By Karina Piser
Mar 29, 2018
When French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview last month that he plans to “set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France,” he wasn’t making an unprecedented announcement. Rather, he was pledging to succeed where his predecessors have failed.
Successive governments since the 1980s have tried to create a brand of Islam particular to France, with the dual objective of integrating the country’s Muslim minority and fighting Islamist extremism. The goal has been to create an Islam that both conforms to national values, notably secularism, and is immune to the radical interpretations that have gained a footing in certain parts of the Muslim world. Ironically, past attempts to codify a sort of French Islam—transforming Islam in France to an Islam of France—have been deeply entangled with French Muslims’ countries of origin, especially Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey. In 2015, for example, then-President François Hollande signed a deal with the Moroccan monarchy to send French imams to a training institute in Rabat.
The result is a crisis of representation and legitimacy. Existing organizations, affiliated with the state or otherwise, don’t represent the diverse Muslim communities in France. This undermines the integration of Muslims into the broader society and, according to Macron’s government, creates space for dangerous ideologies. At the same time, many Muslims consider a top-down approach to manage Islam domesticating or patronizing, particularly in light of France’s unresolved colonial legacy in the Arab-Muslim world—a way to assimilate Islam to the point of invisibility.
There’s another reason why observers may look upon state-run efforts with skepticism. The primary objective—rarely stated explicitly and often folded into rhetorical platitudes about social cohesion—is clear: fighting radicalization. “It’s always implied that a French Islam is a moderate one, opposed to terrorism,” said Olivier Roy, a scholar on Islam and professor at the European University Institute in Florence. “But what does it mean for a religion to be moderate?”
France’s estimated 6 million Muslims—8 percent of the population—are at the core of a contemporary reckoning over national identity in a country that holds fast to laïcité, or state secularism, the 1905 legal principle that separated church and state and mandated the state’s neutrality on religion. More recently, that debate has been grafted onto the fight against Islamist extremism, and this month’s attacks in the southern cities of Carcassone and Trèbes, committed by a man of Moroccan origin who was naturalized in 2004, have further deepened public anxieties. Since 2013, at least 1,700 French nationals have joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; citizens were behind several of the attacks France faced in 2015 and 2016. But the national angst about Islam’s very compatibility with the French Republic dates at least as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, when immigrants who had come as temporary workers from former French colonies (particularly in North Africa) began to settle permanently in France. That reality unleashed a series of state attempts to manage Muslim integration.
“The Muslim community is tired and disappointed with a series of ridiculous and humiliating offers,” M’hammed Henniche, the president of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis—a majority-Muslim district northeast of Paris—told me, referring to policies that have tethered French Islam to the Arab world.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith, which then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy created in 2003, exemplifies that grievance. According to a 2016 survey, barely a third of French Muslims even know what it is, and its opaque leadership structure disproportionately represents entities tied to Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Other organizations have close ties to Algeria, Morocco or the Muslim Brotherhood.
Yet it’s no surprise that, in trying to institutionalize Islam, French officials outsourced religious affairs. “The state can’t interfere in the management of religion or in theological questions,” said Roy. “Yet, for 30 years, French governments have tried to do just that. The whole project is a profound contradiction,” he said, in which a staunchly secular state cobbles together a plan to harbour its own national Islam.
Although the objective to reorganize French Islam isn’t new, Macron’s initiative is distinct in both circumstance and outlook. “Macron entered office in 2015, on the heels of recent terrorist attacks,” said Bernard Godard, who, from 1997 to 2014, served as the Interior Ministry’s in-house expert on Islam. “For French public opinion, organizing Islam needs to be a security question” and assuage fears that, according to a January survey, preoccupy the nation. “But concretely, we don’t know what that means.”
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