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France's Muslim Predicament

Steven Philip Kramer

IT IS often said that there is a Muslim problem in France. But that does not mean that French Muslims themselves are necessarily its cause, any more than that Jews were responsible for the Jewish Question in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Europe. 

The French Muslim world is large and heterogeneous and defies facile generalization. Unfortunately, facile generalizations abound. The French Muslim “problem” is frequently the subject of heated ideological debates and gross simplifications, which obscure (often intentionally) rather than enlighten. French Islam is often seen in terms of religious essentialism and determinism, ignoring the diversity of Muslim practice and historical experience. But religion is only one element of the story. Few Muslims have anything to do with terrorism, yet, understandably, hideous acts of terrorism committed in the name of Islam cannot fail to frighten fellow citizens and make it more difficult for Muslims to be accepted as Frenchmen “like everyone else.” In this context, Islamism and self-segregation on the part of some Muslims also play into the hands of racists.

If some French Muslims are not well integrated in French society and are ambivalent about their relationship with the Republic, much of the reason lies in long-term historical and social factors. These factors cannot be dismissed as “mere history”—they continue to shape attitudes and behavior. Historical memory must be reckoned with.

Yet history is not destiny: Muslims are not just victims of history and institutional racism; they are engaged in advancing their interests on an individual and collective level. And even if the values of the French Republic were misused in the past to justify racism and colonialism, they can also serve as a means of emancipation today. 

France is a grand laboratory for the relationship between Islam and Western society. It has the largest Muslim population in Europe, overwhelmingly composed of immigrants from its former colonial empire. Can France create a harmonious relationship with a population whose ancestors suffered much from French colonialism? And what does France’s experience say about Europe’s ability to integrate Muslims?

THERE ARE five main factors that have contributed to the marginalization of Muslims in France, primarily those from Northern Africa.

The first factor is the enduring legacy of colonization and decolonization. This shaped both French attitudes towards North African Muslims and North African Muslims’ attitudes towards France. Tensions stemming from colonialism are not unique to France; what is unique is the experience of the bloody Algerian War, which complicates an already tense relationship.

The second factor is the timing of North African immigration. Immigration, in general, is always a charged phenomenon, but there are times which are better than others. It can be argued that an expanding industrial economy creates ideal conditions for social integration, not that integration is ever easy. Muslims came to France at a time of great economic expansion, when many jobs were available for unskilled workers in the industrial sector. These immigrants were working class: they could identify with the native French working class and the local trade union movement. Ironically, in their opposition to the status quo, the trade unions and the French Communist Party (PCF) played an important role in turning immigrants into “Frenchmen.” Had these economic conditions persisted, North Africans might have been integrated into the French working class like previous immigrants. But most of these Muslim immigrants joined the workforce at the end of the industrial era. France was shifting into a post-industrial economy; manufacturing jobs were being shed fast. Woe unto those lacking education and other kinds of commercial skills, who end up economically marginalized.

The third factor is the unintended consequences of post-war French urban planning. After World War II, France built vast housing projects outside of major urban areas for the native French population. They were a technocrat’s delight, but their isolation and brutal modernist aesthetic were not what the French population wanted. Once the opportunity arose, they left, and these cités increasingly became segregated immigrant enclaves.

The fourth factor is the concept of laïcité—the particular way the French state handles its relationship to religion subsequent to the separation of church and state. The separation, which occurred in 1905, had nothing to do with Islam; it was the result of a long history of conflict between the Republic and the Roman Catholic Church. But the legacy of suspicion, and even hostility, towards religion, in general, affects attitudes towards Islam.

The fifth factor is the impact of external developments in the broader Islamic world on French Muslims. These developments took two forms. The first was the growth of a more fundamentalist approach to Islam that was reflected in France by tendencies towards greater piety, outward observance, and self-segregation. The second, not unrelated but analytically quite different, was the advent of Muslim extremism and terrorism, first outside of France—the Iranian Revolution, the Rushdie Affair, the attack on the World Trade Center—then within France, perpetrated by French residents or citizens: Charlie Hebdo, Hyper Cacher, Bataclan, Nice. As a result, French Muslims were called upon to answer for what other Muslims did.

Each of these factors must be understood at length before a resolution can be advanced.

THAT COLONIALISM was inherently oppressive and exploitative is hardly news, but the impact on Algeria was particularly problematic and left a bitter legacy. Settlers, as well as taking control over the cities, took over vast areas of the best arable land, leaving marginal tracts to the indigenous population. Limitations on settlement ended under the Third Republic, extending the European footprint to the most fertile areas of the country, often by expropriation, legal skullduggery, and the elimination of the habous (endowed properties to provide income for mosques and charities). The existing structures and elites of Algerian society were destroyed. The French did very little to provide education for the indigenous population, since the last thing the settlers wanted was an educated population more likely to resist and/or demand higher wages. After all, the whole reason for the colony was exploitation. And a colony it was, even if in theory it was an integral part of France. It combined features of being part of the Republic (representation in Parliament) with some elements of home rule by the settlers. What was particularly galling was the hypocrisy of France—the ways in which it eluded the principles of the Rights of Man which it had pioneered in 1789.

Although all those living in Algeria were nominally French citizens, in practice the population was divided into three castes: those living by French law, Jews (who obtained French citizenship through the Crémieux Decree of 1870), and those living by Muslim (sharia) law. In the late nineteenth century, Muslims were subject to the infamous and humiliating Code de l’indigénat: they enjoyed little legal protection, paid heavier taxes, and had few political rights. To change from Muslim status to French status required an individual application. Settlers were successful in making this application very difficult, and it was a point of honor for most Muslims, even those with a French education, to not “change sides.” The vast majority of Algerians were, therefore, by legal definition, “Muslims.” Thus, it was French law which defined the non-settler population of Algeria as Muslim—that was their official legal identity. This shaped the future, helping explain why independent Algeria would emerge as an Islamic republic and why later Algerian immigrants to France (and their descendants) often continue to consider themselves as Muslims rather than take on a distinct French identity. For many Algerian immigrants, France’s republican values were, and maybe are, forever tarnished.

The catastrophic process of decolonization in Algeria further poisoned the relationship. Eight years of bitter war, enormous casualties, vast destruction, the ravages of the Organisation Armée Secrète paramilitaries at the end, and the wholesale departure of embittered French settlers and the harkis—Algerians who fought for the French and who, if they escaped, were basically warehoused in camps by the French for decades. Few experiences of decolonization were so traumatic. The Algerian catastrophe made much of the French population profoundly suspicious of Muslim immigrants from North Africa and deepened the antagonism of the latter towards France. But that is not all. There is another problem that has complicated the possibility of vivre ensemble—the way in which historical memory of the Algerian trauma was repressed. Simmering tensions emanating from the Algerian trauma continue to roil beneath the surface, generations after the war ended. Perhaps the most noxious result of decolonization was that it engendered a political party that has carried on—with no little success—the battle against acceptance of North Africans on the North side of the Mediterranean: the National Front (now Rassemblement National).

VICTIMIZED BY French colonialism, Muslims became a kind of undercaste in their own countries. In Algeria, the survival of the precarious village economy required that peasants be sent to work on a temporary basis in France. The push from North Africa corresponded to a pull from France, which needed unskilled industrial workers. Eventually, by the 1970s, this pattern of migrant labor turned into de facto permanent settlement.

Large numbers of North African immigrants came to France after World War II at what seemed to be a good time. There was need for help in rebuilding a nation devastated by war. The French economy was then entering a period of rapid growth. Immigrants could benefit from the historic engines of integration, plentiful jobs, and a strong trade union movement. What was not obvious at the time was that the industrial era was winding down, that French heavy industry was not competitive, and that jobs were about to disappear. The trade union movement and the PCF declined rapidly in the early 1980s. The post-industrial period, which offered few opportunities for the unskilled and necessitated high levels of education, had begun.

With the end of working-class solidarity, immigrants and their children lost one of their forms of identity. Unemployment hovered around 10 percent, but it was higher for minorities. The labor market was no longer an easy path towards integration into French society. The realization on the part of North African immigrants that they were going to stay in France coincided roughly with the slowdown of the economy, leaving many stranded. 

Since the 1980s, high unemployment among immigrants and their children has become chronic. The French Institute for Demographic Studies’ 2010 report Trajectoires et Origines (recent enough to remain relevant) provides an invaluable look at the unemployment situation of immigrants and their descendants as well as their own assessment of the role of discrimination in hiring. According to the report, 15 percent of first-generation male Algerian immigrants, 11 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 10 percent of Turks were unemployed; for the second generation, the figures stood at 17 percent of Algerians, Moroccans, and Tunisians, and 19 percent of Turks. Unemployment was much higher than for immigrants in general (10 percent) and double that of the population as a whole (8 percent). Equally relevant is the number of those who felt that they have been unjustly denied employment: for first-generation immigrants, 24 percent of male Algerians, 19 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 9 percent of Turks. The number for females was even higher. For second-generation immigrants, 21 percent of male Algerians, 27 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians, and 17 percent of Turks. Interestingly though, the figures for second-generation women were lower. Nonetheless, what is striking is not only how high these rates were, but how the situation of the second generation (those born in France) is still perceived to be even worse.

HOUSING CONSTITUTES another major factor in the relegation of minorities. The archetypical French ghetto today is constituted by large-scale, low-cost public housing projects, the cités, with much of their populations composed of immigrants or children of immigrants. The peculiar nature of French public housing is in large part responsible for the problem of segregation today. Yet, this result is truly an example of “unintended consequences;” at their inception, these cités were intended to provide good housing for the native French working-class population. They were seen as the triumph of technocratic genius and high modernist architecture.

French housing policies in the interwar period were largely laissez-faire. After World War II, France embarked on an extensive, low-cost public housing development program. Although most people preferred single-family houses, public authorities decided that massive housing developments were needed. Such developments were to be constructed outside existing towns—urban planners wanted these projects to be self-contained and have nothing to do with the existing built environment. They were exemplars of high modernism; Le Corbusier on a budget.

At the outset, their stark geometric forms and grandiose scale were an intoxicating change from France’s beaux art traditions; but their originality paled as they became the norm. The problem was that they were unpleasant places to live; by their very nature, they were factories of anomie. Doubtless, many people were initially delighted to move out of dilapidated structures without basic sanitary amenities to modern buildings with heating, running water, and private bathrooms. But they soon discovered the disadvantages as well: poor access to public transportation, difficulty getting to work, no available local shopping, the lack of nearby social sites like cafes, etc. In short, these cités were isolated, claustrophobic, and boring.

As housing shortages disappeared and long-term mortgages became available under the Giscard government in the 1970s, many residents were happy to leave. And as they left, immigrants came in. The large-scale movement of immigrants produced a “white flight” effect. Eventually, these projects became inhabited mostly by immigrants. Socially-mobile populations tended to move to better housing, leaving the remainder with a feeling of being marooned. These “native French” who remained were, and often remain, antagonistic to the new residents. What had once been the “Red Belt”—the Communist-dominated towns around Paris—turned into strongholds for the National Front.

The result is a vicious circle; a kind of ghetto syndrome that has much in common with the problem of low-income public housing projects in the United States. With the decline of industrial employment, much of the working-age population became unemployed and dependent on welfare. They lost prestige in the eyes of their children. Students go to schools that are largely filled with other immigrants. In time, schools themselves ceased to be seen as vehicles of social mobility and more like instruments of social control. Anti-social behavior proliferated. Lacking low-skilled employment, many young people have joined gangs, engaged in drug trafficking (it is significant that the term for the drug trade is bizness), or fallen under the sway of Islamists. 

The French social welfare system enables the population of the ghetto to survive, but in a state of economic and social marginalization. The projects became a model for the kind of “unassimilated” young people the extreme political right loves to denounce. As a result of their demeanor and the kind of ghetto fashions they adopted, they were ideal candidates for a kind of kabuki dance: the French equivalent of “stop and frisk” (contrôle au faciès) encounters with the police, which embittered them further. The resulting arrests have led to a proliferation in the prison population; estimates indicate that more half of the prison population is comprised of Muslims. 

According to sociologist Didier Lapeyronnie’s book, Le Ghetto urbain, the population of the ghetto do not feel like they are living in the real world; they live in a grey zone, with jobs that are not real jobs, with cheap public housing, and with leisure activities organized by public authorities. There seems to be no way out. And as the cités became mostly segregated, so too did local schools. In fact, not only does the school system seem like a barrier for many, a place where they suffer rejection, but even those who are academically successful do not get jobs, or, if they do, not at the level they anticipated. Widespread discrimination by name and zip code is the norm.

BETWEEN THE French Revolution through the early twentieth century, the struggle between the political left and right was mostly over two issues: the appropriate form of government for France—monarchy or republic—and the struggle between anti-clericals and practicing Catholics. The Roman Catholic Church generally supported a monarchy and was closely tied to the aristocracy. After defeat in the Franco-Prussian War though, the Third Republic was declared. And how could the Republic survive if public education was in the hands of a Church which opposed it?

In 1871, Republican leader Léon Gambetta proclaimed that “clericalism is the enemy.” The Jules Ferry Laws of the 1880s created the modern French system of public education, which is free, mandatory, and firmly in the hands of the Republic. Schoolmasters became the missionaries of the secular worldview. French culture wars continued with the Dreyfus Affair, which began as an accusation of treason against one man (who happened to be a Jew) and turned into a battle between clericalist right and the anti-clericalist left. The end result was the separation of church and state and the advancement of laïcité—a secularity that discourages religious involvement in government affairs and in the determination of state policies.

The concept, once a source of division, is now a matter of consensus for most Frenchmen. Yet there has always been a tension within French republicanism between a feeling that laïcité means guaranteeing the right to genuine religious freedom and a sense that it involves perpetuating the battle against religious obscurantism.

This culture makes it difficult for some Muslims to fit into French society. Islam is a public, embodied religion, and Muslims make demands about their religious needs, like halal food in the canteen, facilities for prayer on the job, and the right for women to wear a headscarf in public facilities and at work. This is occurring at a time when the great majority of France has become extremely secularized in all respects, including sexual and gender values.

It’s not surprising that many Muslims, particularly those who only came to France recently from societies with different values, are uncomfortable with these developments. That puts them at crosscurrents with two different groups of Frenchmen: the more conservative French, some of them practicing Catholics who dislike a rival religion, and progressives who believe that Muslim values are in contradiction with modern secular values. Some of the latter sound like nineteenth-century secularists in their jeremiad against the Catholic Church; it’s as if they want to channel Gambetta and proclaim: “L’Islam voilà l’enemi!” This is especially the case with some French feminists, who decry patriarchal attitudes in Muslim communities.

There is always a time lag as an immigrant population adjusts to majority values. If, as might be argued, French Muslims were evolving in the same direction as the majority of French in their views on social relations, these criticisms are unfair, ahistorical, and unjustified. If second and third-generation Muslims move away from traditional Islamic patriarchal values, it doesn’t much matter if older Muslins still uphold older values. The problem arises if there is a real trend towards re-Islamization amongst French Muslims: that would challenge the basic narrative of French progressive thinking. That Muslims would show their greater religious identification through public display via, above all, clothing, makes the issue even more contentious.

ISLAMOPHOBIA IS the fifth factor that makes it very difficult for French Muslims to integrate, to achieve social mobility, and to feel French. Understanding the intensity of anti-Semitism in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Europe helps us understand Islamophobia. There is a huge body of conspiratorial thinking about Islam: Muslims are unassimilable, they can never integrate into Western society; they are loyal only to each other; theirs is a religion of hate towards outsiders; they are plotting to take over the world. This kind of thinking parallels the old template of anti-Semitism. Just as committed anti-Semites felt that saving Western Civilization from the fiendish cunning of the Jews required decisive action—preventing further Jewish immigration, expelling Jews, denying or revoking citizenship—so do Islamophobes wish to save Europe from the Muslim threat. These ideas are not based on what Muslims actually do, since they predate 2001. 

What makes the problem of the “Muslim threat” different from anti-Semitism is that, whereas the Jewish conspiracy, the insidious plots of the Elders of Zion, were totally illusory, the products of sick or cynical imaginations, the same cannot be said of the Muslim conspiracy(ies). They exist in the form of Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other radicals; their violence and fanaticism are indubitable. Islamist leaders intone great plans—like restoring Muslim control over Al Andalus, giving credence to the idea of conflict of civilizations that Western liberals deny. At the same time, there has been a global trend in Islam in the last few decades from an open and tolerant faith towards hardline fundamentalism. Fundamentalism is not the same as jihadism, but is a precondition for it, and both have found resonance among Muslims in Europe and in France.

Fear of Muslims is accentuated by a broader sense of loss of control, the result of our particular historic moment. There is a pervasive sense of economic insecurity and status anxiety in France today, as demonstrated by the influence and persistence of the gilet jaune (yellow vest) movement. A new economic environment is being created based on globalized finance, along with new technologies and skills. The beneficiaries of these are on the rise; they are taking over the great cities and pricing out everyone else. Many people coming from la France profonde feel exposed, unappreciated, unserved by the State, unable to make it to the end of the month; they are experiencing downward mobility while many in the banlieues feel that upward mobility has been blocked. French president Emmanuel Macron claims that his reforms are necessary to revitalize the economy and lower unemployment. That remains to be seen, and Macron has not shown great sensitivity to ordinary people. In any case, how to assure economic prosperity for all in the modern economy is not easy, especially in a Europe with slow growth.

Compounding these problems are the changes brought about by membership in supranational organizations such as nato and the eu. France, for example, no longer directly controls its own monetary policy; it cannot impose tariffs, has been forced to reduce its deficit below 3 percent, and has been unable to bring unemployment much below 10 percent. The result is that the parties of the Far Right, exploiting a nostalgia for the social democratic planned economy of the 1960s, have gradually gained strength. They advocate an end to the eu, the renationalization of the economy, and severe changes to immigration policy. If a nation cannot control its own immigration policy, the argument goes, what is to prevent a greater number of potentially anti-social, welfare-consuming Muslim immigrants from arriving? Fears over loss of control over migration have fused with fears of Islam.

Then there is the terrorism dimension. Muslims constitute a link between two sources of anxiety: international terrorism abroad and domestic terrorism within. It is obvious that there is a real problem when 37 percent of voters in Macron’s own political movement, presumably the party of enlightened progressives, consider Islam a threat. What has occurred is the creation of a phantasmagoric threat cobbled together from real but highly specific problems. This threat is comprehensive; it extends from a local to a global level.

On the local level, the problems include delinquency, the aggressive tone of the ghettos, the experience of majority Frenchmen being a minority in the projects and banlieues, incidents in schools for Jews and majority Frenchmen, the frustration of teachers faced with a sullen or hostile student body, anti-Semitic violence and threats, and more. On the national level, there is jihadism and terrorist activity. And on the global level, there is radicalization from abroad to contend with. And at the same time, the relentless propaganda of the Rassemblement National, which blames most of France’s problems on immigrants, fans the feeling of malaise. The end result is mutual alienation.

French Muslims are thus caught in a difficult bind. During the Third Republic, French Jews squirmed when any Jew was accused of financial fraud. The Stavisky Affair of 1934, for instance, brought about riots which almost toppled the Republic; for the Far Right back then, the scandal seemed to substantiate accusations of Jews as being part of a great financial conspiracy. Likewise today, Muslims find themselves nonplussed at how to respond to acts of terrorism committed by other Muslims, especially by French Muslims. There are few more pernicious fallacies than the accusation that the actions of some members of a group prove the involvement of the group as whole. Yet such an accusation is, regrettably, hard to refute. 

FRANCE IS a battleground in a global conflict within the Muslim world over the future of Islam. There is only one way to come to terms with the issue of the “Muslim threat” today: denying and denouncing fallacious Islamophobic conspiracy theories while recognizing the reality of the threat of jihadism. Both thrive on the Internet; both thrive on ideas marginalized in public discourse. How can French Muslims affect the outcome? What positive role can the state play? The way forward requires addressing the issues which hold Muslims back: the colonial past, economic marginalization, residential segregation, laïcité, and the perceptions of the threat of radical Islam.

The experience of colonialism is responsible for much of the problem faced by immigrants. It is counter-productive to ignore it, to try to cover it up. When French leaders accept responsibility for their nation’s actions, they also take the first step towards healing. Jacques Chirac ended France’s denial over its collaboration with the Germans in the Final Solution. Emmanuel Macron took responsibility for France’s colonial role in Algeria. These were the first steps in affirming that the France of today is not the France of yesterday; that the ideals of liberty, equality, and fraternity, misused or ignored in the past, are nevertheless meaningful today and can be a means of liberation for minorities. Will this help eliminate the stigma of the colonial past borne by people of color who, after three generations are still called immigrants, maghrébins, or people issus de l’immigration, as opposed to just Frenchmen? 

Ending economic marginalization is critical for giving Muslims a real sense of equality, but is extremely difficult. If there is anything that is crucial to the future of French Muslims, it is the rise of a middle class. One would expect that social scientists would be focusing on that process, but it has been mostly ignored. Yet there is good reason to think that it is occurring. Many Muslim families have adopted strategies to ensure that their children can go to good schools with a mixed population outside of ghettos. Young women can play an important role in achieving social mobility for themselves and helping their brothers to do the same. But in all this, education remains the key instrument of social mobility. And therein lies a split in Muslim community: education is both a way out and a source of the problem.

Whereas 9 percent of the native French population have no secondary education diplomas and 34 percent have a degree in higher education, 22 percent of Algerians and 16 percent of Moroccans and Tunisians have no secondary education diploma and, respectively, 20 percent and 31 percent have a higher education degree. What is most striking is the gap between uneducated and highly-educated North Africans; there is a real bifurcation related to education. Some in the Muslim community continue to move ahead into the middle classes and the intelligentsia. A lack of statistics makes it hard to quantify the change, but the number of intellectuals and writers with Arabic names is striking, as are some of the names in Macron’s entourage. To be sure, higher education no longer guarantees careers for anyone, least of all for minorities. There is higher education and higher education. And no one is likely to be more frustrated than a highly-educated individual without a good job. But regardless: for those without much education, the prospects are bleak.

The problem of residential segregation is being confronted in a variety of ways. The most obvious is the strategy of encouraging families to move out of the cités and into single-family housing. The complication with that though is that it presupposes obtaining a mortgage, which in turn requires proof of a permanent job. The end results are mixed: observers believe that many families of North African descent are moving out of the ghettos, leaving behind the more impoverished. At the same time though, there has been a major effort to eliminate the isolation of populations in the Parisian banlieues through the development of the Grand Paris—a network of tramways and other forms of transportation to unify the greater Parisian area. And old cité towers continue to be torn down.

Some argue that the best way of resisting the impact of Islamism and jihadism on French Muslims is to create a distinctly French Islam. Islam in France is different from other religions in that it is not centrally organized—it is factionalized and decentralized. It was Napoleon who “restructured” France’s religions, with the intent of preventing them from undermining the authority of the French state. He negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with the pope and imposed a hierarchical, consistorial system of governance on Protestants and Jews. On some deep level, the Napoleonic approach remains the “default mechanism” of French thinking regarding Muslim policy. But the conditions for such a policy no longer exist with the separation of church and state. It did not apply to Muslims because they only came to France in significant numbers after World War II. In addition, the legacy of official Islam as a means of social control in French Algeria makes the role of the state suspect. 

The task of supplying officially-sanctioned imams largely was farmed out to other countries like Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey—hardly disinterested parties. This policy served the interests of the Ministry of the Interior’s concern that that imams be “safe.” Of course, these programs did little to help create a French Islam; many of these Imams barely spoke French.

Seeking an alternative, the government created an organization that could represent French Islam and enter into dialogue with the government, through which presumably France’s Muslims could be influenced. After a long process of incubation, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) was created in 2003 during the Sarkozy presidency. The CFCM includes organizations representing the three major national groupings—Algerian, Moroccan, and Turkish—as well as transnational Islamic organizations. But instead of contributing to the development of a French Islam, the group has served more as a theatre of the rivalries of different factions. With its resulting low public credibility, the organization cannot effectively represent Muslim interests. A new strategy is needed.

FOR THE first time, the initiative to resolve this Gordian knot is coming from within the Muslim community, not the State. Two important figures, Hakim El Karoui and Marwan Mohamed, are offering competing plans.

Hakim El Karoui has been deeply involved in research projects regarding the condition of Islam in France and in proposing policy solutions. He headed two major studies of French Islam by the Institut Montaigne: Un Islam français est possible in 2016, followed by La Fabrique de l’islamisme in 2018. He published a book entitled Islam: Une Religion française (Islam: A French Religion) in 2018.

Karoui believes that a solution must be proposed by the Muslim elite in France and come from practicing Muslims; it should be normative and consistent with French values of laïcité. His own solution lies in the creation of the amif: Association musulmane pour l’islam de France (The Muslim Association for a French Islam). This organization, run by professionals, would supervise matters relating to the hajj—the pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims are supposed to make at least once in their lifetime—and halal food—food that is lawful by Muslim scripture, particularly when it comes to meats. Having these processes run by a public association would guarantee transparency and accountability. The assumption is that this project will be supported by the French government, with which Karoui has had close ties, and Saudi Arabia, which he believes has turned the corner and is determined to act against the danger of Islamism. 

In a manifesto that appeared in Le Monde on December 6, 2018, the goals of amif were made clear: 

“The struggles that must be led are indeed numerous: against extremism or manipulation of Islam for political purposes or terrorism, but also against discriminations suffered by Muslims. Women must also be given their place in the organization of the Muslim religion and the management of its Islamic institutions.”

It would invest gathered funds to “improve theological reflection, aid in the formation of imams, finance them, fight discrimination against Muslims, Islamophobia, xenophobia, racism, and anti-Semitism.” It would “reconcile republican citizenship and individual faith.” Separately, in his book, Karoui also advocates the establishment of a “Grand Imam of France.”

In short, Karoui’s plan is to create a distinctively French Islam that parallels the organization of French Judaism and Protestantism. At the same time, what Karoui is suggesting is an Islam that conforms to the basic values of laïcité while remaining true to its roots.

Another plan is being developed by Marwan Muhammad, who until recently had served as director of the ccif—Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (Collective Against Islamophobia in France). He has explained that his plan would be bottom-up rather than top-down, and be independent of the French state. He said that his goals are to help Muslim communities organize themselves, improve communication between them, share best practices, improve the image of Muslims in France, and fight discrimination. 

Muhammad conducted an online consultation to find out what local Muslim communities want. This survey, which reached 27,000 people, indicated that only 7 percent of the respondents felt that the CFCM represented them and that 63 percent believed that Muslims needed a national structure to organize and represent them.

While Karoui and Mohammed’s attempts continue, there are several ongoing programs that attempt to remedy the inadequate training of imams. Given the present lack of professionalization and low salaries, both supply and demand for French imams are lacking. One option is to accept the fact that imams are most likely to come from abroad, and instead, provide them with an education in the French language and an understanding of French culture and society. The separation of church and state, however, prevents the creation of a public institution to teach theology within the context of a liberal higher education. What the government can do, however, is provide secular university studies which complement private theological studies. Such programs have been created, and one of their major goals is to provide a context for imams. These programs discuss subjects such as comparative religion, laïcité, and the relationship of religion and the State in France. One such program, entitled “Emouna, L’Amphi des Religions,” was launched at Sciences Po in September 2016. The Institut Catholique de Paris had already established a diploma program in 2008 entitled “Interculturalité, laïcité, religions.”

What cannot yet be accomplished from above may be better accomplished from below. A pilot program at the north banlieue town of Sevran serves as an example of how to equip imams with the linguistic skills necessary to preach in French combined with a basic education in the principles of French laïcité. This pilot program, established in 2015, was based on the collaboration of two dynamic individuals, the then-prefect Didier Leschi and Yacine Hilmi. The prefecture funded the program and the municipality of Sevran provides facilities. Seventeen imams take twelve hours of French a week. Their program also includes travel to places such as the Louvre and the European Parliament. Subsequently, they enroll in the above-mentioned program at the Institut Catholique de Paris.

THE DEBATE over French Islam is not new. But there is good reason to think that it is at turning point. What is most important is that the impetus for change is coming in large measure from leaders within the Muslim community. A self-assured, well-organized Islam is a precondition for durable and peaceful Muslim integration in France.

French Muslims are deeply affected by the weight of history: the influence of colonialism, economic marginalization, residential segregation, and Islamophobia as well as the impact of Islamism and jihadism. At the same time, there are signs of change, though not as rapid as one might hope, in part because of the sluggishness of the French economy and persistence of high unemployment. The good news is that many Muslims are moving into the middle classes and are making use of the possibilities available in education. The bad news is that many are being left behind, and it is not unlikely that economic losers will generally be the most affected by Islamist propaganda. The debate over the creation of a French Islam is a sign of the increasing self-consciousness and self-confidence of the Muslim community. As the historian Ernest Renan pointed out almost a century and a half ago, a nation is not based on facts, like ethnicity, religion, or race; it is based on a sense of common destiny, a desire to stay together, the “plebiscite of every day.” No nation can survive without change. Finding a synthesis between France and Islam could be enriching for both, and good for Europe as well. If not France, where? If not now, when?

Steven Philip Kramer is Professor at National Defense University. This article does not represent the official policy or positions of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Image: Reuters

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