When French schoolteacher Samuel Paty showed his students images of the infamous Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed during a lesson about freedom of speech, he did not know that this action would lead to his murder a few days later by a teenager not much older than his own pupils. The attack was an eerie echo of that on the Charlie Hebdo office in 2015, not just because it was prompted by anger at the distribution of exact same caricature of the Prophet, but because it has raised the same issues in French society.

France has now established a sort of tragic routine for the aftermath of a religiously motivated attack: harsh language from politicians to cement the right to freedom of expression, and a promise to defend laïcité (secularism), a central pillar of both French governance and identity. In these weeks that have followed Paty’s death, Macron declared “We will not renounce the caricatures” and French authorities have already closed several associations linked to radical Islam, an ideology which Macron says “is for the destruction of the Republic”. However, even before the attack on Samuel Paty, Macron had begun to shift his rhetoric on Islam, claiming that it is a “religion in crisis all over the world”, and vowed to rid France of a “parallel society” of Islamic separatists. It is this declaration which specifically targets both Muslims and Islamic foreign powers that has led to organised national boycotts of French goods in many Muslim countries, such as Qatar and Bahrain.

However, nowhere has the criticism of France and its President been so deliberately provocative and vocal as in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has been driving the call for boycotts of French goods and advised Macron to “go get a mental health check”, a comment which led France to recall their ambassador in Ankara. Turkey has placed itself at the forefront of the aggressive campaign against France and its President, with Erdoğan noisily fronting this charge – all for a very precise reason. 

Tense relations between Turkey and France are nothing new, and neither are Erdoğan’s provocative comments. For years, the Turkish President has been positioning himself as a de-facto leader of the Muslim word, involving the country in proxy wars in Syria, Libya and most recently Nagorno-Karabakh. However, upon reopening the debate of French laïcité and the role of Islam in Western Europe, Macron has given Erdoğan the opportunity to win what would be an ultimate political victory. 

Following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, founding father of the Republic and almost mythological figure in Turkish culture Mustafa Kemal Atatürk implemented a series of reforms and conventions to modernise and Westernise the new nation. Sharia law was replaced with European-style civil codes, birthing the principle of ‘laiklik’, (which was philosophically as well as etymologically influenced by the French model). This made Turkey the first secular majority-Muslim state. However, Turkish society has always been starkly divided between liberal modernisers and conservatives, who obviously have resolutely different positions on the role of religion in public life, positions which each camp tends to defend vigorously.

The preservation of laiklik is of the utmost importance to the many Turks who associate religion in public life with the Islamic Ottoman regime and see it as a threat to the modern democratic Turkish state. For many years Turkey has pursued a policy of assertive secularism with laws arguably more restrictive than those in France. Women who wore headscarves were prohibited from attending university or working as any kind of civil servant, from MP to teacher. Teaching the Qur’an to students under the age of fifteen was banned. When applying to university, graduates of state Islamic schools, (private faith schools are illegal), were automatically given a lower coefficient when calculating their exam scores. Radical secularism was just as much a fundamental part of Turkish identity for many in the country as it is for the French. It is this parallel that makes Erdoğan uncomfortable.

Erdoğan’s conservative, Islamic-rooted AKP party has been in power since 2002 and has pushed as much as possible away from this side of Turkish society. It has uprooted many features of the secular state, in order to achieve his goal of raising a “pious generation” that will “work for the construction of a new civilisation”. The ‘Headscarf Ban’ was revoked in 2012 and the President has massively expanded Islamic state education with the percentage of Turkish students attending these religious schools rising from 4% in 2012 to almost 12% in 2018. Earlier this year the Hagia Sophia was officially reverted back to a mosque; a 1,483 year old building that has flipped-flopped between mosque and church over the centuries, and one which Atatük had ordered to be converted into a museum, symbolising that this religious tug-of-war had been laid to rest. July’s opulent conversion ceremony was broadcast on national television, not making light of the symbolic significance of this moment, and Erdoğan’s intentions to unravel Turkey’s secular status.

It is for this reason that Erdoğan has been so quick to capitalise on France’s renewed cries for a strengthening of French laïcité. What better way to discredit the legitimacy of a Turkish secularism than to stir up outrage at the nation that inspired it? While there is room for valid criticism of Macron’s rhetoric, Erdoğan is undoubtedly aware of this political goal-scoring opportunity. If he can provoke anger at the French ‘obsession’ with laïcité, there is surely stronger ground to criticise those who fiercely protect laiklik, enabling him to further roll back the influence of secularism in Turkey. It is a denunciation of Atatük’s aspiration for a modernised, secular Republic by proxy. Interestingly enough, an assertive stance on secularism which is fiercely protected by many in society is only one of the many pieces of political culture that the Turks share with the French. The two nations are also united by a love of political satire and caricature. While a caricature of Prophet Mohammed would certainly never make it to print in Turkey, just as in France the satirisation of political figures has been one of the art forms held most dear by the Turkish people — and most despised by President Erdoğan. Since coming to power, the President has launched countless legal battles against satirists for ‘publicly humiliating him’ with unflattering cartoons and banned distribution of an edition of political comic LeMan following the coup attempt of 2016. What is often labelled by foreigners as a ‘uniquely French obsession’ with both political satire and secularism that is impossible for outsiders to understand, is in fact almost perfectly mirrored and understood in Turkish society. It is for this reason that Macron’s declaration that France “will not give up the caricatures”, just as they will never give up their proud laic stance in general, is simply too dangerous for Erdoğan to dismiss quietly. 

Image source: Wikipedia