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ANALYSIS: Can Paris succeed in reforming the 'Islam of France'?

Manuel Valls has begun a series of consultations that aim to reform Islam in France but he has a difficult road ahead
French Prime minister Manuel Valls delivers a speech as he attends an Iftar meal during Ramadan (AFP)

PARIS - During a recent parliament session in which senators questioned the government, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls announced a review of “Islam of France,” saying he will “put all the issues on the table”.

Valls went on to unveil a round of consultations on the issue, which will be conducted by Minister of the Interior Bernard Cazeneuve, a review believed to be a result of the January attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices.

“I know that our fellow Muslim citizens are subjected to high stresses and are worried about the outbreak of violence against them, they feel they have to justify themselves of an act to which they are foreign,” Valls said last week. “The Republic owes them protection.”

In the French prime minister’s sights are issues including: imams training, foreign funding of places of worship and the prevention of radicalisation. Such topics have already been addressed in the past but are much more complicated than it seems.

A determined government

“The fact that the state does not recognise any worship, does not mean ignoring them,” Valls stressed cautiously during his announcement.

A balance will have to be struck within the framework of the 1905 law that “guarantees the freedom of worship,” prevents the authorities from interfering in religious communities’ worshiping practices and affairs and also stops the state from funding any places of worship.

Valls is hoping to navigate the lines with the help of the Muslim community.

“There is work to be done in cooperation with the intelligence services, but also an intellectual, philosophical and theological work that the state should support,” Valls urged.

“This brainstorming on worship organisation belongs to the Muslims of France, to the religious leaders and the intellectuals who are never sufficiently involved in this work, and to civil society actors”.

The result is that Cazeneuve should in the coming weeks be receiving philosophers, imams and Muslim civil society actors in order to identify a plan of action that aims to reform the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), resolves imams’ training issues, and curbs foreign funding of French mosques.

Hauts-de-Seine Socialist Party deputy Alexis Bachelay says he approves of the aims.

“I am on the ground and I know that we cannot go on saying everything is just fine,” he told MEE.

“The state has a role to play in assisting Muslims to organise, while respecting secularism.”

But the real intentions seem to go beyond this mere organisational aspect.

According to Valls: “There is the need to reshape Muslim theology” – a seeming echoing of remarks made by Tareq Oubrou, a Muslim intellectual and imam of Bordeaux’s mosque, who advocates a liberal form of Islam and in the wake of the Paris attacks criticized erroneous interpretations of Islam in his sermons.

Despite this, Bachelay said he found Valls’ remark surprising.

“If he really said that, I think there is a problem in the interpretation of the 1905 law,” he said, while explaining that this went beyond the merely organizational aspect of worship.

Which Islam of France?

The first hurdle in any reform will be finding a single Muslim authority or community to negotiate with as the Muslim community in France is heterogeneous and still affiliated to foreign countries such as Algeria, Morocco or Turkey.

The creation of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) in 2003 is an example of this division. The structure of the CFCM which Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of Interior, was spearheading, has never really gathered support among French Muslims.

Plagued by rivalries between federations’ allegiances to foreign countries, the CFCM – designed to act as an official discussion platform between the state and France’s Muslim Community - has never managed to impose itself as a reliable and credible institution to France’s four million Muslims.

The electoral temptation

The second problem is that despite what Valls has said, the issue of Islam in France remains a highly electoral one and will therefore risk being viewed as political opportunism, rather than a genuine desire to reform.

“When a French politician wants to mark history, he leans on Islam!” said Samia Hathroubi, head of the Europe department of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding (FFEU) and Professor of History.  

Hathroubi, an expert on Islam in France struggled to hide her skepticism: “He [Valls] might have a point regarding the reform of the imam issue, except that France continues signing agreements with North African countries and Turkey to bring imams [to France].”

As late as December, Cazeneuve and the Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal signed an agreement in Algiers to ensure that imams sent to France would be trained “in harmony with the French Republic’s standards”. There was no mention of ending the influence/dominance of foreign countries over France’s Islam, a request that is made by many of the faithful.

Although Valls addressed the issue of imam training in France by saying that France “must encourage the coming closer of the academic rules and standards with higher education institutions,” he did not address the underlying issues, Hathroubi argued.

“We are swamped in total populism and demagoguery,” she said. “Everyone knows that in Alsace, where the Concordat is still effective, it would be quite possible to create courses in cooperation with the universities to train imams.”

Hathroubi believes that the 1801 Concordat – which aimed to heal rifts between the Catholic Church and France after the revolution and allows the state to organise the Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed and Jewish worships and therefore to remunerate their ministers – could be extended to Muslim worship and should be considered as a possible option.

“I confirm this, except that nobody wants to do it,” Hathroubi said. “Alsace could very well be used as a laboratory to train imams in France, but in the absence of political will and therefore of funds, how can we move forward?”

Anouar Sassi, member of the national office of the Union of Democrats and Independents (IDU), points to Valls’s electoral strategy: “It is classic. Whenever the Socialist Party feels threatened, it resorts to the populism card in order to make the National Front rise [at the expense of Sarkozy’s right-wing party].”

“The issue of mosques’ foreign funding is stirred like a scarecrow. If this was true during the 70s and 80s, today’s field reports contradict Valls’s words,” Sassi added.

While the issue of foreign funding has been at the centre stage with Valls wanting to work out why “Islam of France receives foreign funding” the reality is that of the two hundred mosques currently under construction in France, the vast majority are being funded by the faithful in France themselves, with only a portion of funds coming from abroad. The result is that many of the faithful struggle to raise enough funds to build places of worship worthy of the name.

“If some [mosques] are being funded abundantly from abroad, many others are likely to take years to raise the needed amounts,” said Farid, a local activist. “If we do not have the resources to build places of worship, we cannot allow ourselves to live above our means.”

The backdrop to this is the war of influence reportedly being waged between mosques.

“You know, everyone knows there are mosques affiliated to organisations close to foreign countries. They receive funds directly in suitcases!” said M'hammed Henniche, Secretary General of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis.

Such facts, however, remain hard to verify and do not match the perception of the majority of the faithful. Furthermore reducing foreign countries’ financial involvement is a shortcut that, in the post-Charlie atmosphere, could prove risky and may stigmatise French Muslims trying to find funds to build mosques.

Valls also took aim at some religious organisations affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

“We cannot make agreements with organisations that do not respect the values of the Republic”, he said in apparent reference to the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF).

Twenty years of ‘Islam of France’

Historically speaking, similar state policies of religious interference have proven tricky as French Muslims have shown skepticism toward state-designed religious structures.

The CFCM experience is a glaring illustration. According to Henniche: “This instance was created by Nicolas Sarkozy in 2003 in view of the 2007 presidential elections in order to seduce the Muslim electorate, traditionally known for voting for the left, by taking credit for the paternity of this new and very symbolic institution.”

But Sarkozy was only the latest politician to try their hand at this. Back in 1990, Pierre Joxe, then Minister of Interior of President Francois Mitterrand, created the CORIF, Council of reflection on Islam in France – a project that ultimately failed largely due to the divisions within French Muslim society.

Before him, Charles Pasqua, then Minister of the Interior of Edouard Balladur’s coalition government in the late 1980s, creates a Representative Council of Muslims in France. The Paris Mosque, affiliated to Algeria, headed this new structure, but not to the liking of other Muslim organisations. Again this venture, was just another failure.

Jean-Pierre Chevènement, under the Lionel Jospin government, reactivated the project and in 1999, initiated talks which he hoped would lay the foundations of an organisation based on regional delegates elected by proportional representation. The initiative eventually gave birth to the famous CFCM.

While Valls, may insist that he is “very determined,” to open up a new phase of consultation, many of the issues that doomed his predecessors have not disappeared, and neither have Muslim concerns that the state has less than pure intentions at heart.

“I'm afraid this approach is more about controlling Islam in France,” Farid, the activist, said.