Last update: 2018-01-22 13:27:38
The controversy around Islam that has recently arisen in France may appear strange in many different ways. First of all because a mere minority of the main players within the discussion are actually Muslims, and additionally the issues being taken into account are very superficial aspects of Islam.
The controversy is also odd because what started the debate was a series of declarations made by representatives of certain community movements. These statements did not receive immediate attention but where then picked up by social media, which brought about a chain reaction of responses on those platforms.
At this point, certain national news outlets (particularly Le Figaro Magazine) brought the issue forward but without really swaying the public, which often has a tough time taking a stance. The perplexity which produces indifference is generated in particular by the fact – and this is the third disconcerting part – that the two opposite sides are still not well defined and are both in some ways part of what we continue to call la gauche, the left, even if its political and philosophical significance is no longer very clear.
The target was not Islam explicitly, but rather religion in general
Also, neither of the two factions has officially named itself: they were named by their respective rivals. On one side then is “Islamophobia”. This is the side that has brought about the first attacks. The target was not Islam explicitly, but rather religion in general, attacked for hypothetically being a threat to secularism.
Within this group are some organizations such as Printemps républicain (with sociologist Laurent Bouvet, philosopher Marcel Gauchet, political expert and Islamic studies specialist Gilles Kepel), the Grand Orient de France (the largest of several Masonic organizations in France, fiercely anti-clerical for the past 150 years), LICRA (the International League Against Racism and Anti-Semitism, which will soon turn 100, and opposes, in the name of equality and human rights, any public expression of cultural specificity), personalities such as former prime minister Manuel Valls or the scholar Alain Finkielkraut (who seems to view Islam as intrinsically repressive), and supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s political movement, La France insoumise.
The majority of these individuals would like to see “religion relegated to believers’ houses or places of worship” and has been asking for faith to be as discreet as possible within society, leading to, in their minds, its unavoidable disappearance, as mandated by “the sense of history”.
Since Christianity today tends to view itself as a minority, and Judaism is such, so to speak, by constitution and, despite some progress, Buddhism also remains a minority, this anti-religion debate has Islam as its implicit target since there is also a common suspicion that its real ambition is to conquer. The accusation becomes in fact direct when dealing with two aspects of the Muslim tradition: the treatment of women and “moral conservatism”.
This anti-religion prejudice which is focused on Islam is accused of “Islamophobia” by those defined as “Islamosphere”. Within this latter group there are certain grassroot associations such as the CCIF (The Collective Against Islamophobia in France), Coexister (which attempts to promote interfaith dialogue), but also l’Observatoire de la laïcité, the brainchild of Presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy and established by François Hollande. Presided over by Jean-Louis Bianco (secretary general at the Elysée Palace under François Mitterrand, who later became a member of Parliament and a socialist minister), this official institution is also attempting to help Islam cut out a recognized role in France’s political sphere, pushing for the respect of republican law, starting from the assumption that this is in fact a possibility, that there is no incompatibility, and that it is important to distinguish the peaceful religion that guides the vast majority of the world’s Muslim population from the extraordinary but marginal Islamic extremism.
The more radical and less structured fringe group of the “Islamosphere” claims that Muslims are victims of colonialism and racism and that they therefore have the right, if not the duty, to affirm themselves and refute liberalism, capitalism and in general terms the rule of the West. Among these, are other supporters of Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This fact brought philosopher Pascal Bruckner (who found himself being labeled an “Islamophobe”) to write on the weekly publication Valeurs actuelles that this leftist movement “hates France not because it oppresses Muslims, but because it frees them”, offering them the values of the Liberté, égalité, fraternité motto. Bruckner highlights the incoherence in condemning pastors to silence while giving imams free speech.
A new crisis that splits the French gauche
We can find Muslims on both sides of this debate. Amine el-Khatmi is the President of the Printemps républicain. The writer Kamel Daoud was accused of “Islamophobia” for deploring “the sexual misery of the Arab world”. On the other hand, the UOIF (Union des Organisations islamiques de France, founded in 1983, close to the Muslim Brotherhood and trying to replace the older and more moderate associations tied to both Algeria and Morocco) does not belong to the “Islamophere” field in the strict sense of the term. Yet the liberties claimed by the UOIF in the name of a cultural Islamism favor communitarianism, carried out through social initiatives such as schools.
The feud between “Islamophobia” and “Islamosphere” is therefore just one more crisis among the many that split and are about to destroy the French gauche. This controversy essentially reflects the inherent difficulty of French society to manage a growing number of Muslims, between five and eight million, half of whom is probably secularized and the rest of whom is divided.
These debate between Franco-French intellectuals has little chance of helping Islam to find within itself the resources which will allow it to exist peacefully within a situation which is neither one of oppressive majority, nor one of oppressed minority.
Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter
For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal