Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1230, (22 - 28 January 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Does a French Muslim ‘community’ really exist?

France’s Muslim community is a diverse group with broad ethnic origins and beliefs, writes Nadia Henni-Moulaï

Al-Ahram Weekly

A Muslim president in the Elysée Palace: In his novel Soumission (Submission), released on 7 January, the popular novelist Michel Houllebecq imagines an “Islamist” party at the head of the French government. The fiction, of course, bears no relation to reality.

As Olivier Roy, professor at the European University Institute and an eminent specialist on Islam, writes: “There is not the shadow of the beginning of the establishment of a Muslim party [in France].”

This observation leads us to examine the concept of the Muslim community itself, so frequently spoken of by the media, as well as the approach of politicians to Islam and France’s Muslims. In its latest study, the National Institute of Demographic Studies reported that France’s Muslim population is 4.1 million, a figure well below the often quoted five to six million.

The study also found that the Muslim community, in terms of its religiosity, is not homogeneous. If 49 per cent of Muslims are strongly religious, 47 per cent define their religious practice as moderate. Four per cent, referred to as “cultural Muslims”, have a detached relationship with Islam.

The degree of religiosity varies according to origin, to generation and even to social status. It is a heterogeneous community, far different from the “monolithic bloc” mentioned by some.

Hanan Ben Rhouma, editor of Saphir News, an online outlet dedicated to the Muslim reality in France, writes: “To believe and to make believe that the Muslim community is made up of members practicing and living their Islam in the same manner is a big mistake.” Launched in 2002, the website claims 750,000 unique visitors each month.

She continued: “There is no Muslim community in the strict meaning of the term. It is characterised by its religious, ideological, ethnic, political and social diversity.”


Strong internal currents

On the ground, the fractured nature of the Muslim community is particularly visible. Steven Duarte, a social scientist with a Master’s in Arabic, makes this clear. “In sum, in France, you have the galaxy of the Muslim Brotherhood, embodied by the Union of France’s Islamic Organisations (UOIF). Those are conservatives comparable to the Christian Democrats,” he said.

“You have the Tabligh, which comes from India, ultra-conservative but pacifist, which is very present in the suburbs, advocating a strict religious practice without proselytism. Above all, it contributed to reducing delinquency by bringing the youth back to the mosques. Last, the Salafists, who follow closely Saudi Arabia with an ultra-conservative Islam.”

This eclecticism is hard to unify for the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). There is a real gap between the Muslim federations, most of which are members of the CFCM (the official authority created in 2003 under then interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy) and the mass of Muslims, explains Ben Rhouma.

But there are questions about the legitimacy of the CFCM, which is accused of both being absent in the field and of having too close of a relationship with the political sphere.


The question of leadership

On the ground, the heads of religious organisations rarely mention the CFCM. The recent attacks in France against Charlie Hebdo showed this clearly. Mohamed, leader of a mosque in the Paris region, had to manage the crisis at his own level. “When the attacks took place, I tried to organise a crisis meeting with the religious leaders of my area,” he said.

His was a personal initiative that did not result from a wider crisis strategy, which should have been led by the CFCM. In the absence of leaders, everyone is left to improvise on their own. Also symptomatic of this lack of a unified organisation among French Muslims was the sermon heard in mosques during the Friday prayer on 9 January, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks.

“We all knew that this sermon would be of the utmost importance and that we would have to send a clear message of condemnation of the attacks,” said Mohamed. But while all the imams condemned the attacks, there was no common message.

“In the mosques, all have firmly condemned the use of violence, without necessarily reiterating, for instance, their rejection of the cartoons. Some have advised people to participate in the 11 January march, while others refused categorically,” said Mohamed.

Eventually, the CFCM suggested a “common sermon” for the Friday prayers of 16 January, a first in the history of Islam in France.

The positions therefore vary according to the mosques, the imams and the different trends they may be part of. The community is more united by rite than by ideas. “We can use the notion of community so as not to belittle the notion of ummah [nation]. But this notion encompasses various facets,” explained Mohamed.

This point of view is shared by Omero Marongiu-Perria, a specialist in Islam in France and member of the CISMOC research centre at the University of Louvain, Belgium. “I speak of communities in the plural form. The structure of Islam in France is ethnic first of all. Thus, the mosques listed in the territory are distributed according to the country of origin of the first generation immigrants.”


Ethnic organisation

To define a mosque as being Algerian, Moroccan or Turkish is tacitly admitted by the faithful. While this trend is evolving over time, it is common for the faithful to attend a specific place of worship according to their cultural affinities with the head of the mosque and the imam. We know, for example, that some of these clerics are directly sent to France by the ministries of religious affairs in their home countries.

“It is reported that there are between 100 and 200 Turkish imams, 100 from Algeria and several dozen from Morocco,” said Marongiu-Perria. “Compared to the 2,500 mosques and prayer halls of France, the proportion is rather low. But it is still way too high for some French faithful. The imams from abroad represent a fault line in ‘France’s Muslim community’.”

This is a situation that Yassin Lamaoui, a liberal municipal councillor in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois and former head of the town’s Muslim association, deplores. “The Islam of France is in the hands of people who do not always master the French social and cultural background,” he said. Lamaoui criticises “the consular supervision over the Muslim faith.” For him, it is first an issue of the involvement of French Muslims.

Hanane Karimi, a PhD student in sociology and member of the feminist movement Women in the Mosque, criticised “the patriarchal procedures but also the impossibility for the youth to identify themselves in the management of the elders.” Structuring a community means being involved in the organisation of the faith, she said.

“If Muslim citizens do not get involved in the management of their faith, nothing will happen. Managing a mosque is a form of commitment in its own right, similar to being elected to a parents’ association at school,” said Yassin Lamaoui.


Generational rupture

Another stumbling block is the generational issue. In recent years, disputes have erupted between young and old Muslims. The reason? The desire of young people to control the management of worship and end the paternalism of some local elected officials.

In Saint-Gratien (Val d’Oise), in 2011, a clash occurred between the city’s Muslim association created in the 1980s and one more recently founded by a handful of young local Muslims. The latter reproached their elders for “being manipulated by the municipality regarding the opening of a prayer hall,” explained one of those who was involved.

The situation later calmed down, but the generational rupture is a fact recognised by the community. “The elders failed to handover to the young French. The Islam of France is always in the hands of first-generation immigrants,” said Marongiu-Perria.

Although seemingly an unavoidable phase, this situation is slowly being forced to change. Said Marongiu-Perria, “It is urgent that the Muslim French develop a French look at Islam.”

He points to the ongoing alienation from French culture within some groups, like the Tabligh movement. “Instead of an acculturation into French culture, there is a trend to Arabisation, which is visible in the clothing or even the choice of the mosques’ names.”

The writer is a Paris-based journalist and author who focuses on politics and Islam in France.

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