French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a long-awaited speech on Friday, 2 October, at Les Mureaux, north of Paris, on French Muslims, Islam and the French Republic. Expectedly, the speech, which marks a turning point in the way the French state deals with Islamic affairs in France, raised questions, within France and in the Muslim world, about the inherent political and the philosophical message of the speech.
In the speech, Macron said that Islam is a “religion that is in crisis all over the world”, whose problems stemmed from “very strong hardening of positions among Muslims”. He added that “what we need to fight is Islamist separatism. It is a conscious, theorised, politico-religious project that materialises through repeated deviations from the values of the Republic and which often result in the creation of a counter-society.” He expressed his belief that the ultimate aim of this kind of ideology is to exercise complete control over French society.
President Macron promised that the French government would table a draft law against “Islamic separatism” by December that would monitor, among other things, foreign financing of Islamic associations and mosques in France, in addition to empowering the government to dissolve Islamic associations that disseminate values and messages that run counter to French laws, and the founding values of the French Republic that have incarnated the revolutionary slogan of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity. Moreover, the French government would establish an institute that would school future imams.
President Macron did not spare French politics and society in the way they have dealt with Muslims in France in the past. He talked about the “ghettoization” of Muslim communities in France, and the failure to integrate them into French politics and society. He said that where state and society “stepped away”, politically-motivated associations and organisations “stepped in”.
The speech, that some sceptics suspect was mainly driven by election considerations, deals with very serious political and social questions related to the future status of French Muslims in France in light of an integration model that many observers say it has been almost non-existent as compared, for instance, to the Anglo-Saxon integration model, particularly in the United States, and the UK to a lesser degree. Of course, integration of Muslims elsewhere has been made easier by the fact that those Muslims who emigrated to the United States were mostly college graduates, whereas the majority of the ancestors of present-day Muslims in France were uneducated and many of them hardly spoke French when they initially settled in France. The problem was exacerbated by the phenomenon that President Macron called the “ghettoisation” of Muslim communities in France. Moreover, the national background of Muslim immigrants differed, too. The majority, if not the totality, of Muslim immigrants to France originated in lands that were previously colonised by France. If we take Algeria as an example, the legacy of French colonialism left its scars on the psyche of those immigrants and their offspring. These factors combined to create a collective mindset among the immigrants that rejected society and state. This gap has been used by outside forces to penetrate Muslim communities and associations within France. In fact, France has known what President Macron called, and rightly so, “consular Islam”. He meant that there have been various versions and interpretations of Islam in France, depending on the financiers, the ethnic background of imams and the national background of those responsible for managing French mosques. According to press reports, there are almost 300 Turkish families in Strasbourg, in the east of France, that are completely self-isolated from the outside world; that is, in complete dissociation with French society.
The aforementioned created islands of Islam in France. Maybe this explains why many French politicians, and President Macron included, have talked about creating what they have called “L’Islam de France”.
Needless to say, the idea itself is controversial. Islam as a religion is indivisible in time and place. The intrinsic problem, probably, lies in the interpretation of the sources of Islam, the Holy Quran and the well-established traditions of the Prophet Mohamed. Such interpretations have reflected, from a historical point of view, political, economic and social conditions. Furthermore, social media has played a greater role in the radicalisation of Muslim youth not only in France but throughout the world, through erroneous interpretations of the true essence of the teachings of Islam. It was no coincidence that hundreds of European Muslims flocked to Syria and Iraq to join the so-called Islamic State terrorist organisation. This deadly journey into the abyss evidences a complete break and rejection, on their part, of political and social values in Europe, including France. The irony is that the “enemy” for them has been the societies where they were born. They have not identified their future with these societies. If this is the case, then the fault is not only theirs.
The existential question facing France and other European societies is, in fact, how to bring up young Muslim generations believing in a common destiny with these societies. The first step is to persuade them that there are no inherent contradictions between Islam and European values, be it political or social. The second step, which is no less important, is for European governments to take into account the fact that part of the problem, or challenge, lies in their positions taken vis-à-vis Islamist political movements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood. You cannot coexist with such movements in the long run. By “you” I mean European governments. The ultimate aim of these movements is to penetrate Western societies, by democratic means, and Islamise them, even if it takes a century or two. Another immediate aim is to pressure Western governments to adopt tougher policies against Arab and Muslim governments that support Islamist radicalism. In both cases, the threats are serious.
For President Macron to succeed in his endeavours, as outlined at Les Mureaux, the draft law expected in December should not be seen as a law against Islam but rather against Islamism, defined as the politicisation of the religion of Islam.
Last, but not least, it is preferable that the European Union develop a common European policy of integration as far as Muslim communities are concerned. As there is a successful Anglo-Saxon model of integration, hopefully Europe would develop one in the years to come.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 October, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly