By Kamel Daoud
Jan. 28, 2019
What to do about Islam in France? Considering Islamist terrorist attacks, communalism and the international manipulation of Muslim communities, the matter is pressing. But it’s contentious, because managing Islam seems to go against laïcité, France’s staunch version of state secularism, and a 1905 law that mandates the separation of church and state.
Wouldn’t revising that law be an admission that secularism is bowing to Islamism? On the other hand, if the law isn’t revised, or if the French state cannot find other ways of monitoring and steering Islam, then Islam in France risks falling under the control of foreign states or the influence of radicals. That is already the case, actually: Since laïcité prohibits the French authorities from using public funds to build mosques or train imams, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have stepped in. According to the newsmagazine L’Express, 70 percent of imams practicing in France are not French.
In an attempt to overcome these paradoxes, President Emmanuel Macron recently convened at the Élysée Palace the country’s various Muslim leaders and then representatives from all religions. The order of the day for the broader meeting, held on Jan. 10, was old emergencies: how to punish radicalism, control the financing of mosques and make Muslim authorities accountable. The news daily Le Monde, which obtained the note that the president handed to attendees, reported that the government was proposing to revise the 1905 law while “confirming” “its principles.”
It was an attempt to square a circle, a malaise, so very French. And the narrower question of what to do about imams — their origins, their trainings, their salaries — summarizes it well.
Here is a first hurdle: It’s virtually impossible to tally imams in France. No one really knows how many there are, partly because the collection of data based on ethnic or religious grounds is prohibited. The last available estimates from the interior ministry — which date back to 2012 — put the number of mosques in France at around 2,500. (A 2016 report by the Senate said it was closer to 3,000.) But those figures are as outdated today as they were imprecise in the first place: What even counts as a “mosque” when so many Muslim believers gather in the basements of low-income building complexes or other improvised prayer halls? And there being 2,500 mosques don’t mean there are 2,500 imams: In Sunni Islam, the version of Islam most prevalent in France, anyone can declare oneself an imam and volunteer to lead prayers or the Friday Sermon.
There is no central authority overseeing Islam in France. Anyway, how do you supervise the mosques you don’t fund or imams you can’t pay?
For the time being, France, for lack of its own theological schools, has favoured filtered immigration: It brings in imams from abroad, mostly from the home countries of its main immigrant communities, either for long stretches or just for Ramadan. Paradoxically, one of the justifications for this policy — though rarely admittedly publicly — is security: It seems less risky to rely on an official imam from Algeria than to let a self-proclaimed imam emerge in a Paris banlieue, or suburb.
For example, Algerian imams wishing to go to France must first undergo investigations. And as the Algerian government puts it, modestly, the “Algerian expertise” in internal security matters ensures quality vetting. The government has also offered its services to the United States, Belgium and Italy.
In 2018, Algeria sent approximately 100 imams to officiate in France. Morocco and Tunisia contributed about as many each. In 2017, L’Express ran the headline “Morocco, the factory of French imams,” with an article on imam-apprentices, some sent from France, whom the kingdom was training in how to dispense “middle-ground” Islam before dispatching them abroad. According to the news weekly Le Point, Turkish “consular structures” oversee more than 250 mosques and about 200 official imams seconded by Turkey to France.
The filtered import of foreign imams may look like a good practical solution; in fact, it’s an ideological trap. These imams, even if acting in good faith, can only reinforce communalism in France and work against integration, because they are not French. In the name of laïcité, France is dangerously delegating its Islam to other states.
Those states benefit. For the Algerian government, the export of imams seems to confirm the country’s return to stability. Saudi Arabia sees proselytizing as a form of soft power. So does Turkey, which appears invested in maintaining a religious lobby abroad.
The stakes are high, apparently. When last year the Austrian government expelled about 60 Turkish preachers to counter, it said, the creation of “parallel societies” and “political Islam,” Turkey called the move “racist” and “Islamophobic.” When the French government said it wanted to create a distinct “Islam of France,” Algeria — speaking indirectly, via an expert’s op-ed in state media — accused it of “arrogance tinted with ignorance.”
The import of imams, the foreign financing of mosques — these delegations of power by the French authorities are a dead end: They won’t do enough to stem radicalism in France, and they will do even less to nurture the emergence of, precisely, an Islam of France.
The president’s office seems to want to overcome all this. But some of the participants in that first meeting convened by Mr. Macron at the beginning of the year reacted with calculated anger before accepting the invitation. Members of the French Council of the Muslim Faith decried the “colonial administration of Islam.” It’s a clever conflation: By invoking colonialism, they can leverage guilt as a bargaining chip while maintaining Islam’s communal valence. Why do that? For fear of losing power if France develops a sui generis form of Islam. Harping on Muslims’ status as a once-colonized group is a way of highlighting their ties to their countries of origin, over those to their host country.
Past attempts to create Muslim councils — the Great Mosque of Paris, the Federation of French Muslims, the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (also known as Muslims of France) — that could effectively represent France’s various Muslim communities have failed. One reason is the rivalry among the groups’ leaders, different confessional strands and foreign governments with ties to immigrant communities. Algeria competes with Morocco, and both of them compete with Turkey and Saudi Arabia: As the journalist Henri Tincq has pointed out on Slate.fr, the Paris Mosque is “loyal to Algeria,” the Federation of French Muslims has “ties to the Muslim World League and Morocco” and the Union of Islamic Organizations in France is “close to the Muslim Brotherhood.”
It’s difficult to separate Islam from its community and the community from its country of origin without being accused of interference. Whenever the French government tries to manage Islam in France, Algeria says it’s meddling, when in saying so, it is Algeria that is meddling in France’s affairs.
So what can be done? One solution has been put forward by Hakim El Karoui, an international consultant close to Mr. Macron and the author of the recent report “The Islamist Factory” and, in 2016, of “A French Islam Is Possible.”
First, he recommends strictly supervising external financing or informal funds collected in mosques, neighbourhoods or local associations. He also suggests creating an independent fund for training imams by taxing Halal businesses, money collected through the Muslim alms known as Zakat and commerce around the pilgrimage to Mecca. Those are good ideas for trying to keep state and church, or cult, separate while integrating French Muslims into France.
But just what should be uniting is proving divisive: Mr. El Karoui’s proposals are controversial, notably for the French Council of the Muslim Faith. One of the organization’s vice-presidents called them an “insult” to Islam and accused Mr. El Karoui of conflating Islam and Islamism. That reaction sums up well the endless-seeming debate between those who want to maintain a monopoly over Islam in France and those who wish to develop an Islam of France.
Kamel Daoud is a contributing opinion writer and the author of “Chroniques: Selected Columns, 2010-2016” and the novel “The Meursault Investigation.” This essay was translated by The New York Times from the French.