ODVV Interview: The French Government’s Version of Islam Smacks of Colonialism

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Publish Date : 05/24/2021 16:02
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Two factors make the integration situation in France particularly fraught. First, the French model is essentially one of assimilation. An individual immigrant must abandon his or her culture – including religion. A second problem is that one of the largest groups of immigrant-origin Muslims in the country, ethnic Algerians, have deep-seated historical grievances against the French state because of the oppression.

A nation of 67 million, France hosts the largest population of Muslims in Western Europe. Even though the government doesn’t keep track of religious affiliation, Muslims are estimated to be a 6-million strong community. Figures by the Brookings Institution suggest half of the Muslim population are born or naturalized French citizens while Muslims of Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian origin are the largest subgroups.

The notion of secularism, embedded in the country’s constitution, came into being in a 1905 law intended to separate church and state while safeguarding the peaceful coexistence of all faith traditions under a neutral rule. Yet, the contemporary experience of France in integrating minorities reveals the French society has been hard-pressed to thread the needle on multiculturalism and particularly afford equal rights and opportunities to its Muslims. Scholars of France postulate the French Muslims are reeling from a severe crisis of identity and belonging.


In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in the United States that unleashed a new era of confrontation between Islam and the West, a number of terrorist incidents, alternatively attributed to religious extremists or militant groups operating under the banner of Islam, proliferated insecurity in France and blemished public perceptions of Muslims. The January 2015 Île-de-France attacks, the November 2015 Paris attacks, the 2016 Nice truck attack and the 2018 Strasbourg attack are some examples. Conversely, French Muslims have been subject to increasing exclusion, discrimination and violence as well, bespeaking the deepening social and civilizational fractures in a nation cherished as the rampart of democracy. The Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France (CCIF) chronicled 1,043 Islamophobic incidents in 2019, including 68 physical attacks and 210 incidents of hate speech.


Joel S. Fetzer is a professor of political science at Pepperdine University’s Seaver College. He studies international migration, ethnic relations, religion and politics, and is the author of several books, including his 2018 work “Religion and Nationalism in Global Perspective” published by the Cambridge University Press.

Organization for Defending Victims of Violence has talked to Prof. Fetzer to discuss the present social challenges of the Muslim communities of France, President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to introduce an indigenous edition of Islam, and the intersection of freedom of speech and religion in the secular society.


Q: Muslims represent a sizeable minority in France, and figures show France hosts the largest community of Muslims in Western Europe. Why are the frictions between the French government and the Muslim community becoming recurrent and acute? Has the French integration model actually failed?

A: Two factors make the integration situation in France particularly fraught. First, the French model is essentially one of assimilation. An individual immigrant must abandon his or her culture – including religion – of origin and group identities, acknowledge the superiority of traditional French culture, and adopt as much as possible the traditions of the ethnic majority, or “Français de souche” – ethnic French people. For a devout Muslim, it is too much to ask that he or she give up Islam and become a nominal Catholic or secular person.

A second problem is that one of the largest groups of immigrant-origin Muslims in the country, ethnic Algerians, have deep-seated historical grievances against the French state because of the oppression and atrocities their ancestors suffered during French colonialism from 1830 to 1962. Conversely, many ethnic French people today associate Algerian immigrants with the far-from-nonviolent tactics of the Front de libération nationale (FLN) during the Algerian War of Independence. Many ethnic Algerians think “torturer” when they see a French soldier or police officer, and many Français de souche think “terrorist” when they see an ethnic North African. It’s not a historical context that makes for ethnic and religious harmony. On its own terms for example, that Muslims must assimilate to the dominant secular values of France, the French integration model has failed because French Muslims continue to practice their religion. As human beings, they of course have every right to continue to do so.


Q: The French president Emmanuel Macron has contended that “Islamist separatism” has found a fertile ground to grow and proliferate in France, and that terrorists target the country because they begrudge its “freedom of expression, right to believe, or not, and its way of life.” Is the president’s account of terrorist attacks hitting France in the recent years close to reality? Is it that there are radical Muslims who wish to assail the French values and contort the society’s norms and fundamentals, or do you attribute the conundrum of violent extremism in France to other factors?

A: I wouldn’t say that he’s 100% wrong, but I would contend that the most important sources of French Muslims’ resentment of the French state include their willful exclusion from the dominant French society, the continued educational and occupational discrimination they face, racial and religious profiling and extrajudicial violence by the police, and what the Québécois philosopher Charles Taylor would call the lack of recognition of their culture and religion.

Yes, some isolated individuals become radicalized via the internet or Islamist networks and murder people, but the larger context is one of profound rejection of Muslims and Islam by the non-Muslim population of France. I can’t imagine that the number of Islamist attacks in France would be as high if French Muslims were welcomed as fellow citizens and treated humanely.


Q: The concept of French laïcité was originally devised to shield the individuals from the interference of government and protect the government from the transgression of religion. Yet, in the recent past, the concept has been capitalized to allow for encroaching upon the different domains of French Muslims’ lives. From their dress code to their dietary requirements and religious education provisions, French Muslims have seen their civil liberties shrink due to the state’s stern measures. Is it accurate to say the French laïcité has been deviated and is not presently serving its authentic purpose?

A: This question is very difficult to answer accurately because the founders of laïcité, at least during the decades before and after the 1905 law on separation, did not agree about what laïcité should mean precisely. Some were themselves from religious backgrounds or even considered themselves actively spiritual in some way, while others were unapologetically anti-clerical.

If one fast-forwards to today, one sees a similar division among French people who claim to support laïcité. The dominant, or at least most vocal, group espouses a kind of strict, maybe even fundamentalist, reading of the concept, which, in its worse forms, seems to be headed in an almost totalitarian direction where the goal is to eliminate all religious belief and practice from both public and private life. The more religiously tolerant advocates of laïcité agree in theory that the state should not finance religious institutions and that religious leaders should not try to influence partisan politics but that religious believers should enjoy the freedom to practice their faith so long as they are not engaging in truly abhorrent behavior such as human sacrifice.

During the Scarf Affair of the 1980s, both supporters and opponents of the young Muslim women who wanted to wear the hijab at their school appealed to laïcité to justify the women’s inclusion or exclusion from state-funded high school.


Q: You mentioned the Islamic scarf controversy. Passing a ban on hijab for girls under 18 by the Senate, which needs to be endorsed by the National Assembly to become law, has been harshly criticized by the Muslim community and even denounced by international organizations such as Amnesty International, while some in France say it is an open declaration of war on a faith tradition and its many adherents. Do you think the ordinance will culminate in terrorism being addressed in France seriously or will simply degenerate into the widening of cultural and religious gaps?

A: It certainly is not going to increase French Muslims’ feelings of belonging, and so I would guess the result would be the reinforcement of their perception of being second-class citizens in France. It probably will also boost their identity as Muslims, which is what sociological theories of ethnic counter-mobilization would predict for people whose culture is being suppressed. So ironically, the legislature’s supposed effort to make Muslims more integrated into French society will almost certainly have exactly the opposite effect. And, of course, this policy is far from what one would do if one were really trying to address the roots of terrorism as opposed to scapegoating minorities to win political power.


Q: Assuming that the French society’s anxiety about extremism and violence is a legitimate concern, what are the most viable remedies to confront the challenges? What is the role to be fulfilled by the government? How should the minorities contribute? Is the French president’s proposal to Muslim organizations to subscribe to a charter underwriting secular values with the aim of initiating a French version of Islam, “Islam de France,” a prudent answer?

A: One should begin by treating all residents of France fairly, equally, humanely, and according to the rule of law. The government might implement one of the neglected recommendations of the Stasi commission, which was to make Eid and Yom Kippur a public holiday the way Christmas, Easter, and the Assumption of Mary are. Muslims should be allowed to live anywhere they would like in the country instead of being segregated into dreadful, high-rise HLM ghettos. Muslim children should not be forced into substandard, vocational tracks at school but, if necessary, should be given supplemental classes beginning at the preschool level to make up for any educational disadvantages and to allow these students to enter universities at the same rate as their non-Muslim peers. The police should stop detaining people simply because of the color of their skin, their dress, or their perceived religious identity. Officers guilty of the torture or murder of innocent Muslims should be tried and given appropriate sentences. At least per capita, the French state should pay as much to maintain mosques and synagogues as they do to repair Catholic churches. Ditto for the amount of public money spent on private Muslim schools as on private Catholic institutions.

Given the history of French colonialism of majority-Muslim regions, French Muslims distrust an Islam run by the French government. After all, this same French state bombed and tortured their ancestors in Algeria, for example. I am therefore not a fan of the Islam de France approach because it smacks of colonialism and paternalism.

If one is to minimize Islamist violence, some human intelligence might still be necessary. The most knowledgeable and valuable sources about potentially radicalized individuals are likely to be found within the Muslim community itself, however. If French Muslims perceive the state as increasingly militarized, hostile, and Islamophobic, however, potential informants of goodwill are less likely to bother to warn the authorities of possible future attacks.


Q: In 2006, 2011 and 2012, the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo stirred major controversies by printing offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad, and drew the ire of Muslim communities worldwide by reprinting the cartoons in 2020. French authorities reacted to the chaos by arguing that freedom of expression is guaranteed and protected by the government and they couldn’t ask the magazine to redact or refuse to reprint the cartoons. Do you believe the freedom of expression should have limits when the sensitivities of a large population are involved? Do you agree that the cartoons played into the hands of radicals and widened the social rifts?

A: While I support freedom of speech as much as the next American academic, one must recognize the social context of this debate and the very large degree of hypocrisy involved. How would secular French people react if one printed disgusting cartoons ridiculing their sacred figures? What about some hideous caricatures of Marianne, Charles de Gaulle, or Simone de Beauvoir? I bet many of the same people who defended the Muhammad cartoons would suddenly abandon their libertarian principles.

I personally think each country’s citizens should decide for themselves what the precise limits of freedom of expression should be given their own history, culture, and political institutions; we don’t allow people to yell “fire” in a non-burning but crowded theater here in the United States, and in Germany explicitly Nazi slogans are banned for very understandable historical reasons. But whatever limits to speech a given state adopts, these rules should be enforced without regard to one’s religion, ethnicity, gender, etc.

In the French case, I would argue that the government has adopted libertarian standards for Catholics and secularists but something much more restrictive for Muslims. And, of course, the whole incident was used by the xenophobic extreme right to marginalize French Muslims further and to question their adherence to liberal-democratic norms.


Q: Is the threat of far-right, nationalist parties, represented by the National Rally of Marine Le Pen, rising to power and dominating the French politics serious and imminent? In a France ruled by ultra-nationalists, what will be the social standing of immigrants and minorities, whom the republic is constitutionally bound to protect and serve, like other social strata?

A: Given how unexpected the current pandemic was and how rapidly the fortunes of political leaders such as Donald Trump and Idriss Déby can rise and fall, I hesitate to predict the outcome of future French elections. But the threat from Le Pen and her ilk is undoubtedly serious, and one can easily imagine a National Rally-style ultranationalist controlling France in the same way that Modi dominates India or Bolsonaro Brazil. To find out what might happen to Muslims in France, one need only ask their suffering co-religionists in India. Or one could simply look at the Islamophobic policies of National Front, National Rally mayors already elected in some French cities and towns.



By: Kourosh Ziabari

“ ODVV Interview: The French Government’s Version of Islam Smacks of Colonialism ”