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Macron's Islamic charter is an unprecedented attack on French secularism

The state's attempt to shape from above the organisation of Islam is the worst violation of the separation of church and state in the history of the Fifth Republic
Mohammed Moussaoui, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, signs a “Charter of Principles” next to French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris on 18 January 2021 (AFP)

Adopted last month by the French Council of the Muslim Faith at the behest of President Emmanuel Macron, a new 10-point “Charter of Principles” of French Islam will please all those who have been calling for a “progressive,” “reformed” or “enlightened” Islam - one consistent with democratic, egalitarian and liberal western values.

It also represents a significant personal victory for Macron, who for months had pressured the council to craft a document committing to a “French Republican Islam”. Non-Muslim authorities, governments, media and public intellectuals have been demanding this for years as a way to combat “Islamism” and “extremism”.

It very clearly aims to turn Islam into a quietist, 'pacified' religion whose practitioners remain docile and obedient to the political powers-that-be

The unprecedented charter can thus be seen as a clear assertion that Islam is indeed compatible with secular democracies in general, and with the French republic in particular. In a nutshell, the charter aligns Islam with France’s republican principles, including gender equality; non-discrimination, including sexual orientation; and freedom of conscience, including the freedom to leave Islam. 

It condemns “excessive proselytism” and attests to the superiority of and obligation for all Muslims to recognise France’s laws, constitution, republican principles and “public order”.

Article two proclaims an obligation for Muslims to “conform to the common rules” of France, which “must prevail over any other rules and convictions, including those of our own faith”. Article eight recognises the French principle of laicite, or secularism.

But article six, the longest, is also the most loaded. It proclaims that no mosques or other Islamic places can have “political agendas” or engage in political and ideological discourse or activity; these are described as “an instrumentalisation” and “perversion of Islam”, whose sole and “true purpose is prayers and the transmission of values”.

It condemns “the propagation of nationalist discourses defending foreign regimes and supporting foreign policies that are hostile to France, our country”. It dissociates Islam from “political Islam” and prohibits signatories from engaging in the latter, including “Salafism (Wahhabism), the Tabligh and the Muslim Brotherhood”. This amounts to an excommunication of those Islamic trends and movements from legitimate or “true” Islam.

Crafted by the executive

There is no doubt that this charter was essentially crafted by the French executive itself - especially Macron and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, who for years had been calling for the assimilation of Islam strictly within the limits, laws, principles and frameworks of France’s Fifth Republic. Darmanin even wrote a book about it.

The charter is not coming from Muslims. It is the brainchild of Macron’s campaign to force the French Muslim council to craft such a text, deploying against one religion a type of pressure, intimidation, threats, ultimatums and blackmail never before seen in French post-war history. 

At the end of the signing ceremony, a close adviser to Macron explicitly threatened anyone who refuses to sign and live by the charter, saying: “Those who disagree will hear from us very quickly and see their operations inspected very, very closely by our services.” This, in a context where the interior ministry is banning Islamic NGOs, closing schools and shutting down mosques by the dozen.

French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin listens to French President Emmanuel Macron on 22 July 2020 at Chambord castle (AFP)
French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin listens to French President Emmanuel Macron on 22 July 2020 at Chambord castle (AFP)

This operation is an integral part of Macron’s crusade against “Islamist separatism”, for which he is using the French Council of the Muslim Faith as a facade, an alibi, a cover to circumvent a constitution that forbids state interference in religious doctrines. The charter is a word-for-word synthesis of all the injunctions and demands that Macron has addressed to Muslims over the past year.

Amazingly, article nine not only declares that state racism does not exist, but also that such an expression would constitute “defamation, and as such, a crime”. Its timing coincides with the introduction of Macron’s anti-separatism bill, and the Elysee Palace has stated that the charter was drafted within the framework of “technical workshops” presided over by the interior minister.

Docile and obedient

What are we to make of this operation? Firstly, it is an attempt, which some may find timely and even necessary, to align Islamic theology with the values, laws and principles of liberal, secular western states.

Secondly, it very clearly aims to turn Islam into a quietist, “pacified” religion whose practitioners remain docile and obedient to the political powers-that-be. Macron is trying to strip Muslims of their right to engage in oppositional and critical discourse and activism.

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Thirdly, this hostile takeover is an attempt by the executive to assume control over the totality of Islam in France in order to “securitise” it from A to Z: its mosques, imams, institutions, NGOs, associations - even its theology. One should also expect that the repression and persecution of any Muslim deemed “Islamist” or “Salafist” will only get worse.

Fourthly, besides the extreme violations of freedom of religion and the brutalisation of Islam, the charter is also a glaring violation of French laicite - a principle the Macron government nonetheless claims to uphold. Based on the 1905 law on the separation of church and state, French laicite includes three sacred principles that are not open to interpretation: freedom of conscience and religion, the separation of church and state, and equal treatment by the state of all religions. Macron is trampling on all three pillars.

Uncertain fate

Only Muslims, and no other religions, are being summoned to craft a “charter" and implement principles such as gender equality, acceptance of homosexuality, and the prohibition of political discourse and activity. How about requiring the same from Catholics and Jews, some of whom oppose French laws on same-sex marriage or medically assisted procreation?

The attempt to delegitimise as “political Islam” and exclude from the religion several important Islamic trends under false pretexts, along with the persecution to which these Muslim groups are increasingly subjected, represents extreme violations of freedom of religion and human rights in general.

France has finally found its grand mufti: its (non-Muslim) president himself

The direct attempt by the executive to shape from above the organisation of Islam and its theology is by far the worst violation of the separation of church and state in the entire history of the Fifth Republic. It marks the end of French laicite and a regression to a crude form of quasi-medieval Gallicanism, when the state controlled, organised and narrowly defined religion.

The fate of the charter is more than a little uncertain. It will surely be weaponised, including as a divide-and-conquer tool. In the meantime, France has finally found its grand mufti: its (non-Muslim) president himself. 

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

Alain Gabon
Dr. Alain Gabon is Associate Professor of French Studies and Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures at Virginia Wesleyan University in Virginia Beach, USA. He has written and lectured widely in the US, Europe and beyond on contemporary French culture, politics, literature and the arts and more recently on Islam and Muslims. His works have been published in several countries in academic journals, think tanks, and mainstream and specialized media such as Saphirnews, Milestones. Commentaries on the Islamic World, and Les Cahiers de l'Islam. His recent essay entitled “The Twin Myths of the Western ‘Jihadist Threat’ and ‘Islamic Radicalisation ‘” is available in French and English on the site of the UK Cordoba Foundation.