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Islam in France and Islam of France: Macron’s Challenge

Great Mosque of Strasbourg on the banks of Ill river on a spring day []

No leader has a solution: this remains in the hands of European Muslims, who have to find it within the Qur’anic tradition itself

Last update: 2018-03-07 13:13:14

The French president Emmanuel Macron has the ambition to renew everything; however, he faces the same problems his predecessors had not been able to solve, and to which neither the transformation of the political landscape nor the evolution of legislation and ambitious projects can provide a solution.


Among the embarrassing issues that have dragged on, there is the integration of Islam within French society. The République wants to be secular, but recognizes freedom of conscience and the existence of “cults”. Such cults must be managed by official associations, which enjoy many rights but are subject to the law.


This system, progressively built through negotiation and compromise only since the Twentieth century, after the conflicting separation between state and Church in 1905, was conceived for and with Catholics and, to a lesser degree, Protestants and the Jewish community. Can it be now applied to Islam?


The official terminology is already significant in itself: the goal is not to organize Islam in France, but an Islam of France. In other words, it is not simply a matter of taking note of the plurality of Islamic currents in the country and asking them to organize themselves and to acquire a common and representative leadership that would become the interlocutor that public authorities need. Rather, the idea is to create a sort of national Islam that, without erasing the differences within it, manages to reconcile religious affiliation with citizenship and adherence to the “values” shared by the rest of the French people.


This is what Macron claimed in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche. The president distinguishes two aspects within this project. One has a formal level and calls for an institutional structure, which incorporates various Islamic currents present in France. The other concerns the substance, that is, the compatibility and even the possible convergence between the needs of Islam and the republican and secular ideals. The tone is cautious and measured, and motives and objectives are reasonable: do not import into France the divisions that tear Islam apart elsewhere in the world; give Muslims their place and their role within our socio-cultural life (something that their presence is making inevitable); do not rush things but rather make proposals only after full consultation.


What is the probability that these laudable intentions will lead to concrete results ? There are many obstacles. First of all, the reasons for which the predecessors of the current president failed to federate Islam in France persist: the Conseil français du Culte musulman (French Council of the Muslim Faith), created in 2003, remains dysfunctional because of differences among the member associations, which for the most part are under foreign patronage.


Algeria, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the Gulf countries, the Muslim Brotherhood, Turkey, not to mention salafis and jihadists, have their “clients” to whom they send preachers and/or money. Succeeding in gathering these factions together is not to be taken for granted because unity is not in their interest. The government does not have a budget to counterbalance these external influences and, on the other hand, the state cannot finance any “cult”.


Alsace and courses in Islamic Studies

However, there is one exception: the University of Strasbourg, which remains under the concordat regime (since Alsace was German at the time of the separation in 1905), offers courses in Islamic Studies. In Paris, the Institut Catholique (therefore, private) is the one that welcomes future imams.


The aim of these training courses is twofold. On the one hand, to verify that those who arrive from the Maghreb or the Levant to practice in mosques without formalized qualifications have sufficient knowledge of French and of the cultural environment in which they are going to express themselves. On the other, these courses ensure that their teaching is adequate to a university level and responds to spiritual and intellectual expectations.


In the same vein, the Foundation of Islam of France was created in 2016 which, having been declared of public utility, can be financed and receive tax-deductible donations. The Foundation refers to the great orientalist Jacques Berque (1910-1995) and promotes an “Islam of progress” in line with the “special relationship” between Muslim culture and France, which over time has led to long-lasting mutual enrichments rather than conflicts.


The premise is that “authentic” Islam is fundamentally peaceful and open, therefore it can be reconciled with “modernity”. However, high-quality online productions which promote a type of Islamic piety which conflicts with this premise continue to fuel a sort of “radicalization” through slogans and video broadcasts, which is difficult to mitigate by education in theology and history. An additional difficulty is that the valorizations of Islam, even those no explicitly promoting violence, provoke an Islamophobic reaction, both on the left and on the right of the political spectrum.


Optimism, however, finds a justification in religious sociology. This indeed shows that almost 90 percent of Muslims living in France observe Ramadan, less than half are regularly “practicing” and the remaining is more or less secularized.


At the same time in the media well-known personalities who support an “enlightened” and liberal Islam emerge: the writer Tahar Ben Jelloun (born in 1947), the theologian Ghaleb Bencheikh (born in 1960), the philosopher Abdennour Bidar (born in 1971), the rector of the Great Mosque of Lyon Kamel Kabtane (born in 1943), the Imam of Bordeaux Tareq Obrou (born in 1959), the business manager Najoua Arduini-Elatfani (born in 1982) and especially the banker and consultant Hakim El Karoui ( born in 1971), author of Islam, une religion française (Gallimard, 2018), which seems to have Macron's trust.


So, the silent majority of Islam in France will decide whether an Islam of France is possible. The state and the French government must find the means to counter the demonization of Islam and give the possibility to the Muslim “cult” not to depend on foreign patrons.


However, the risk is that this won’t be enough. The solution developed for Judaism and Christianity, in which the separation between the temporal sphere and the spiritual sphere legitimizes secularism, will unlikely work for Islam, in which divine law is superior to human laws.


Therefore, Muslims will need to discover in the Qur’anic tradition what is not obvious, and probably is unprecedented: how to accept and deal with the status of non-oppressed but participatory minority in a pluralist context. This is a solution that only French and European Muslims can conceive and adopt, but that no president of the Republic has at hand.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Oasis International Foundation