On 5 November, French President Emmanuel Macron announced that France will advocate for a tightening of Schengen Area border restrictions at upcoming European Union meetings to be held in December. The Schengen Area, which is comprised of 26 European countries (only four of which are not members of the European Union), has served as a passport-free zone in Europe since 1995. The Schengen Area has no internal border controls and has long been regarded as an exemplar of European unity.
Macron’s announcement comes in the wake of four Islamist terrorist attacks that have taken place across France in the past month and a half, with four people killed and another three seriously injured. One of the victims, schoolteacher Samuel Paty, was beheaded for showing his class the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad during a class on free speech. France has the largest Muslim minority population of any country in Europe, and has a state policy of laïcité, or secularism. The French government has struggled with how to reconcile this policy with rising Islamist extremism, underscored by a spate of terrorist attacks since the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks that have left 260 dead.
In the midst of the recent attacks, President Macron stated that Islam is a religion “in crisis,” and French Prime Minister Jean Castex stated that the French government would continue “fighting relentlessly” against “radical Islam.” These statements received praise from some and criticism from others, with those in the latter camp arguing that the statements promote Islamophobia and divisiveness. In Peshawar, Pakistan, thousands of Muslims gathered in protest on 31 October, setting fire to a French flag and brandishing signs reading “Stop Islamophobia” and “Macron is Satan.” Days earlier, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan tweeted in response to Macron’s statements, accusing Macron of inciting further “polarization” and “marginalization.”
Also among those who were critical of the French leaders’ statements and the cartoon depiction of the Prophet Muhammad were Muslims in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who, on Twitter, called for a French goods boycott in their countries. The Saudi and Emirati governments, however, responded differently, and did not enact state-mandated boycotts against French goods. Sheikh Mohammed al-Issa, head of the Riyadh-based Muslim World League, said that “Muslims should not overreact” to the cartoons. Saudi Arabia’s Senior Council of Scholars, the country’s highest religious body, issued a statement that such “defamations” only serve “extremist agendas” which want to “spread hatred among people.”
The divergence between the Emirati and Saudi state leaders from their populations is significant in and of itself, and it signals the recent shift in the two Wahhabi monarchies’ approach to policies in the Middle East, exemplified in the recent signing of the Abraham Accords. The significance of this shift became even more apparent in the intensification of the already aggravated divergence between Turkey on the one hand and these two Arab Gulf states on the other.
Turkey’s ambitions to supplant Saudi Arabia and the UAE as self-styled leaders of the Muslim world has been unfolding over the past two decades under the Erdoğan regime. Interestingly enough, the recent Islamist terrorist attacks in France amplified the split between the Turkish and Arab governments. On 15 October, the head of Saudi Arabia’s non-governmental Chamber of Commerce, Ajlan al-Ajlan, called for a boycott of Turkish goods in response to Turkish President Erdoğan’s controversial statements over the terrorist attacks in France.
As the European Union is be made to decide the future of its borders and hierarchies are crystallized among Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East, the next few weeks will surely set the tone for forthcoming geopolitical interactions. The convergence of these two phenomena is throwing into sharper relief that there is a potential reconfiguration of the old West-East occident-orient oppositions, and that, in fact, international relations in Eurasia are far more complicated than the traditional continental breakdowns. If there is anything that these unfolding events are revealing, it is that the geopolitics of Europe and Asia can now only be understood as the geopolitics of Eurasia—Europe and Asia are no longer separate, but are now parts of an interconnected whole. There are now commitments to the East in the West, and commitments to the West in the East. And this will offer both new threats and new opportunities for the region and the world.