target of deadly violence on the part of extremist margins?
Its brutal colonial past, steadfast secular policies, and its tough president who is seen as insensitive to the Muslim faith all play a role.
As France steps up security and mourns three people killed in a church knife attack on Thursday – the latest attributed to Islamic extremists in recent years – these are some of the reasons the country has come under fire from critics .
France has the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe, over 5 million in a nation of 67 million, a legacy of its colonial rule over large swathes of Africa and the Middle East.
But the country’s efforts to integrate Muslim immigrants have failed. The official French doctrine of color blindness aims to ignore ethnic and religious origins and to ensure that all French citizens are considered equally French. In fact, the ideal often fuels discrimination against those who view, dress, or pray differently from the historically Catholic majority, rather than preventing it.
Muslims are disproportionately represented in the poorest and most alienated neighborhoods of France, as well as in its prisons. This has spawned angry outcasts who see their homeland as a sin and disrespectful of Islamic traditions, or simply racist against Arab immigrants and other countries that once enriched the French Empire.
While recent extremist Islamist attacks in France have been carried out by people born abroad, young people born in France have been behind much of the worst bloodshed in recent years, many of which were linked to the Islamic State group.
France retains a more concrete role than Britain in its former colonies, notably through economic and cultural ties – and this is also seen in the way France deploys its troops abroad.
French forces have intervened in recent years against Islamic extremists in Mali and Syria, two former French exploitations. Thousands of French soldiers are now stationed in former colonies in the Sahelian region of Africa with the same mission.
A French military presence is fueling routine online calls from ISIS, Al-Qaida and other extremists for retaliation on French soil, in hopes of forcing France to withdraw its forces.
Much of the current anger stems from the recent republication by the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad. The cartoons of the founder of Islam have deeply offended many Muslims, who consider them sacrilegious. But the cartoons were originally published in Denmark in 2005, and similar images have been published in other countries that value free speech.
While French officials often say their country is targeted because of its reputation as the cradle of human rights and the bulwark of global democracy, what most distinguishes France is its unusual attachment to secularism.
The often overlooked concept of French secularism is enshrined in the country’s constitution. It was born in a 1905 law separating church and state which was supposed to allow the peaceful coexistence of all religions under a neutral state, instead of a government responding to powerful Catholic clerics. Crucifixes were torn from the walls of classrooms in France at one point amid a painful public debate.
A century later, polls suggest that France is among the least religious countries in the world, with a minority regularly attending services. Secularism is largely supported by those on the left and the right.
As the number of Muslims in France increased, the state imposed secular rules on their practices. In 2004, the ban on the Muslim headscarf and other ostentatious religious symbols in schools remains a source of division, even shocking for many outside France. A 2011 law banning face veils made Muslims again feel stigmatized.
France has been hit by extremist attacks in recent decades under the leadership of leaders from all political backgrounds, but centrist President Emmanuel Macron is a particularly popular target. Protesters burned or trampled his portrait during protests in several countries this week.
This is in part because of a law Macron plans to introduce to suppress Islamic fundamentalists who he says turn certain communities against the state and threaten the pillars of French society, including schools. Following recent extremist attacks, his government expelled Muslims accused of preaching intolerance and shut down groups deemed to violate French laws or standards.
The words used by the president also caused outrage. He said the proposed law was aimed at Islamist “separatism”, which raised fears of further alienation of French Muslims.
At a memorial for a teacher beheaded for showing the prophet’s cartoons to his class, Macron delivered a speech extolling tolerance, knowledge and religious freedom. But he drew anger, including from the Turkish president, for having declared: “We will not give up cartoons” and that France should “reduce the Islamists”.
Previously, Macron had described Islam as “a religion in crisis around the world”, with positions “hardening” in many Muslim countries.
And as calls for anti-French protests mounted, he tweeted: “We will never give in.”
Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.