It was a sobering moment. The priest at mass on Sunday had just heard about the shooting of the Greek Orthodox cleric in Lyon the day before, who is still fighting for his life. He was reflecting on the vulnerability of the French clergy and the Catholic Church here. In 2019, ‘they’ burned 1000 churches down –  three a day on average. The shooting followed the decapitation of a Church janitor and a mother in a Church in Lyon the day before. I have just heard the first news about shootings in Vienna. The media will say the routine stuff: ‘it’s terrorists. We don’t know what kind of terrorists; their motives are still a mystery to us.” They said this about the knifeman in Nice even as he was shouting “Allahu Akbar” while killing. 

No wonder they feel vulnerable here . Not long ago an 84 year priest, Jaques Hamel, had his throat cut at the altar in Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, Normandy.

This is a writing month, spent in my small water-mill in Normandy and, until Lockdown, Church was allowed up until last Sunday. No longer, but that’s a different story. 

The assassinations of French Christians and teachers kicked off again in a small suburb of northern Paris. A teacher, Samuel Paty – whose job was to teach a moral and civic education course to his kids – showed them the cartoons of Mohammed that had been published by the satirists at Charlie Hebdo. I remember donning my cassock at a small demo and carrying a candle and a sign at the time saying ‘Je Suis Charlie.’ As a response it seems a bit lame a few years later.

So I was astonished to watch an interview with President Macron on Al Jazeera TV. Macron was amazing. He was being asked why the whole Muslim world has turned on him in the last few days.

He chose to make the rights of girls the focus of his response. His argument was very simple. French society was founded after a revolution on the Enlightenment. 

He criticised what he called Islamic ‘extremists’:

“They teach that you should not respect France, that you should not respect our law, that you should in some way turn your back on our laws. They teach that women are not equal to men. They teach that girls should not have the same rights as boys. Not on our soil. I tell you very clearly, not on our soil… Never, never, never will I accept an association, even in the name of a religion, pushing back on those rights.”

I don’t think I have heard a politician in the English speaking world speak or defend the freedom of speech with such determination or clarity. I found myself wondering if you had to have a revolution to learn how to keep your head screwed on and thinking clearly.

The interview suddenly stalled. Macron was formidable on the equality of men and women and freedom of speech. But then he faced the real conundrum that all politicians and social commentators avoid. 

“I am not a specialist in theology, but I have never viewed Islam as legitimising or fostering the recourse to violence of any kind.”

Unfortunately, at about the same time as he was speaking so was Palestinian scholar Nidhal “Abu Ibrahim” Siam. In his weekly sermon in the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, he told his listeners that it is a great honour for the Chechen youth to have beheaded French teacher Samuel Paty and it is a great honour for all Muslims as well. He went on to consider the West calling violent Muslims terrorists: 

“Islam has nothing to do whatsoever with the term ‘terrorism,’ except for the terrorising of enemies. The [Quran] says: ‘Prepare for them whatever force and steeds of war you can, in order to strike terror in the heart of the enemy of Allah and yours.” He went on to insist that the only response to France and President Macron is to declare Jihad and that the armies of the Caliphate will conquer Rome and France and remove Macron and his “corrupt” civilisation.

In case you wondered if the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was a fringe extremist enclave (it isn’t), in Pakistan politicians were taking an even harder line against Macron.

Allama Khadim Hussain Rizvi, a mainstream politician and founder of the Tehreek-e-Labbaik party, urges the Pakistani government to declare Jihad against “those who slander the Prophet Muhammad.” He demanded the government “use the atom bomb” against France and Macron. “[Let] everyone die.” He then declared a fresh Jihad against all those who slander the Prophet.

We should be grateful that nearer home our Muslim politicians take a more irenic view of their task. In Scotland the Justice Secretary has been pioneering a bill that would outlaw ‘islamophobic’ criticism and other hate crimes spoken in the privacy of the home, which would seem at first sight to provide a charter for children to denounce their parents to the police for tea-time conversations.

Is there anyone in the UK who has the courage to echo Macron’s words and principles to say to those who try to close down free speech “never never on our soil?”

Meanwhile in France, the churches still burn and the priests fear for their lives, but at least we can still write and talk about it, thank you M. Macron.