Tensions Between France and Turkey

October 29, 2020

On 7 January 2015, two brothers, French citizens born in Paris to Algerian immigrants, forced their way into the offices Charlie Hebdo where they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. Al-Qaeda on the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility. The attack was called the 9/11 of France. Four days later the Unity Rally, a remarkable display of national and international solidarity was held in Paris.

On October 16, 2020 Samuel Paty, a French middle-school teacher, was beheaded a suburb of Paris. The perpetrator of this atrocious crime was an 18-year-old Russian immigrant of Chechen origin, born in Moscow. A tide of outrage swept through France.

President Macron gave a speech at a ceremony in honor of Samuel Paty at the Sorbonne. He said:

“Samuel Paty was killed because Islamists want our future, and they know that with quiet heroes such as him they can never have it. 

“We will defend the freedom that you taught so well, and we will uphold secularism. We will not renounce caricatures, drawings, even if others move backwards. We will offer all the opportunity that the Republic must to our young people, without discriminating against anyone.”

Coming after Mr. Macron’s October 2 speech on “Fight against separatism” where he defined the problem as “radical Islamism”, his emphasis on caricatures led to reaction in some Islamic countries and a crisis with Turkey.

During the turbulence of recent days, the BBC reported that polls suggest wider public opinion in France has hardened since the Charlie Hebdo attacks with a majority of people now supporting the magazine’s decision to publish the cartoons. Previously, most said it was an “unnecessary provocation”.

Mr. Paty taught history, and geography at the Collège du Bois d’Aulne. He used the cartoons of Prophet Muhammad in a class on freedom of expression. He warned Muslim students about the images in advance, offering them the chance to opt out of the session. What if the parents of these students had appealed to the government? What if they had taken to the streets in peaceful demonstrations to express their disapproval as the French people often do when they wish to declare their dissatisfaction with government policies? What if they had said that teachers can find hundred other examples to illustrate the fundamentality of freedom of expression to democracy? What would have been the reaction of the mainstream French? Would they have shown some understanding to their concerns? I think they would have.

They failed to do that, and a grisly murder put them into yet another corner. I believe their failure to act is another integration problem which needs to be addressed.

 The preamble of the UNESCO Constitution reads:

“… since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed…”

That was another time. Divisions were not of a civilizational nature whereas today’s problem is preventing the clash of civilizations. And constructing the defenses of peace is a far greater challenge than what it was at the end of the Second World War.

For decades and decades, the Middle East has remained trapped in a vicious circle where internal and external problems have fed on one another creating a climate inconducive to peace and progress. International community’s failure to resolve outstanding conflicts has provided regional governments with an excuse to escape responsibility for their failures.

The West with its colonial past has failed to meet expectations of the peoples of the region. Military interventions by the West, either under a Security Council resolution or the cover of the “coalition of the willing” have not been well-received by regional peoples. The widespread perception that the West is only after its narrow interests has led to an ever-deepening cultural fault line. Western efforts “to promote democracy” have come to be viewed with suspicion.

The perception in the West has not been favorable either. 9/11 And the following acts of terror committed in European countries, the participation of locals in these attacks have not only strengthened fears of Islamic radicalism but also turned many local Moslems into suspects. Paris attacks no doubt galvanized doubts and fears.

In the aftermath of the Danish Jyllands-Posten cartoon crisis in September 2005, a few projects were launched to promote cultural dialogue such as the “Alliance of Civilizations”, a Spanish-Turkish initiative. The “Report of the High Level Group” prepared under this project put forward two complementary methods to address the problem: Encourage intercultural dialogue and more importantly, resolve outstanding regional conflicts in the broad Middle East, prominently among them the Arab-Israeli dispute. That was more than a decade ago.

The Alliance of Civilizations and other similar projects helped to reduce tensions at the time but made no real difference on core issues. They could not and everyone knew that. What the world really needs before launching similar projects is soul-searching, both by the West and Islamic countries.

I am disappointed to see Turkish-French relations continue their downturn.

On the one hand, I disapprove President Macron’s constant targeting of Turkey. I believe he is doing that to score domestic political points like Mr. Sarkozy did. I have repeatedly stated my objection to turning foreign policy into a tool of domestic politics be it in France or Turkey[i]. I believe making the cartoons a lasting and divisive civilizational issue is wrong. I also believe Mr. Macron’s choice of words about NATO’s “brain death” has set a bad example.

On the other hand, I wish that the peoples of the Middle East could hear what Mr. Macron said on “laïcité” in his controversial October 2 speech. Because it was French laïcité which inspired modern Turkey’s secular foundations, and that remains the only cure to Middle East’s ongoing fratricide. He said:

“As I’ve said on several occasions, laïcité in the French Republic means the freedom to believe or not believe, the possibility of practicing one’s religion as long as law and order is ensured. Laïcité means the neutrality of the State; in no way does it mean the removal of religion from society and the public arena. A united France is cemented by laïcité. If spirituality is a matter for the individual, laïcité concerns us all.”

Today is Turkey’s National Day, the 97th anniversary of the founding of the Republic under Ataturk’s enlightened leadership. We as a nation are eternally grateful to him.


[i] https://diplomaticopinion.com/2020/09/28/turkish-foreign-policy/#more-1599

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