Over the past two decades, France has been no stranger to extremism and terrorism. The French nation has suffered from a rising level of radicalism within its borders that later was translated into bombings and killings on French soil. The rate of these attacks spiked after the rise of the Islamic State (IS) group in Syria and Iraq in 2014. The French capital among other major cities has been hit by terrorist attacks that have claimed the lives of hundreds of French citizens.
The shocking fact has been that these people were targeted by mostly French-born terrorists who were raised and educated in France. These criminals, many of them the sons and daughters of immigrants to France, did not hesitate to join the vile cause of the IS group and commit acts of mindless violence and terrorism in French cities.
This has forced French politicians to ponder what has gone wrong in their country concerning the education and integration of immigrant citizens, since the danger has come not from a foreign enemy but from people who are themselves French. It seems that these young terrorists have been visiting certain radical mosques and Islamic centres in France, and investigations have indicated that certain foreign governments, such as the Turkish or Qatari governments, have been flooding the country with radical imams who lead the prayers in such mosques and deliver speeches that call for attacks on “infidels” even if these so-called infidels are French citizens just like they are.
With the rise of IS in 2014 came a change in terrorist tactics, with calls now coming not so much for “taking the fight inside Europe” without the need for organised terrorist cells as for encouraging individuals to act on their own without any kind of formal backing. Stories of stabbings, random shootings and trucks ploughing into pedestrians have become all too common in France in recent years.
The horrific terrorist attacks of 13-14 November 2015 in Paris were the worst terrorist attacks in French history and saw the deaths of 131 people and the injury of 431 in incidents that will never be wiped from French memory. These attacks exposed a breach in French security, especially towards migrants from the Middle East and others involved in such horrific atrocities.
Earlier this year, French President Emmanuel Macron decided to take the battle to the breeding grounds of these so-called “lone wolf” terrorists in the radical mosques among the over 2,300 mosques and Islamic centres in the country. These receive donations as well as visiting imams from countries that endorse Islamism, such as Turkey and Qatar. Macron announced that his administration would restrict other countries from sending clerics and Islamic teachers to France after the end of 2020.
It is estimated that more than 300 visiting imams arrive in France annually from different countries across the world. While there is no evidence that all of these are involved in the radicalisation of young French men and women, the country has been unable to stop the deluge of those that are, and this has forced the French president to take the decision to restrict their entry because of the current threats.
Turkey has been expanding its reach in Western Europe, including in France and Germany, in recent years, with some Turkish nationals acting as preachers in the pay of the Turkish state. The issue now is the imams and teachers who are sent under the supervision of the Turkish government to France and have foreign loyalties and may encourage French citizens to give up their national loyalty on the basis of the Islamic faith.
For Macron, “Turkey today can make the choice to follow the path of with us or not, but I won’t let any foreign country feed a cultural, religious or identity-related separatism on our republic’s soil. We cannot have Turkey’s laws on France’s soil.” This was the first direct warning to Turkey that its imams have overstayed their welcome and that breaching French laws will no longer be tolerated.
The decision to halt the entry of foreign imams aims to end “the consular Islam system” that according to Macron is imperative to curb foreign influence and make all respect the laws of the French Republic. The decision will include imams from Tunisia and Morocco as well as Turkey, but France will continue to sign bilateral agreements with such countries to allow their teachers to work in France according to the country’s laws. France currently has nine such agreements that ensure that these countries can send their teachers to schools in France as long as they abide by French laws.
Meanwhile, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan plans to open a number of Turkish schools in France to spread his neo-Ottoman ideology and create a double loyalty within their students. This goal contradicts French efforts to integrate immigrant families and ensure that their offspring become full citizens.
Moreover, Muslim Brotherhood-linked mosques in France have been a major issue that has longed irked the French authorities. Links to Qatari involvement in financing pro-Muslim Brotherhood mosques were exposed in a book entitled “The Qatar Papers” by French investigative reporters Christian Chestnot and Georges Malbrunot in 2019. They unveiled documents discovered by the Unit for Intelligence Processing and Action against Illicit Financial Networks (Tracfin), as requested by the French Ministry of the Economy. The French authorities had opened the investigation after evidence that the Qatari Royal Family was involved in money laundering schemes to finance terrorism in various countries across the world, including Syria and Libya.
The book revealed the involvement of the Qatari Royal Family in funnelling billions of dollars to terrorist groups in these countries and others. Moreover, it has provided some 71 million Euros to fund the construction of 140 mosques and Islamic centres in support of the Muslim Brotherhood organisation.
The book shocked French political circles, especially as it pointed the finger at agents of the Qatari state operating in Europe under the guise of either charity or as Islamic preachers, among them the disgraced Swiss-Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood member Tariq Ramadan, the grandson of Brotherhood founder Hassan Al-Banna. Ramadan is currently on trial for alleged rape in France, and French investigators have found that Qatar has been bankrolling him and enabled him to buy two upmarket apartments in Paris.
Macron has not designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist group to put an end to the group’s influence in France and pull the plug on Turkish infiltration and the Qatari financial donations that have been contributing to the growing radicalism in the country.
That said, his decision to restrict the arrival of foreign imams is a first step in addressing the elephant in the room and curbing the growing extremism that has been mostly the result of foreign influence in the country, especially from the likes of Turkey and Qatar through Islamist imams recruited from the North African countries.
It is one step in many that the French president will have to take to safeguard the country’s security after decades of leniency and complacency.
The writer is a political analyst and author of Egypt’s Arab Spring and the Winding Road to Democracy.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 27 February, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly