Even More Than The Anti-Trump, Macron Is The Anti-Putin

French-Russian relations are at a new low following the election of France's young, pro-European President Emmanuel Macron.

Macron in Berlin on May 15.
Isabelle Mandraud

MOSCOW — Relations between new French President Emmanuel Macron and Moscow are starting off from a very low place indeed. Never before has a French politician been the target of so much vitriol by Kremlin media mouthpieces and Russian lawmakers.

Vladimir Putin and Macron had their first telephone contact on May 18, with the Kremlin stressing "a mutual readiness to develop the traditionally friendly Russian-French relations in the political, trade, economic, cultural, humanitarian, and other spheres." But the reality of the relationship is far more complicated given how much Macron — starting early in his campaign and continuing after his inauguration, earlier this month — has been vilified, mocked, and outright insulted in Russia.

The question now is what happens on May 29, when Putin meets Macron in Versailles. Will the Russian head of state, who canceled a scheduled visit to France last October, be able to restore confidence?

"Sodomite candidate"

Here's a look at some of the more glaring things that have been said about Macron in just the past few weeks:

On May 14, as France's outgoing leader, François Hollande, passed the baton to his successor, Russia's main TV network, Pierviy Kanal, devoted close to nine minutes to Macron with the title "Where is France headed?" At 39, anchor Dmitri Kisselev explained, Macron is France's youngest leader since Napoleon. "But that's where the comparison ends," he was quick to add. "Because Napoleon was a brilliant character, and as for Macron, nobody, even among those close to him, sees him that way." The rest of the program continued in that same tone.

On April 29, NTV, Russia's number two network, broadcast a long report arguing that Macron's path to the Elysée palace was paved by the "Rothschild banker dynasty." To demonstrate this claim, the journalist went into a bank vault, opened one of the safes, took out a big wad of banknotes and says, "This is how it all started."

On May 5, shortly before the second round of the French election, a female anchor on Tsargrad TV announced without batting an eyelid that "it is possible that the sodomite candidate" — Emmanuel Macron — will become the new president.

The pro-Kremlin news agency Sputnik, fed by conservative French lawmaker Nicolas Dhuicq, has made similar claims, calling Macron a "closet homosexual." There have been attacks against his wife as well. The tabloid Komsomolskaïa Pravda called the new first lady, Brigitte Macron, a "pedophile" teacher.

Others dismiss Macron as a puppet of Germany, which he visited shortly after taking office. "He went to prostrate himself before the old lady Merkel," said the ultra-nationalist Russian lawmaker Vladimir Zhirinovsky.

Quoting one of these "experts," Russia Today (RT), the voice of Russia overseas, published a May 18 piece describing Macron's victory as the "first color revolution in Europe." This is a reference to revolutions in former Soviet states ("rose" in Georgia in 2003, "orange" in Ukraine in 2004, etc.) that were the result, we're told, "of massive interventions by Western governments, particularly the Americans, but also by paid NGOs and the Europeans." On the same day, communist lawmaker Pavel Dorokhin referred to Macron as "the Antichrist."

Nothing suggested the kind of spiteful treatment Macron has been subjected to.

This level of animosity has raised some questions. "I had a quick word about that with Russian Ambassador Aleksandr Orlov before the first round," French politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement, told Le Monde before the first round of the election, in April. Chevènement had accompanied Macron for a working visit to Moscow in January 2016, back when the new president was still economy minister. At the time, nothing suggested the kind of spiteful treatment Macron has since been subjected to.

Is it possible that the media and representatives overstepped the limit set by the Kremlin? Maxim Youssin, a reporter specialized in foreign policy for the newspaper Kommersant, believes so. "Moscow's professional propagandists weren't expecting the Macron storyline," he recently wrote. "In reaction, they counterattacked as if the French election was threatening Russia's vital interests." They were particularly upset, he explained, that among the four leading candidates, he was the only one not to call the sanctions against Russia into question.

Evgenia Obichkina, a foreign relations professor at the prestigious Moscow State Institute of Foreign Relations, agrees. "The candidates were carefully observed and Macron was the most critical of Russia," she says.

The fact that he is pro-European, elusive, unknown and young are other factors that can perhaps explain the anti-Macron frenzy in Russia, where he is presented as François Hollande's heir, even though their relation has deteriorated. There's also the feeling of disappointment, of defeat even, given that Putin first supported conservative candidate François Fillon and later had his heart set on Marine Le Pen. "Many in Russia were certain she'd win," says Maxim Youssin.

And now that it's all over, where does Putin himself stand? Former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin offered a bit of insight on Twitter, quoting what Putin allegedly said during an international meeting in Beijing on May 14. "So it's Macron, is it? It'll be better anyway... But not as good as with Chirac!"

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Reading Rumi In Kabul: A Persian Poet's Lesson For Radical Islam

Born some eight centuries ago, the famed poet and philosopher Rumi offered ideas on religion that bear little resemblance to the brand of Islam being imposed right now in Afghanistan by the Taliban regime.

The work of 13th-century poet Rumi still resonsates today

Mihir Chitre

Among the various Afghan cities that the Taliban has invaded and apparently "reclaimed" in recent weeks is Balkh, a town near the country's north-western border. Interestingly, it was there, about 800 years ago, that a man called Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Balkhi, better known as Rumi, was born.

Some see the grotesque exhibitionism of the Taliban advance as a celebration of Islam or a "going back to the roots" campaign. As if followers of Islam were always like this, as if every willing Muslim always propagated austerity and oppressiveness. As if it was always meant to be this way and any shred of liberalism was a digression from the quest of the religion.

In fact, a look at the history of the religion — and of the region — tells a different story, which is why there's no better time than now to rediscover the wisdom of the poet Rumi, but without doing away with its religious context.

In a world where Islam is a popular villain and lots of terrible acts across the world in the name of the religion have fueled this notion among the West and among people from other religions, it's paramount that we understand the difference between religion as a personal or spiritual concept and religion as an institution, a cage, a set of laws created to control us.

Why do you stop praying?

To begin with, and largely due to the film Rockstar, the most famous Rumi quote known to Indians goes like this: "Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there's a field. I'll meet you there."

Rumi's original Persian verse, however, uses the words kufr (meaning infidelity) and Imaan (meaning religion), which was translated as "wrongdoing" and "rightdoing." To me, the original verse surpasses the translation with a vital, often missed, often deliberately forgotten, interpretation, which is to highlight the fact that there is humanity, love and compassion or a certain kind of mystical quality to life beyond the concept of religion and that is the ultimate place, the place where Rumi invites us to meet him.

It would be incorrect now to read this and think of Rumi as irreligious. In fact, he was quite the opposite. But his interpretation of religion was personal, spiritual and not institutional or communal or exhibitionist.

In one of his poems, translated by Coleman Banks as "Love Dogs" in English, a man who has stopped praying to God because he never got a response meets "Khidr," an angel messenger, in his dream:

Why did you stop praising (or praying)?

Because I've never heard anything back.

This longing you express is the return message.

To me, through this poem, it's clear that Rumi advocates for a personal relationship with God. In fact, he goes on to say that being true to God is to long for his validation or nod, that life is longing.

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevl\u00e2na Museum in Konya, Turkey

A copy of Rumi's spiritual couplets at the Mevlâna Museum in Konya, Turkey — Photo: Georges Jansoone/Wikimedia

Don't sweep the history of Islam with the broom of radicalism

For those familiar with the European literature of the 20th century, I could say that this echoes the ideas of Samuel Beckett. But remember: Rumi lived 800 years ago, at the heart of what we call the "Muslim world." To equate Islam on the whole with repressiveness and hostility, as many of us do today, might just be a criminal contradiction then.

It's also interesting to note that after the Quran, Rumi's is probably the most widely read work in the Islamic world, which suggests that Rumi's ideas, which may sound too progressive for anyone remotely associated with Islam in today's world, have, in fact, been accepted and cherished by the Islamic world for centuries. Sweeping the whole history of the Islamic world with the broom of radicalism wouldn't then be the fairest assessment of either the religion or of radicalism.

This physical world has no two things alike.
Every comparison is awkwardly rough.
You can put a lion next to a man,
but the placing is hazardous to both.

(From the poem: "An Awkward Comparison")

It's tragic that the Taliban has ravaged the same place with their own power-hungry, totalitarian interpretation of the religion which once produced a mind that embraces it with wide arms of warmth and peace and refuses to be compared with other followers of the same.

How to cure bad habits?

It is vital for us to separate groupism or communalism, which often escalates to barbarism, from the thought it is based on. It is vital then to read and reread that what Rumi sees as religion is the private association with God. It is also vital to mark the emphasis on individuality in Rumi's thought.

All the Western ideas of liberalism are based on the idea of individuality, which in turn is based on post-renaissance European thought. Asian philosophy is contrasted with its Western counterpart in the fact that it is rooted in mysticism as opposed to individuality.

Islam itself has long had a tradition of mysticism that is known as Sufism. Sufism is a sort of an inward dimension of Islam, a practice that encourages a direct, personal connection with the divine, a spiritual proximity to the omniscient that transcends the physical world and temporarily subverts immediate reality.

Sufism is the quest for the truth of love and knowledge, without necessarily always distinguishing between the two. Rumi was known as the Mevlana (Maulana) and his poetic collection Masnavi meaning "the spiritual couplets" is known as the Persian Quran. He was no doubt a mystic, a Sufi, and one who strongly endorsed the personal, for the most intimately individual is the truly spiritual.

Rumi might remain unparalleled in not just the Islamic world but also in the world of philosophy and poetry across the globe. Another thing that he will remain is dead. The Taliban, on the other hand, at least for now, looks rampant and alive.

It is now up to us, the other people who are alive, and the ones who are going to be born — not just Muslims but everyone else as well — to choose which interpretation of Islam we uphold or react to, how we read history, and what we borrow from it.

How to cure bad water? Send it back to the river.
How to cure bad habits? Send me back to you.

(From the poem: "My Worst Habit")

I think what we, as a world, need now more than ever is to be sent back to Rumi.
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