Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1272, (26 November - 2 December 2015)

Ahram Weekly

France’s Islamic challenge

The recent terrorist attacks in Paris need to be seen in the context of French policies over the last quarter of a century, writes Tarek Dahroug

Al-Ahram Weekly

The outcry sparked by the recent terrorist attacks in Paris has homed in on the question of combatting terrorism committed by the Islamic State (IS) group against France and the West in general.

While this directly explains what happened in Paris, it also conveys the message that we are contending with a “French 11 September”, unrelated to the cumulative effects of French policies for more than a quarter of a century. Such an approach is a misleading oversimplification of the developments behind the terrorist attacks and their repercussions.

The crisis over the wearing of the Muslim veil in France in 1989 can be cited as the first spark in the conflict between Islam and French society. At the beginning of the 1989-1990 academic year, officials at a school on the outskirts of Paris prohibited three female students from entering the school on the grounds that they were veiled.

The prohibition was grounded on the principle that the wearing of the veil conflicted with the secular principles of the French public education system, which prohibit the display of any symbols of religious identity.

This spark became the symbol of the clash between Islam and French society over the question of identity and the need for others to recognise it. It was the basis upon which other clashes between Islam and French society would follow over the course of the next 25 years.

Among the most important during this period were the Paris metro bombings in 1996, the controversy surrounding the ban on conspicuous religious symbols from public institutions in 2004, the banlieue riots in 2007, the attack on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in January 2015 and the Paris massacres on the evening of 13 November.

To these should be added the negative impact of Middle Eastern regional factors, most notably the policies of the Iranian regime following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in 1990, the Algerian civil war in the 1990s and, of course, the Syrian crisis and the ramifications of French-EU policies towards it.

Such developments have contributed to the entrenching of negative images of the Arabs and Islam in French society. Such images, shaped for centuries by the Church in the Middle Ages and by the writings of Voltaire and Montesquieu in the Age of Enlightenment, are automatically conjured up in the collective consciousness in France on the eruption of any crisis.

There is also the problem of the institutional dualism of Islam in France, where there are two antithetical models. One is the official forum established by the French government in 1990, called the French Council of Islam. This organisation, intended as an alternative to the Grand Mosque of Paris run by the Algerian government, changed its name in 2003 to the French Council for the Muslim Faith and is subordinate to the French Ministry of the Interior.

The other model consists of informal Islamic institutions such as mosques and social and cultural associations run by Muslim immigrants, in coordination with international Islamic organisations and their countries of origin, and is entirely outside of French government control. It includes unofficial expressions of Islam according to its different ethnicities and orientations.

The conflict between official and informal Islam has led to a failure in France and the rest of Europe to contain the real components of Islam: namely, the cultural and social associations and the mosques, which form the effective institutional base of Islam, with its various ideological orientations, in France.

The institutional conflict of Islam in France blurs the lines regarding the position of such Islamic organisations, whether they are philanthropic societies, proselytising organisations or branches of international Islamic organisations.

Moreover, all such organisations have declared religious missions that involve political objectives. Some Islamist groups operate in Europe behind the facade of Islamic federations and cultural and social societies.

The Federation of Islamic Organisations in France includes some 200 associations, for example, and it has strong relations with the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist parties in the Arab world. These in turn have geographical and cultural extensions in France through their permeation of immigrant milieus.

Another dimension of the problem is that there is no real solidarity among the Muslims of France outside of an ethnic framework. There are no mosques in France that are frequented by both Arabs and Turks, for example. Simultaneously, there is an ideological disparity among Arab Muslim immigrants who can be categorised as conservatives, fundamentalists and moderates.

As a result, Islamic organisations in France are intensely competitive along the lines of ideological differentiation between communities and, generally, they target immigrants on the basis of their national origins (i.e., Tunisia or Algeria) or ethnic affiliation (i.e., Arab or Berber).

This means that it is virtually impossible to control the intellectual and ideological orientations of the most marginalised sectors of the immigrant communities in France, especially in the country’s troubled suburbs. This is due to the failure to deal with the immigrant crisis in a comprehensive manner.

The question that both sides of the conflict between France and its Muslims need to answer is whether it is Islam or Muslims that should be assimilated into French society. Between these two points there has been considerable wavering and no definitive answers.

For example, French authorities permit the construction of mosques in the country for Muslim communities as a means of containment, but this does not necessarily mean that the country accepts the “Muslim other” or encourages that “other” to participate in social mechanisms conducive to assimilation.

The “Islamic challenge” that faces France and some other European countries that have large Arab-Muslim communities is two-pronged. One dimension is domestic and consists of the need to pursue effective polices conducive to assimilating the “Islamic ghetto” as much as possible into the French and European social order.

This requires seeing the community not as a threat to French and European identity but rather as an addition to it. The other dimension is external and consists of developing a realistic and viable foreign policy approach towards the Arab and Islamic world.

On the other side of the equation, Muslims of Europe need to formulate compromise solutions that also promote the assimilation process in French society and stake the place that Islam merits in it.

This will ultimately entail emerging from beneath the mantle of colonialist calculations and moving in the direction of European citizenship as a reality, and one that entails the acceptance of certain conditions.


The writer is a PhD in international relations, Paris-Sorbonne University and expert in European affairs.

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