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France: The war on Islam and the new security state

By placing the whole infrastructure of Islamic institutions under surveillance, France is seeking to strip Muslims of the possibility of independent self-organisation outside the state's control

French President Emmanuel Macron's overreaction to the killing of schoolteacher Samuel Paty in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine and the Nice attacks last October is pushing France towards a totalitarian type of illiberalism.

For almost two decades now, each terrorist attack in France has been used to further extend state surveillance and repression. France, many would argue, is moving towards a situation where civil liberties are threatened.

During the past two decades, security laws - which, according to the UN's special rapporteur on the protection of human rights, may undermine fundamental rights and freedoms - have been passed by successive governments with hardly any debate. 

Macron's current attempt to pass simultaneously two massive bills - the Global Security Law and the Law to Strengthen Republican Principles - amounts to a massive and unprecedented assault on civil and constitutional liberties

Macron's current attempt to pass simultaneously two massive bills - the Global Security Law and the Law to Strengthen Republican Principles, initially presented as a project against "Islamist separatism" - amounts to a massive and unprecedented  assault on civil and constitutional liberties. 

In November 2017, the French president formally lifted the country's state of emergency, only to replace it with an anti-terrorism law incorporating some of its toughest elements and making them not only permanent but also applicable to anyone, including political parties, unions, NGOs and not just terrorists

The new law grants special powers to prefects - local representatives of the French interior ministry - to conduct widespread surveillance and counterterrorism measures, often with limited judicial oversight. In so doing, Macron's government has transformed France into Europe's biggest security state, with one of the most violent police forces in the continent, according to a UN investigation in March 2019. 

Under the slogan of "the war against Islamism" and "the defence of the Republic", fundamental rights and liberties are coming under attack, including free speech and academic freedom. Last October, the French Senate passed an amendment declaring that "academic freedoms", including teaching, research and academic free speech, must align with and respect the values of the republic.

Controlling Islam

Following Paty's killing, some voices described the rule of law as "ill-suited to fight hatred" or "too constraining against Islamism". Leading MPs described it as "a burden", while other officials demanded that France extract itself from peace legislation and adopt instead even more extremist "war legislation". 

French authorities have increased its crackdown of Muslim groups following the murder of teacher Samuel Paty who showed a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (AFP)
French authorities have accelerated the crackdown on Muslim groups following the murder of teacher Samuel Paty, who showed a picture of the Prophet Muhammad (AFP)

Such statements point to France's rapid drift towards illiberalism. It has been denounced by the United Nations and Amnesty International, with the latter describing the Global Security Bill as "a huge threat to human rights".  It is within this context that Macron's recent ultimatum to French imams to sign yet another "charter of republican values" should be understood.

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The charter would, among other clauses, exclude "political Islam"; impose the use of the French language in all mosques; and formally guarantee that all Islamic teaching, prayers and sermons done in French conform to "the values of the Republic".

Interior Minister Gerard Darmanin has for years declared that the state should push for the creation of a "French secularised Islam" that would be "totally assimilated in the republic", including through state-sponsored institutions such as a "Council of French Islam" and a "Grand Imam of France", along with the training of all imams so they "receive a theological, religious teaching that does not conflict with the values of the republic".

These are glaring violations of both the spirit and the letter of the law of 1905 on the separation of church and state which prohibits the state from interfering in matters of religious doctrine and demands that it remain "neutral in matters of religion". Such projects demonstrate that the worst and most effective enemies of French laicite are actually those who posture as its champions. 

The goal here is to ensure that the state, through its coercive measures and repressive apparatus, exerts direct and exclusive control over the totality of Islam in France, including its organisational structures and institutions, personnel, theology and dogmas.

The transformation of the 'war on terror' into a 'war on Islamism', then a 'war on separatism', marks a truly historic illiberal regression in the culture, politics and society of France

More specifically, by criminalising "political Islam"; by banning NGOs such as BarakaCity and the Collective Against Islamophobia (CCIF), which have been critical of the government, and by placing under surveillance the whole infrastructure of Islamic institutions, including associations, mosques and sports clubs (with many Muslim members), Macron is seeking to strip Muslims of the possibility of genuine, grassroots and independent self-organisation outside the state's control. One cannot imagine worse violations of France's laicite.

The transformation of the "war on terror" into a "war on Islamism", then a "war on separatism", marks a truly historic illiberal regression in the culture, politics and society of France. A number of thresholds are dramatically being crossed. It is no longer just actual criminals and terrorists who are being targeted for elimination. 

Anyone - any association, mosque or group labeled "Islamist", "Salafist" or "separatist" by the government, administration, local prefects, or often just the Islamophobic media outlets themselves - could wind up in the government’s crosshairs, no matter how innocent they are of any wrongdoing.

Darmanin, the interior minister, has proudly advocated the policy that if no evidence of actual crimes, such as incitement to hatred or complicity with terrorism, can be found against the hundreds of "Salafist" mosques and "Islamist" associations and sports clubs that he now plans to shut down, then they should still be closed for any other reason that can be found, such as non-compliance with safety measures (for example, an outdated fire extinguisher).

A protest sign reads: "Freedom of speech is not freedom to abuse" in Montreal, Canada, on 31 October (Reuters)
A protest sign reads: "Freedom of speech is not freedom to abuse" in Montreal, Canada, on 31 October (Reuters)

Hence, it is no longer rare to be censored, banned and even brought to justice as the "intellectual author" and indirect or direct "accomplice" of actual terrorist groups, such as the Islamic State, on the sole basis of having criticised "the Republic" (or Charlie Hebdo, or a teacher such as Paty) a bit too harshly, or for talking too much about French colonialism, or for exposing France for its racism and Islamophobia.

These are now considered at the highest levels of the state as "encouragements of separatism" and "incitement to hatred against France". Said to "fuel terrorism", they are therefore grounds enough for termination by administrative decision.

The most telling case (so far) is the shocking example of the CCIF, France's main legal defence and anti-racist group for Muslims, banned by the interior minister on Macron's order on the basis of being declared "Islamist" and as such "an enemy of the Republic", without any shred of evidence of wrongdoing or crimes of any type.

Guilt by association

The witch hunt is being expanded to include not just "Islamists" or Muslims, but anyone deemed to be a sympathiser or an "intellectual accomplice" of not just actual terrorists, but of "political Islam".

As demonstrated by many recent cases - including the arrest of the father of one of Paty's students, who posted on Facebook that the teacher should be fired and was subsequently charged with direct complicity in terrorism and participation in a terrorist organisation - in France, you can now be held directly responsible by the law for the words and crimes of others. Here, Macron is institutionalising the well-known Stalinist method of guilt by association.

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Similarly, the "Law to Strengthen Republican Principles" allows for the dissolution of an entire association, mosque, organisation, etc, if just one of its members commits a crime, violates the law, or even merely engages in discourse or "actions likely to question the republican values and principles".

A careful examination of the Macron government's rhetoric and actions shows not only their McCarthyist neo-republicanism, but also their totalitarian nature, which was already obvious in Macron's Orwellian project of a "vigilant society". 

In that sense, any institution, alternative or simply different belief or value system, thought, creed, or ideology that does not conform entirely not so much to the "values of the Republic" - its "principles", its "spirit" - but to an intolerant, illiberal, out of touch, highly distorted, treacherous and bigoted view of it, can be criminalised as a 'threat to the republic' .

Major nationwide organisations such as the CCIF can casually be banned simply by declaring that they engaged in "Islamist propaganda" and are, as such, "enemies of the republic", while the government has pledged that the same may happen to any group or individual whose discourse would "propagate hatred against our values". The aim here is to end dissent - of any kind, not just "Islamist" - by portraying it as "hatred against France" or "conspiracy against the republic".

Thus, a whole set of brand new crimes can now enable governments, presently or in the future, to crack down on critics by claiming that they are "challenging the values of the republic". In fact, the rhetoric of "Islamo-fascism" and "Islamo-leftism" is already being used routinely against non-Islamic opposition parties and universities.

A placard held by a protester reads: "Let Muslims live their faith" during a march against Islamophobia in front of the Gare du Nord, in Paris on 10 November 2019 (AFP)
A placard held by a protester reads: "Let Muslims live their faith" during a march against Islamophobia in front of the Gare du Nord, in Paris on 10 November 2019 (AFP)

By attacking all these liberties, Macron's policies actually fuel jihadism by fracturing French society further: by alienating French Muslims; by constantly casting doubt on their loyalty to France, their supposedly lacking will to "integrate", and their opposition to jihadism; by weaponising laicite against them; and by fueling the jihadist narrative that impious countries such as France are at war against Islam and will always discriminate against Muslims.

For decades, since at least the first "headscarves affair" of 1989 that triggered this national panic, France's Islamophobic and paranoid response to a mostly imaginary "Muslim problem" - one that it has itself constructed - has been driven largely by unjustified fear; by gross exaggeration of what is at most a tiny threat; by crass ignorance of Islam and French Muslims; by cynical calculations; by conspiracist thinking on the "Islamist conquest of Europe/Eurabia"; and by old, deeply rooted prejudices and perceptions of Islam and Muslims. 

We can only briefly list here the main problems with that response, well illustrated by Macron's speech on Islamist separatism.

A reductionist approach

For years, as an explanation for jihadism and its alleged root causes, French media and governments have advanced a crude version of the "conveyor belt/slippery slope/antechamber theory", by which various vague and never seriously defined or circumscribed "isms" - "Islamism", "Salafism", "communitarianism" and now the latest avatar of "Islamist separatism" - would constitute the entry point and the ideological and cultural terrain upon which jihadism flourishes.

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According to that thinking, if one wants to eliminate or decrease the "jihadist threat", one needs to attack anything and anyone associated with the "ideology" of "Islamism", or "political Islam". This crude and reductionist hypothesis is based on false, or at best vulgar and rudimentary, conceptual scarecrows. The premise for France's response to jihadism is demonstrably false and counter-factual

No serious researcher (as opposed to ideologues) on Islam, radicalisation, and/or jihadism would entertain such notions. On the contrary, most of the top expert scholars - whether French or foreign, independent or governmental - have for years thoroughly debunked such simplistic, linear, unicausal, and data-free pseudo-explanations, while challenging the role of religious ideology as the root cause of violent extremism, or even as a major cause. Instead of such conceptual gadgets tailored for the media, they advance far more complex, multi-causal, scientifically serious, and sophisticated, data-based explanations. 

Yet, the entire Macron policy towards Islam and the "war on terror" is now predicated on that conveyor-belt falsehood. And because it so dramatically misidentifies the root causes of the phenomena, these policies are bound not just to be ineffective, but also to produce severe blowback of all sorts, including aggravating the problems they seek to solve.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.