Over the years, France has amassed the largest Muslim population in the Western World. With nearly an eighth of its population hailing from Muslim origin, France has large numbers of citizens of Algerian, Tunisian and Moroccan descent, migrating from their home countries to France in search of employment or a new home. Although the state of France is secular in nature, a large majority of the Muslims continue to practice their religion in the French framework of laïcité, as personal religious beliefs must not infringe upon society as a whole. In November 2015, in the aftermath of the coordinated terrorist attacks in Paris, French authorities shut down three mosques for the first time, with extremist activities and radicalization being given as the reason. These rather deadly attacks changed the character of Islamist radicalization from a security threat, to a wide-scale societal problem. Former president François Hollande, and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls saw the central values of the state of France being challenged, and labeled these violent occurrences as attacks against fundamental secular and democratic values. With increasing public anxiety and ever-present tensions between the nation and its Muslim minority, France struggles to integrate this community while staying true to its roots.
Over the past year, current French President Emmanuel Macron has spoken out on his plans to “set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France” in an effort to create an “Islam of France”. Successive governments, beginning in the 1980s, have attempted to generate a brand of Islam unique to France, with the double objective of integrating and assimilating the country’s Muslim minority and fighting Islamist extremism. The goal of this particular branch of Islam is to conform to pre-existing national values, markedly secularism, while remaining insusceptible to the radical Quran interpretations which have gained a following in select parts of the Muslim world. Although the objective to restructure Islam in France isn’t a new concept, Macron’s initiative is distinct in its viewpoints and outlook. Macron hopes to break ties with foreign funding in order to disconnect Muslim organizations in France from other Muslim majority countries. Macron also hopes to train imams in France, rather than sending them to the Middle East to train. This approach would center around cultural values, rather than religious texts, to keep with the secularism of the nation, and create a generation of imams “made in France”.
Although the spike in anti-Muslim sentiment following the attacks of 2015 and 2016 has receded significantly, many Muslims residing in France say this prejudice remains prevalent both socially and legally. From a 2004 law banning religious symbols in public schools, a 2010 law banning the full-face veil in public, the attempt to ban burqinis on beaches in 2016, and as of last January, the banning of religious clothing in National Assembly, 43% of the public considers Islam “incompatible with the values of the Republic”. For many Muslims, the concept of a French Islam created by the state appears to be a continuation of policies they view as tools of assimilation, instituted to stifle individual religious expression. According to Hakim El-Karoui, a fellow at the Institut Montaigne think tank, as well as one of the experts Macron hopes to consult in his efforts, the state of France should enable the emergence of a French Islam, rather than generate one itself. While he applauds Macron’s intentions to distance French Islam from the Islam of the Arab world, El-Karoui believes the plan should reach even farther, proposing a shift in responsibility from the government to the prominent French Muslims, who are only interested in the country they currently reside in, France.
President Emmanuel Macron has set forth the foundation to move forward with his unique ideas, but if the goal is to protect France from violent mindsets preached in the name of Islam, this approach, neglecting the demands of France’s diverse Muslim communities, may fall short. To form an Islam compatible with the values of France, the Muslim community needs to step up and take the lead in this mission.