Sunni Muslims in Karachi, October 2020. Credit: Asif Hassan/AFP via Getty Images

November 2, 2020   7 mins

In 1798, Napoleon embarked on the first French invasion of Egypt since the era of the Crusades. He prepared for it with his customary attention to detail. Conscious that he was travelling to a predominantly Muslim land, he sought to make a careful study of Islam. Top of his reading list was, of course, the Qur’an. Raised as he had been to view the Bible as the archetype of scripture, he found it a surprising text. The character of Muhammad’s revelations, he realised, was radically different from that of the New Testament.

The Qur’an did not content itself with what Napoleon had been brought up to think of as “religion”. Its scope was much broader than that. From fiscal policy to sumptuary laws, it offered prescriptions for entire dimensions of what, in Europe, had long since come to be defined as “secular”. Napoleon, sorting out the library in his cabin, duly catalogued it, not under “Religion”, but under “Politics”.

Three weeks after disembarking at Alexandria, the French army won a decisive victory in an engagement that its general, displaying his customary genius for self-promotion, was quick to term the battle of the Pyramids. Napoleon was now effectively the master of Egypt. Yet this brought its own problems. While the military challenge might have been overcome, the much greater challenge of wooing a Muslim population suspicious of him as both an alien and a non-believer had not.

Napoleon’s approach to the problem was two-pronged. On the one hand, he was assiduous in casting himself as a friend of Islam. He boasted that he had destroyed the Pope. He insisted on his reverence for Muhammad. He affected a cod-Islamic language in his proclamations. “Have we not for centuries been the friends of the Grand Signor (May God accomplish his desires!)?”

In private, however, or when addressing his soldiers, Napoleon was contemptuous of the Islamic word. “You have come to this country,” he told his army before the battle of the Pyramids, “to save the inhabitants from barbarism, and to bring civilisation to the Orient.” This was why, in addition to muskets, cannon and cavalry, he had brought with him to Egypt a printing press, a hot-air balloon and a small army of intellectuals.

The blaze of the Enlightenment, although it might seem to have been lit in Europe, was not just for Europeans. All the world had the potential to share in its radiance. Illumination was the same wherever it manifested itself, and this meant that in Peking as in Paris, in Baghdad as in Bordeaux, there were sages more than qualified to rank alongside Voltaire and Diderot.

The Enlightenment, far from ranking as something parochial and culturally contingent, was properly a global phenomenon. These various dogmas, which the philosophes had tended to take for granted, had then been given a new and militant edge by the French Revolution. That religion was superstition; that rights were universal; that equality, individual liberty and freedom of expression were simultaneously natural and sacred: these were the convictions that had inspired in the citizens of revolutionary France their continent-shaking sense of certitude. Thrones had been toppled; abbeys demolished; the detritus of a benighted past erased. And if in Europe, then why not further afield? The Rights of Man were for everyone, after all, or they were nothing. “Any law that violates them,” as Robespierre had put it, “is fundamentally unjust and tyrannical. Indeed, it is not law at all.”

This sense of missionary purpose, which inspired in those who felt it an ambition to bring the entire world from darkness into light, outlasted the execution of Robespierre, the defeat of Napoleon, the seeming triumph of reaction across post-revolutionary Europe. In 1854, when the Ottoman Empire was facing a critical threat from Russia, France joined Britain in insisting as a condition of its entry into the Crimean War that the slave trade across the Black Sea be abolished.

Also abolished was the jizya, a tax on Jews and Christians that reached back to the very beginnings of Islam, and was directly mandated by the Qur’an. Such measures, to the Ottomans, risked immense embarrassment. The effect, after all, was to reform Islamic jurisprudence according to the standards of non-believers. It was, for Muslim traditionalists, an ominous straw in the wind. Over the course of the century and more that followed, the weathering effects of Western hegemony on the practices that Muslims believed they had inherited from Muhammad — the Sunnah — became more and more pronounced.

Governments across the Islamic world began to adopt constitutions that directly contradicted what Muslims had always believed was the perfect and eternal law given to them by God. Simultaneously, they began to sign up to international bodies that, despite their claims to neutrality, were shot through with the ideological assumptions of the West. The most significant of these was the United Nations, which in December 1948 issued a definitive statement of its guiding principles: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This, which claimed in its preamble that acknowledgement of “the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world”, was in reality not at all as ‘universal’ as it affected to be. Standing recognisably in a line of descent from the proclamations of the French Revolution, it served as well as a repudiation of some of the more foundational assumptions of Islamic theodicy.

The concept of human rights was an alien one to Islam. Muslims, traditionally, had not believed in natural law. There were only laws authored by God. The insistence of United Nations agencies on “the antiquity and broad acceptance of the rights of man” derived, not from the great inheritance of the Sunnah, but from the philosophes of the 18th century. Tellingly, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights had been signed — where else? — in Paris.

Western hegemony over the Islamic world, then, did not end with the collapse of direct rule over it by the European powers. Western values, Western assumptions, Western concepts of law, all of them packaged and marketed as “universal”, continued to exercise an overweening dominance in global affairs. If this was true for Muslims in lands that had sought to reconstitute themselves as nation states, then how much more so was it for Muslims who, in the decades that followed the Second World War, travelled to Europe, and settled there in growing numbers.

True, they were granted “freedom of religion”. But this came with definite strings attached. In France particularly — which rapidly came to host the largest Muslim population in Europe — they reached back a very long way. In 1791, when the revolutionary state granted citizenship to Jews, it had done so on the understanding that they abandon any sense of themselves as a people set apart. No recognition or protection had been offered to the Mosaic law.

The identity of Jews as a distinct community was tolerated only to the degree that it did not interfere with the shared civic identity of all Frenchmen and women. “They must form neither a political body nor an order in the state, they must be citizens individually.” Today, in France, Muslims are expected to subscribe to a very similar orthodoxy. Islam as it was classically understood — a framework for regulating every aspect of human existence – could have no place in a country proud of its secularism: its laĂŻcitĂ©.

Muslims, if they were not to disrupt the very fabric of the French Republic, needed to render their beliefs and convictions compatible with those of the society in which they were now living. They had to accept that laws authored by humans might trump those authored by God; that Muhammad’s mission had been religious rather than political; that the relationship of worshippers to their faith was, in its essentials, something private and personal. They had to accept, in short, an Islam that was secularised.

But not just secularised. The roots of the Western concept of the secular — as Napoleon’s reaction to the Qur’an suggested — reached back much further than the Enlightenment. “Not just religious; it is civil and political. The Bible only preaches morals.” Napoleon’s appreciation of the fundamental differences between Christian and Islamic scripture was one that Muslim scholars — those few who could be bothered to read the New Testament — had been struck by too.

Ibn Khaldun, the great medieval historian, noted with surprise that the Gospels consisted largely of sermons and stories, “and have an almost complete lack of laws”. It was this lack, in the opinion of medieval Muslim jurists, that served to condemn Christianity as an inadequate and superceded revelation. Unlike the Jews, who at least had a written law from God, Christians were forever changing their minds, devising new law codes, revising the ones they already had. How were such people possibly to be taken seriously?

The charge is the same that prominent Islamic radicals today level against the secular order of the West, and against those Muslim states that ape it: that they are taking earthly legislators as their lords rather than God. More clearly than many in the West itself, they have recognised the Enlightenment, not as an emancipation from Christianity, but as a mutation of it. That there is a distinction between twin dimensions called “religion” and the “secular”; that humans enjoy universal rights; that the laws by which earthly states are governed should be authored by mortals, not by God: all of these were assumptions rooted, not in the Enlightenment, but in the deep seedbed of Christian history and theology.

Between Louis IX, the canonised king of France who had led the Seventh Crusade to Egypt, and Napoleon, the general of the French Republic, the differences can, perhaps, seem less profound than the similarities. Both believed themselves the agents of universal truths; both believed themselves summoned to bring light into darkness; both believed themselves bound to banish superstition at the point of a sword. There was a time when the French themselves could see this more clearly than they tend to do now.

“A political revolution that operated as a religious revolution does,” wrote Tocqueville about the founding of the French Republic, “and took in some way the shape of a religious revolution.” When, in 1842, the word laĂŻcitĂ© first appeared in French, it was imbued with precisely this ambivalence: for the laicus had originally been none other than the people of God.

Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that Islamist radicals, when they look at the history of France, should see in it a sinister continuum. In 2015, when the Islamic State issued a statement claiming responsibility for the murderous attacks on the Bataclan and a range of other atrocities, it readily conflated the era of Louis IX with the vices of a more recent and godless materialism. Paris was condemned both as “the carrier of the Banner of the Cross in Europe”, and as “the capital of prostitution and obscenity”.

The horrors of the past fortnight have repeated this tendency on the part of Islamists opposed to the traditions and obligations of laĂŻcitĂ© to make little distinction between secular and Catholic France. A teacher beheaded near his school; three worshippers hacked to death in a basilica. The nightmareish quality of these attacks should not obscure the fact that they have followed a certain twisted logic. The Islamic State, when they identified France as the capital of everything that it most hated, were not so far wrong. Eldest Daughter of the Church and the home of revolution, the land of saints and philosophes, Catholic and laique, it is her fate — and perhaps her privilege — to serve, more than any other country, as the very embodiment of the West.

Tom Holland is a writer, popular historian and cricketer. He is not an actor. His most recent book is PAX