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The French Brief - Finding Answers to Islamic Separatism

The French Brief - Finding Answers to Islamic Separatism
 Hakim El Karoui
Former Senior Fellow - Arab World, Islam

The issue of Islamic separatism has been at the heart of French political debate in recent weeks. On October 2, President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech on the fight against separatism, in which he announced a set of laws that he intended to pass, including stricter monitoring of schooling and of the funding of mosques. Multiple tragedies have struck France since then. In a country where wounds from extremist attacks are still open, and in parallel to the long trial of the Charlie Hebdo killings of 2015, Samuel Paty, a high school teacher, was beheaded on October 16, after showing caricatures of Prophet Muhammad in his classroom. Two weeks later, on October 29, the Prophet’s birthday, a knife-attack occurred inside a church in Nice, by someone expressing allegiance to Islam, leading to more decapitations and three victims. Hakim El Karoui, our Senior Fellow, breaks down what is happening with Islamism in France.

What can we make of President Macron’s discourse on separatism? 

Emmanuel Macron’s speech on separatism has certainly been attacked left and right, with some arguments stronger than others. Some were displeased that priority should be given to teaching Arabic in French schools (how does learning another language weaken the learning of French?). Others rebelled against the stigmatization of Muslims, blithely confusing Muslims and Islamists, which is the primary objective of the latter.

I believe the President was right not to play around with words: he did clearly state that he was referring to Islamist separatism specifically. He made it clear from the beginning of his speech that this was not a problem of secularism or of religion, but rather a political problem that has to do with the cohesion of French society. 

That being said, there are several measures that he proposed, that are already giving rise to plenty of debate, first and foremost because they are almost certain to have significant side effects. One such measure concerned religious organizations. Legally speaking, a great deal of these fall under the category of the 1901 Law, that is, the law that defines the judicial status of nonprofits. There is also another category, that of the 1905 Law, which is the law that officially separated the Church from the French State, the birth year of laicité as we know it today. This law created a new category specifically for religious organizations, though it does not oblige them to fall into it. 

[Macron] made it clear from the beginning of his speech that this was not a problem [...] of religion, but rather a political problem that has to do with the cohesion of French society. 

The major difference of interest between these two judicial frameworks is that there are more funding opportunities and leeway for 1901 Law organizations. That means that a number of religious organizations in France may benefit from rather opaque funding that may increase the presence of radical and foreign influence within these structures. Macron thus aims to have mosques shift to the 1905 Law framework, so as to allow for better transparency over where the funding comes from, and therefore over who gets to influence French mosques. 

The matter is not as simple as it "may seem" however. The Catholic Church has refused to be part of the 1905 Law, under the request of the Pope, in order to ensure a preservation of the Catholic hierarchy. As such, Catholic structures have obtained a specific status, which gives the Church and the Vatican special autonomy. 

This will clearly give rise to the voices that will speak out against the discrimination and unequal treatment that the Muslim community specifically will have to undergo as a consequence of these legal shifts. Other intransigent defenders of secularism might use the opportunity to take on to the privilege of the Catholic community instead. If this debate grows too much in that direction, there is no doubt that the government will backtrack out of fear that it may jeopardize its good relations with the Holy See. 

What’s Arabic got to do with all of this? 

Growing up Arab but not Arab-speaking in France is not uncommon. Those who immigrated to France between the 1960s and the 1970s were faced with the prejudice of Arabic being the shameful language of immigrants. Over time, the perception of Arabic morphed until it settled into the collective subconscious as a language of terror and terrorism. "Allahu Akbar" is perceived as a bellicose call to arms, when it really only means "Allah is Great", "Allah" being... simply God. 

So is not speaking Arabic proof of successful integration? Is bilingualism a barrier? Has this question ever come up in the context of Franco-Americans, Franco-Germans or Franco-Italians? Linguists would know that speaking two languages is an incredible asset, and cognitively speaking, it allows learning even more languages. 

And yet, the French are showing resistance to Arabic being taught in schools. There are only 14,000 students (0.3% of the population) that learn Arabic at school, and that is less than those who learn Russian. However, there are many parents who wish for their children to learn the language, especially for the 2nd or 3rd generations of immigrants.

If we put our judgement aside and let reason prevail, we would see that the best response to religious fundamentalism would be to allow French public schools to freely teach Arabic to their students, instead of stigmatizing it further.

Thus, their only remaining choice is learning Arabic in mosques, where the language is rather badly taught, and through an exclusively religious prism. 

If we put our judgement aside and let reason prevail, we would see that the best response to religious fundamentalism would be to allow French public schools to freely teach Arabic to their students, instead of stigmatizing it further. After all, it is the most beautiful tribute that the France of Enlightenment could pay to the language of another great culture.

What are the causes behind radical Islamism? 

Events like the Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Bataclan shooting of 2015, but also the recent stabbings in Nice, have raised serious questions about the link between radicalism and Islamism. It is crucial for this debate to question and fork through the two, before simply using them interchangeably without a clear awareness of how they link up. 

The Islamic State, together with the dream of the Caliphate that it tried to ressurrect, and the extreme violence it used to do so, are all part of the evidence of the radicalization of Islam. And this radicalization is life-changing, in the full sense of the word. This general trend is also present in French society, where ever more rigorous practices can be observed. 

It is a spectacular phenomenon: individuals attracted by extreme violence, seek in radical Islam a justification for their acts, or a megaphone to provide them with an echo. 

How did Islam find itself at the crossroads of these two movements that start off from different directions and meet in this violent middle? Because, more than Islam itself, Arab societies are in crisis. They have long been in a crisis of transition towards a democracy that they cannot define, while having to deal with demographic growth and overwhelming urbanization. And at the heart of it all, the organization of the Arab world has been done without calling the Arab world to the table. Rather, oil has stood in for it. The 2011 Revolutions were a manifestation of this process. Today’s violent Islamism is its dark side. 

The organization of the Arab world has been done without calling the Arab world to the table. 

But to bring the point closer to home, and to understand why Islamism has encountered such success in France, we would first need to ask: what is Islamism? It is a tricky question, inevitably prone to controversy. In my view, Islamism is a phenomenon that is very poorly understood in Europe, and it hence necessitates some definition. 

Beyond religious beliefs and personal spirituality, I consider Islamism to be an interpretation of the world, a vision of the organization of society, including of the secular world, in which religion has a key role to play in the exercise of power. In this threefold sense - the interpretation of the world, social organization, relation to power - Islamism is a contemporary political ideology. And most often, what Islamists retain from Islam are religious principles deduced through rigorous interpretation. 

Islamism as an ideology is often depicted as the consequence of socioeconomic misery, of suburbs neglected and abandoned by the state, of Western failures in the Middle East, of colonization, and a form of nihilism that combines with the desire for radicalism. To that, I will add two major causes: the quest for identity and family dislocation. 

Firstly, the majority of the French Muslim population today, 51% specifically, is born in France. Most of them have at least a parent born abroad. These young second or third generation Muslims go through a process of transformation in order to become French. And during this process, they find themselves in a state of limbo, of being neither French, nor a foreigner. The French model of integration is different from any other model in Europe or any Western country. It is not a model of integration that bases itself on the respect of different cultures. Instead, it is a model that requires assimilation. A foreigner cannot be considered French, unless and until they assimilate into French values and culture. It is a "violent" model. The discrimination level is very high even though there are more intermarriages between different ethnicities than in other countries: this is the French paradox.

Secondly, this process of transformation leads to a break with the traditional family structure, wherein children of immigrants no longer share the same values as their parents. Born in France, they feel closer to French values than those of their parents’ origins. The father’s authority diminishes, as he becomes first and foremost a representation of an immigrant, marked by the failure to climb the social ladder, a story shared by many struggling fathers in France. Furthermore, in such family structures where boys and girls are often treated unequally, there are strong markers that indicate the correlation between the empowerment of women and the rise of Islamism. That is true for France, where girls of immigrant origins are more successful in school than boys of the same disposition, with nearly 44% of girls obtaining a college degree or higher. Often seen as victims, where boys are seen as threats, girls of immigrant origins face less discrimination throughout their lives. Faced with this gender mismatch, Islamism may emerge as a way for boys to affirm a traditional position of leadership. 

Last but not least, there is a comprehensive propaganda strategy that needs to be taken into account, coming from Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar and partially Iran, full details of which can be found in our 2018 report The Islamist Factory. This propaganda attracts people by the sole power of an ideology that draws its strength from being a competitor to Western liberal democracy. 

As a society we need to be willing to have a better grasp of the situation, including the Jihadist mindset. When Salafists aim to build a "separate society in France", they do believe in their project. When young Europeans started joining the Islamic State, they joined because they believed in it. When Mohamed Merah, who in 2012 killed three Jewish children (because they were Jewish) and three French soldiers of North African origin, said, "we love death as you love life", he was not mad. He had found a sense for his life, in his death. It might be hard to understand, but that does not make it any less true. 

How has France reacted to the attacks? 

In this context, commentators and opposition policy makers who seek to make their place in the sun of indignation are plentiful. They denounce terrorism, but also the government, and call for the problem to finally be "fixed". How? The Right believes it has the solution: prohibiting veiled women from accompanying students on school outings! Or, by putting an end to "mass immigration". Except that, apart from the two most recent cases, the vast majority of jihadists in recent years have been French-born. But the Left doesn’t necessarily seem to be helping much either. Far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon, "thinks that we have a problem in France with the Chechen community", offering little more than a potentially dangerous blanket statement, probably inspired by Vladimir Putin. At the end of the day, no one proposes anything concrete. Certainly, proposing nothing is always better than suggesting to trample on the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Human Rights of 1789, as France’s far-right representatives seem to do. 

More than ever, it is crucial to keep a reasonable outlook on the current situation and to not forget that this violence only has one objective: to create panic and a climate of generalized suspicion, that would trigger reprisal mechanisms. Until now, in 2015 as today, the French have shown a remarkable capacity for resistance and resilience. The collective emotion of grief has quickly fostered solidarity, the pain of each becoming the mourning of all.

We will not solve the problem of radical Islamism by deviating from our values, but on the contrary by respecting them.

And it is no less important that the French of the Muslim faith also mobilize to counter Islamist and jihadist propaganda, in the mosques and on social networks. Not because they are guilty or even responsible in the slightest, but because they are the first target of radical Islamists. And also because each terrorist act committed in the name of Islam reflects on them, whether we like it or not. Their presence means hope. 

We will not solve the problem of radical Islamism by deviating from our values, but on the contrary by respecting them. We will not fight against a deadly ideology with grand declarations, but with actions. So let's hope that politicians from all ends of the spectrum will show up in the coming days and weeks, and live up to the expectations of their citizens. 



Copyright : Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

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