France’s Socialist Interior Minister Manuel Valls recently drew a large line in the sand warning that Islamist extremists face expulsion if they fail to respect the country’s secular and republican traditions.
Speaking at a ceremony September 27 to inaugurate the new grand mosque in Strasbourg (the biggest in France and accommodating 1,500 worshippers) he said: France will be “intransigent… and I will not hesitate to expel those who claiming to follow Islam represent a serious threat to public order and as foreigners in our country do not respect our laws and values … The preachers of hatred, those espousing obscurantism and fundamentalists … have no place in France … Racism, fundamentalism these are not part of Islam …Those who are on our soil to defy our laws and want to attack the foundations of our society cannot remain here.”
Manuel Valls went on to insist that while Islam has a place in France — a country with an estimated four million Muslims — he “would not hesitate” to expel anyone who, in the name of Islam, threatened French security.
He urged the Muslim community to organise itself so as to be able to fund its own mosques (meaning without recourse to Saudi Arabian petrodollars), to train French-born and French-speaking Imams, to combat extremists preaching to Muslims in jail and to integrate their youth into French traditions. He added he would be implacable in opposing the “salafists” (Salafist jihadists are those who take Koranic texts in their most literal form with an absolute commitment to jihad, and who perceive of America as the greatest enemy of their faith).
His remarks could hardly be more timely. Toulouse-based newspaper Ladépêche reported October 4 that a Moroccan-born, Muslim artist Mounir Fatmi participating in the city’s Printemps de Septembre festival had, under pressure, withdrawn his video installation celebrating Islam after co-religionists protested that “it enabled people to walk on Koranic verses” .
His piece called «Les Temps Modernes, une histoire de Machine» projected video images on the pavement of the Pont-Neuf bridge over the Garonne river. After an altercation between a 19-year-old passerby and a Muslim girl who accused the pedestrian of having “stepped on the Koran”, a crowd gathered and further violence was only avoided after rapid police intervention. Later as news of the incident spread across Muslim neighbourhoods anger rose and a delegation was sent to the City Hall to make demands for the installation to be halted.
The newspaper said the Printemps de Septembre team “was appalled, this is about freedom of expression. This artist has introduced his own culture in his work, and within the context of the theme of this exhibition, «L’histoire est à moi».What has happened is really most unfortunate,” said Frédérique Mehdi, organiser of the festival, which runs in Toulouse until October 21. “We did not take a decision to cancel his installation, he did and it is too bad because his work is of very high quality and has a place in this festival. “
Mounir Fatmi himself was quoted by the paper as describing the row as a “huge misunderstanding. I was particularly surprised because I did not think that a work that deals with light and combines Arabic calligraphy with Marcel Duchamp Rotoreliefs and the Biting Back at the Machine in Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times could trigger such a reaction. It is surreal and a huge misunderstanding”. He said the reaction of some Muslims who expressed anger that Koranic verses were displayed on the ground was misplaced. ”This is just a light projection, there is nothing printed or painted on the floor, the images come from a projector which throws a light beam that illuminates them. Indeed one verse so projected says: ‘God is Light.’ I do not encourage people to walk on the images. In fact I put up signs saying ‘thank you for not walking on the work,’ out of respect for the Koran and the work itself, which is a tribute to Arabic calligraphy and to Duchamp. I chose these works because of their relation to the theme of the festival, «L’histoire est à moi» Now, I almost feel deprived of my own history. It is sad that this has happened in France. This work was exhibited in a museum of contemporary art in Qatar without so much as a murmur”. He added he had decided to withdraw the work from the Pont Neuf. Conditions for a proper viewing and understanding of the work “cannot now be met so I have chosen to suspend the installation” he told the paper.
The artistic director of the event Paul Ardenne told l’Express newspaper that he agreed there was a need to calm feelings in the city ( where the Muslim community is reportedly still ‘bruised’ over the recent terrorism affair involving Mohamed Merah, a 23-year-old French-Algerian Islamist, who went on a killing spree in March 2012 and was subsequently shot dead by police besieging his apartment). However he added that he was concerned that the withdrawal of the installation was a victory for the “profoundly anti-cultural attitude” of radical Islamists.
Mounir Fatmi was born in Tangier in 1970 and lives and works as an artist in Morocco, France and the United States.
The objections to the light display came from Muslim groups in Toulouse and led to local Imam Mokhtar el Meddah and Boujama Andoh, president of the Toulouse Associations of Muslims meeting with City Hall officials. This followed public disorder on the Pont-Neuf bridge which required police intervention.
The newspaper reported that Noredine, a resident of the Pont-Neuf neighbourhood gave the following reason for the protest: ”We are not judging the intentions of the artist, we are here for an explanation of why these projections of the verses of the Koran are on the ground. The Arabic script used is nice, but it must not be on the ground. We demand an end to these projections.”
The City Council issued a statement saying that while the work was itself in no way blasphemous and had been mounted with appropriate signage, it understood the artist’s desire in the circumstances, to suspend the work .
The affair coincides with a renewed and widely criticised effort at the United Nations by two of the world’s most populous Muslim states – Indonesia and Pakistan to enforce a global ban on “blaspheming” any religion. Success would be a massive defeat for the basic free speech values cherished by liberal democracies.