France's Muslim Predicament

February 16, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Europe Tags: FranceMuslimEmmanuel MacronPolicyPolitics

France's Muslim Predicament

The debate over Islam in France is not new. But there is good reason to think that it is at a turning point.

The problem of residential segregation is being confronted in a variety of ways. The most obvious is the strategy of encouraging families to move out of the cités and into single-family housing. The complication with that though is that it presupposes obtaining a mortgage, which in turn requires proof of a permanent job. The end results are mixed: observers believe that many families of North African descent are moving out of the ghettos, leaving behind the more impoverished. At the same time though, there has been a major effort to eliminate the isolation of populations in the Parisian banlieues through the development of the Grand Paris—a network of tramways and other forms of transportation to unify the greater Parisian area. And old cité towers continue to be torn down.

Some argue that the best way of resisting the impact of Islamism and jihadism on French Muslims is to create a distinctly French Islam. Islam in France is different from other religions in that it is not centrally organized—it is factionalized and decentralized. It was Napoleon who “restructured” France’s religions, with the intent of preventing them from undermining the authority of the French state. He negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with the pope and imposed a hierarchical, consistorial system of governance on Protestants and Jews. On some deep level, the Napoleonic approach remains the “default mechanism” of French thinking regarding Muslim policy. But the conditions for such a policy no longer exist with the separation of church and state. It did not apply to Muslims because they only came to France in significant numbers after World War II. In addition, the legacy of official Islam as a means of social control in French Algeria makes the role of the state suspect. 

The task of supplying officially-sanctioned imams largely was farmed out to other countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey—hardly disinterested parties. This policy served the interests of the Ministry of the Interior’s concern that that imams be “safe.” Of course, these programs did little to help create a French Islam; many of these Imams barely spoke French.

Seeking an alternative, the government created an organization that could represent French Islam and enter into dialogue with the government, through which presumably France’s Muslims could be influenced. After a long process of incubation, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) was created in 2003 during the Sarkozy presidency. The CFCM includes organizations representing the three major national groupings—Algerian, Moroccan, and Turkish—as well as transnational Islamic organizations. But instead of contributing to the development of a French Islam, the group has served more as a theatre of the rivalries of different factions. With its resulting low public credibility, the organization cannot effectively represent Muslim interests. A new strategy is needed.

FOR THE first time, the initiative to resolve this Gordian knot is coming from within the Muslim community, not the State. Two important figures, Hakim El Karoui and Marwan Mohamed, are offering competing plans.

Hakim El Karoui has been deeply involved in research projects regarding the condition of Islam in France and in proposing policy solutions. He headed two major studies of French Islam by the Institut Montaigne: Un Islam français est possible in 2016, followed by La Fabrique de l’islamisme in 2018. He published a book entitled Islam: Une Religion française (Islam: A French Religion) in 2018.

Karoui believes that a solution must be proposed by the Muslim elite in France and come from practicing Muslims; it should be normative and consistent with French values of laïcité. His own solution lies in the creation of the amif: Association musulmane pour l’islam de France (The Muslim Association for a French Islam). This organization, run by professionals, would supervise matters relating to the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lifetime—and halal food—food that is lawful by Muslim scripture, particularly when it comes to meats. Having these processes run by a public association would guarantee transparency and accountability. The assumption is that this project will be supported by the French government, with which Karoui has had close ties, and Saudi Arabia, which he believes has turned the corner and is determined to act against the danger of Islamism. 

In a manifesto that appeared in Le Monde on December 6, 2018, the goals of amif were made clear: 

“The struggles that must be led are indeed numerous: against extremism or manipulation of Islam for political purposes or terrorism, but also against discriminations suffered by Muslims. Women must also be given their place in the organization of the Muslim religion and the management of its Islamic institutions.”

It would invest gathered funds to “improve theological reflection, aid in the formation of imams, finance them, fight discrimination against Muslims, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.” It would “reconcile republican citizenship and individual faith.” Separately, in his book, Karoui also advocates the establishment of a “Grand Imam of France.”

In short, Karoui’s plan is to create a distinctively French Islam that parallels the organization of French Judaism and Protestantism. At the same time, what Karoui is suggesting is an Islam that conforms to the basic values of laïcité while remaining true to its roots.

Another plan is being developed by Marwan Muhammad, who until recently had served as director of the ccif—Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France). He has explained that his plan would be bottom-up rather than top-down, and be independent of the French state. He said that his goals are to help Muslim communities organize themselves, improve communication between them, share best practices, improve the image of Muslims in France, and fight discrimination. 

Muhammad conducted an online consultation to find out what local Muslim communities want. This survey, which reached 27,000 people, indicated that only 7 percent of the respondents felt that the CFCM represented them and that 63 percent believed that Muslims needed a national structure to organize and represent them.

While Karoui and Mohammed’s attempts continue, there are several ongoing programs that attempt to remedy the inadequate training of imams. Given the present lack of professionalization and low salaries, both supply and demand for French imams are lacking. One option is to accept the fact that imams are most likely to come from abroad, and instead, provide them with an education in the French language and an understanding of French culture and society. The separation of church and state, however, prevents the creation of a public institution to teach theology within the context of a liberal higher education. What the government can do, however, is provide secular university studies which complement private theological studies. Such programs have been created, and one of their major goals is to provide a context for imams. These programs discuss subjects such as comparative religion, laïcité, and the relationship of religion and the State in France. One such program, entitled “Emouna, L’Amphi des Religions,” was launched at Sciences Po in September 2016. The Institut Catholique de Paris had already established a diploma program in 2008 entitled “Interculturalité, laïcité, religions.”

What cannot yet be accomplished from above may be better accomplished from below. A pilot program at the north banlieue town of Sevran serves as an example of how to equip imams with the linguistic skills necessary to preach in French combined with a basic education in the principles of French laïcité. This pilot program, established in 2015, was based on the collaboration of two dynamic individuals, the then-prefect Didier Leschi and Yacine Hilmi. The prefecture funded the program and the municipality of Sevran provides facilities. Seventeen imams take twelve hours of French a week. Their program also includes travel to places such as the Louvre and the European Parliament. Subsequently, they enroll in the above-mentioned program at the Institut Catholique de Paris.

THE DEBATE over French Islam is not new. But there is good reason to think that it is at turning point. What is most important is that the impetus for change is coming in large measure from leaders within the Muslim community. A self-assured, well-organized Islam is a precondition for durable and peaceful Muslim integration in France.

French Muslims are deeply affected by the weight of history: the influence of colonialism, economic marginalization, residential segregation, and Islamophobia as well as the impact of Islamism and jihadism. At the same time, there are signs of change, though not as rapid as one might hope, in part because of the sluggishness of the French economy and persistence of high unemployment. The good news is that many Muslims are moving into the middle classes and are making use of the possibilities available in education. The bad news is that many are being left behind, and it is not unlikely that economic losers will generally be the most affected by Islamist propaganda. The debate over the creation of a French Islam is a sign of the increasing self-consciousness and self-confidence of the Muslim community. As the historian Ernest Renan pointed out almost a century and a half ago, a nation is not based on facts, like ethnicity, religion, or race; it is based on a sense of common destiny, a desire to stay together, the “plebiscite of every day.” No nation can survive without change. Finding a synthesis between France and Islam could be enriching for both, and good for Europe as well. If not France, where? If not now, when?