How can French Muslims be freed from political Islam?

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The recent terrorist attacks in France, following the latest round in the country’s offensive cartoon saga that feature the Prophet Mohammad, and the subsequent Turkish involvement on the scene, have stoked the flames of the discourse of extremism, whether from the French extreme right or from political Islamic groups who appropriate the role of custodian of Muslims and Islam alike.

On the other hand, the huge silent mass of French Muslims, who number about 5 million according to official numbers – and up to 8 million unofficially – struggle where political Islamic groups try to represent them in the face of French right-wing rhetoric.

In the midst of all this, French President Emmanuel Macron's administration is trying to hold the middle ground, while remaining unable to pinpoint the real disease. In his latest speech given during the memorial of history teacher Samuel Paty, Macron said that Islam “is suffering from a crisis.” On other occasions, he described it as a crisis caused by extremist Islamic currents, proposing solutions to overcome this crisis.

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But, the real question remains: To what extent are any government policies able to overcome this crisis? When trying to answer that question, we must take into account that these policies stem from an authority whose secular principles prevent it from interfering in religious affairs, negatively or positively, in the face of large swaths of Muslims and Islamists who firmly believe in the existence of a “conspiracy against Islam” as part of the mentality of conspiratorial interpretation of history inherited from nationalist currents that have characterized culture and thought in the Islamic world for decades.

However, any attempt to overcome the crisis or “reform Islam” in France in Macron's words, must start from three considerations, or reach them in conclusion:

Firstly, we must believe – contrary to the French right-wing rhetoric that Islam is incompatible with the principles of secularism and republicanism – that Islam, like other religions, is capable, in belief, text, and rituals, of full conformity and harmony with the values of secularism, republicanism, and modernity. Accordingly, we must strive to present a new reading of Islam, far from political Islam's attempts to monopolize or the French right's attempts to stigmatize it as inherently backward. This must be done through a range of research and media programs, not just relying on the security approach. The time has come to stop considering the French Muslim file as a security file that is handled by Ministry of the Interior alone.

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Secondly, in light of the terrorist attacks taking place today – which are totally condemned in any way and shape – as well as official policies that seek to reform Islam and move it out of its “crisis,” and the intransigence of political Islam groups who cry conspiracy at every turn, we believe that Islam is definitely going through a crisis. But it is not a crisis of religion as much as it is a crisis of religiosity. That is to say, it is a crisis of Muslims who have been taken hostage by the groups that claim to represent Islam in France who leverage it for their political agenda without regard to the credo of Muslims and their individual beliefs. Therefore, any reform attempt must be centered around the idea that the solution to this crisis cannot be imposed in a top-down way by the state – as the Sarkozy administration did when it formed the French Council of the Muslim Faith based on sectarian and ethnic quotas – but rather a grassroots approach from the general Muslim populace. These groups must no longer be allowed to claim to represent them and speak on their behalf, requiring an unprecedented effort to spread awareness among the Muslims of France using a panoply of means and methods.

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Third, and based on the first consideration of presenting a new reading of Islam that is consistent with the values of secularism and republicanism, as well as the second consideration of liberating the general population from the domination of political Islam groups, the task of liberating French Islam from foreign loyalties will be a key goal of any reform program. Unlike the case in Muslim countries, Islam in France is not purely French. Rather, it has become a tool in the hands of countries that want to play with the beliefs of Muslims to achieve political interests inside France or to fight wars with France. Perhaps the example of Turkish involvement today is the greatest evidence of the extent of penetration happening within the French Islamic fabric. Ethnic communities and sects have become mere pawns of countries' foreign policies, which is completely inconsistent with the principle of freedom of faith, on the one hand, and the principles of citizenship and integration on the other. Unfortunately, government policies to organize Islam in France over the past years have entrenched this division among influential countries, claiming separation of church and state, but in the process enabling intervention by other countries. The French Council of the Muslim Faith has thereby been transformed into a congress in which states are represented through organizations and associations that support them with money and training programs. This division threatens to pervade the Muslim population and constitute a barrier to any integration process into French society.

This article was originally published in, and translated from, Lebanese news outlet Annahar al-Arabi.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
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