Articles > Mestizaje of civilisations > 2009 > Face to Face with the Secular State
The journal > Year 5 N.10 December 2009 > Face to Face with the Secular State

Face to Face with the Secular State

The Islamic tradition and new challenges /3. The case of France. In the 1970s, with the end of immigration connected with work of the Muslim populations, their rooting became inevitable and the subject of identity became central. Faced with the request to give them institutional representation, a process begun that ended thirty years later.

Azzedine Gaci | 01 December 2009

Today about six million Muslims live in France. Their presence is the result of migratory flows that came essentially from the ancient colonial empires of Africa at the beginning of the 1960s. This population, which comes first and foremost from the Maghreb, in particular from Algeria, African but also Turkish, is overwhelmingly Sunni and 10% to 20% are practising.

With the official end in 1974 of immigration connected with work, the rooting of these populations became irreversible and ended up by expressing itself primarily through an upholding of the Islamic identity. It was therefore around this visibility of Islam that questions and oppositions, at times of a violent character, crystallised. The great majority of Muslim immigrants in France come from countries where Islam is the state religion. Their transplantation to a non-Muslim, pluralist and secularised context has fostered new ways of living the Islamic tradition which has been shaped by the cultures of origin but also by the traditions and the logics of each of the host societies.

In France, as throughout the Islamic world, the Muslims do not have a clerical hierarchy on the model, for example, of the Catholic hierarchy, which is able to perform the role of a single interlocutor as, instead, takes place with bishops. The religious authority of Islam is plural and multifaceted: no personality, however respected, can claim to express himself in the name of all Muslims, and this constitutes a real problem in France and Europe. After the death of the prophet Mohammed in the seventh century, the Muslim scholars (‘ulamâ’) tried to draw up a juridical framework so as to organise the lives of Muslims at a daily level. From this intellectual attempt (ijtihâd), Sunni Islam created four juridical schools (the Hanafite, the Malikite, the Shafi’i, and the Hanbali, from the names of their founders), which still exist today and to which all Muslims continue to refer. The majority of Muslims in France are Malikites but there is also a Hanafite minority made up of Muslims of Turkish origin.

A distinction should be made between juridical schools and schools of thought. As with other religious traditions, Islam in France is marked by a large number of currents of thought and different movements: the Salafists, the proponents of a literal interpretation of the founding texts of Islam; the Tablighs, who are extremely ritualistic and are not very interested in politics, in a way that is not dissimilar to the Sufis who devote themselves above all to the achievement of integral spiritual fulfilment; and, lastly, the Muslim Brothers who are very active amongst the young, women and students, and in the political field. To these one should add the Turkish currents in France, but above all else in Germany, and also the Shiite currents, which remain very marginal in Europe.

Most of these movements are non-violent and do not represent any threat for the state, public order or human rights. However, the question of violence is written into the approach and the tendencies of some of them. This applies in particular to the Salafist current, which is largely (but not exclusively) identified with the Wahhabi tradition of Saudi Arabia. Salafism is an ultra-conservative movement that is not very inclined to recognise or appreciate national identities in Europe. It preaches a return to Islam as it was practised by the ‘pious predecessors’ and condemns all practices and innovations which are said not to be found in the Koran or within the tradition (Sunna) of the Prophet (peace be to him). The Salafists do not refer to any of the four juridical schools which, indeed, they see as responsible for the division of Muslims.

Within this movement there are essentially two tendencies. The first, dominated by the ‘ulamâ’, is called salafiyya 'ilmiyya (the ‘learned’ salafiyya) and is particularly present in France and Europe. Its violent inclination is expressed in the ambition to dictate, control and correct the individual behaviour of those who are seen as ‘bad Muslims’. The second goes by the name of salafiyya jihâdiyya (the ‘fighting’ or ‘warrior’ salafiyya). It was born during the war waged in Afghanistan against the regime supported by the Soviets and it became rooted in North Africa as the Arab veterans of the conflict gradually returned to their homelands. Extremely conservative, not to say reactionary, salafiyya jihâdiyya generally launches its attacks against Western targets (but also against certain Muslim countries), placing itself within a campaign justified in traditional doctrinal terms, that is to say as a conventional jihâd to defend the Islamic world against Western aggression.

‘Five Conditions’

Faced with such a plurality of tendencies, the creation of an Islamic representative body in France has been perhaps one of the questions that has most catalysed the concerns and the aspirations of French people who belong to the Muslim confession. With such a fragmented panorama, and in the absence of an authority capable of defining religious rules that are valid for everyone, Muslims was not able to provide a framework on their own for the organisation of their religion. The state could only hope for such an organisation, although its objective could not be to withdraw, directly or indirectly, Muslims from their responsibilities so as to replace them with state initiatives. For that matter, it is the task of the state to identify the means by which to encourage the attempts of Muslims in this direction, above all by creating the bases for a more favourable environment.

Learning from a certain number of previous attempts which were not followed up, the then Minister for the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, managed to unblock the situation by bringing together and unifying the various tendencies of Islam in France. He brought together the federations, the major mosques and other personalities by proposing to them a project involving statutes for a French Council of Muslim Worship (CFCM), which was called upon to respond, according to the Minister, to ‘five conditions’ which were held to be necessary to achieve the success of the project. In particular, it was believed necessary for the minority current to be equally represented; for the Council not to be dominated by any one of the federations; for its first president to be a personality who was known and acknowledged in the Muslim world and the non-Muslim world; for the Regional Councils of Muslim Worship (CRCM) to have the statutes of associations; and lastly for their election by the faithful to take place as soon as possible. Thus it was that in 2003, in Paris, the CFCM was created in the presence, amongst others, of Nicolas Sarkozy and the Prime Minister of the time, Jean Pierre Raffarin.

As Islam is the second religion of France, the need to create such a representative body has never been the subject of serious contestations. Like all the other great religions of France, Islam needed a structure as a result of which it could dialogue with the representatives of the government and with society as a whole. Muslims thus had the right to request its creation, if only at a symbolic level. And it is for this reason that more than 80% of the Muslim places of worship in France took part in the elections for the CFCM in 2003. Some ‘secular’ Muslims from the political world or from the world of associations had asked to belong to it, but the leaders of the Muslim religion refused this, stressing the fact that it was a matter of ‘Muslim worship and not Muslim culture, and even less of a representation of the French Muslim community as a whole’.

Ever since its creation the CFCM has had to address difficulties connected with a very narrow idea of secularity, according to which it is said to be necessary to exclude religious symbols from public spaces. Dominant within school education, this idea explains the endless fight over the veil.

The CFCM observed that to wear a veil constitutes, from its point of view, a ‘religious prescription’ but that it is up to Muslims to decide whether they wish to conform to this or not because there cannot be compulsion in religion, as is clearly stated by a verse of the Koran. The adoption on 15 March 2004 of a law that prohibits the wearing of symbols that stand out provoked an interminable debate in France. On the one hand, there were those who see this law as a ‘brutal and discriminatory measure which was added to all the injustices to which in their neighbourhoods the young people of working-class backgrounds, in particular those belonging to immigration, had to endure’, and, on the other, there were those who were active in campaigning for a rigorous application of the principle of secularity and neutrality in state schools. The debate on this law went beyond the frontiers of France. Many Muslims and non-Muslims of other European countries and the United States of America did not understand the meaning, the principles and the aims of this law.

The Regional Councils

However surprising it may appear, the creation of the CFCM was in itself an extraordinary undertaking. This body, which is representative of Islam in France and without precedent, has managed to resist in the face of everything and everybody every attempt at its destabilisation and elimination both within and outside the Muslim community. Unfortunately, because of internal divergences, conflicts between its leaders, and a lack of responsibilities, projects and direct communications in relation to the Muslim community, the CFCM has not always been able to impose itself as the sole representative body of Islam in France.

One the other hand the CRCM represents authentic manna for the Muslims, the civil service and local authorities. One of the essential objectives of the ¬CRCM is convincing local authorities that there can be no solution to the difficulties that are currently experienced by Muslims in France if they are not helped to build an identity in this country, which is profoundly secularised. This identity passes by way of respect for the dignity of each individual, in particular through the fight against discrimination, social promotion, and the possibility of practising one’s religion in dignified conditions. The mission of the ¬CRCM lies specifically in making public the practice of Muslim worship. This mission is translated above all else into a series of measures to be respected and objectives to be reached: the building and security of mosques and places of worship; the creation of Muslim sections in cemeteries to allow Muslims to bury their dead in a way that respects their religious traditions and is in conformity with the laws of the Republic; the organisation of ritual slaughtering and preparations for the feast of Aid Al Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice); the establishment of chaplaincies (aumôneries) in prisons, hospitals and the army; the organisation of pilgrimages to Mecca; the training and the organisation of the imam; and, lastly, inter-religious dialogue.

Despite a widespread prejudice in the opposite direction, Islam can be a factor for the integration of young French Muslims who are born and grow up in France as long as our relationship with the founding texts is reconsidered, namely the Koran and the Sunna. In-depth thinking about the contextualisation of these sources by Muslims who live in France is rare. Over the long period we must learn to distinguish between fundamental laws (al-thawâbit) and circumstantial laws (al-mutaghayyirât) in order to draw up a jurisprudence (fiqh) that is in harmony with the French context. To this end, the Muslims of France must adopt a reading of Islam that is free of interpretations that are not suited to our reality and of traditions that make its practice difficult. Equally, they should draw away from literal interpretations of the Koran that do not take into account the social, economic and political reality in which Muslims live and they should build an ‘Islam of France’, free from foreign influences, and independent politically, economically and intellectually. An Islam to be practised freely without any compulsions which takes into consideration practising and non-practising Muslims as well as non-Muslims.

Colossal work has been carried out and continues to be carried out in Europe to adapt the practice of Muslim worship to the context of the country of adoption. This is demonstrated, above all in France, by the large number of fatwas that concern the daily life of Muslims. In particular, these fatwas deal, for example, with the obligation to speak a part of the Friday sermon in French; with the burying of Muslims in France and the possibility of the relatives of non-Muslims taking part in funerals and assembling before their graves; with the saying of a prayer for France every time that the occasion presents itself; with taking part in elections, in opposition to anarchic and aberrant fatwas which forbid Muslims from voting, providing as a pretext that voting is to do with a non-Muslim society; and with recommendations to Muslims to congratulate non-Muslims on national and religious holidays.

This will allow the Muslims of France to practise their religion freely and serenely and at the same time to draw them near to other bearers of faith and spirituality as well.
 

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