World

France’s Flawed Stand against Islamist Radicalization

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech at the Seine-Saint-Denis prefecture headquarters in Bobigny, near Paris, France, October 20, 2020. (Ludovic Marin/Reuters Pool)
Attempting to reform French Islam itself is bound to fail, and will distract from more urgent and necessary efforts.

On October 2, French president Emmanuel Macron announced measures to counter what he calls “Islamist separatism.” According to Macron, “the problem is this ideology that affirms that its own laws are superior to those of the Republic.” Exactly two weeks later, a Chechen Islamist beheaded a schoolteacher who had shown cartoons to his students from the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo that mocked Mohammed. The executive branch now has broad support for aggressive action against Islamism. French Interior minister Gérald Darmanin has declared that France is now at “war.”

Despite this rhetoric, and although many welcome a more aggressive approach, Macron’s new measures involve delegating “immense responsibility” to an institution with its own Islamist ties. Once again, a Western government has misunderstood the perniciousness of Western Islamism.

At first glance, Macron’s announcement appears to be an unprecedented stand by a Western government against the threat of Islamist radicalization. Speaking from the commune of Les Mureaux, Macron described Islamist separatism as a “political and religious” project that advocates “deviations” from the values of the Republic. It often results, he claimed, in the constitution of a “counter-society,” in which children are taken out of school, and cultural activities are used as a pretext to teach principles that “do not conform” to the laws of the Republic. It is an “indoctrination” that negates French principles, “equality between men and women,” as well as “human dignity.”

The solution, Macron believes, lies in tighter control. Charities and mosques, for example, will be required to divulge incoming donations, particularly those from abroad. Currently, most French churches and synagogues were already managed by registered religious organizations, but 90 percent of French mosques have chosen instead to be “cultural organizations,” a legal distinction that has permitted them to disclose very little to government auditors. Macron plans to introduce new measures pressuring these so-called cultural organizations to register instead as religious groups.

Macron emphasized his belief in the importance of freeing Islam in France from foreign influences. He reiterated his previous decision to end the “seconded imam” system, in which clerics from Turkey, Algeria, and Morocco are given immigration status in France to take control of mosques.

The new measures also include the proposed introduction of “anti-putsch” plans — an effort to protect mosque-leadership committees from being commandeered by extremists. (Neither Macron nor any other government official has explained what would happen to mosques already controlled by Islamist movements such as the Salafis or Tablighi Jamaat, or who would determine their successors.)

To American ears, proposed aggressive regulation of religious institutions may sound extraordinary. Yet while more militant anti-Islamists might consider Macron’s measures a step in the right direction, his “ambition to form and promote . . . a generation of imams and intellectuals” defending “an Islam that is fully compatible with the values of the Republic” is enormously flawed. For the government will be deputizing a great deal of responsibility for the project to an organizations with its own Islamist links.

Much of the effort will be managed by the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM), an organization established by France’s Interior Ministry in 2003 to represent French Muslims. The CFCM, as the state’s intermediary, will be responsible for certifying imam-training programs and the imams themselves, as well as for writing a charter to which imams must pledge adherence or risk losing certification. All this, the government has explained, will be financed by taxing French Muslims undertaking Hajj (the pilgrimage to Mecca).

Which Islam, then, will the CFCM promote? It is a notoriously divided institution, comprising members from different federations, some of which are associated with foreign regimes, including Morocco, Algeria, Turkey, and Comoros. It also includes Musulmans de France (formerly known as the UOIF), a French organization founded by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Turkish Islamist movement Millî Görüş, which is closely connected to the Ankara regime.

The CFCM has been widely criticized in the past for its unrepresentative nature, and for its acrimonious internal disputes. Worst of all, Islamists exert the greatest control over the organization. While some CFCM representatives are elected, the election system itself rewards large mosques — which are often Islamist-run or -funded — with the greatest number of delegates. For the government to rely on CFCM for this project excludes the majority of French Muslims, as well as the voices of reformists and non-Islamist theologians, many of whom have previously complained that the hardline views of UOIF have completely taken over the institution.

It is certainly difficult to imagine that the CFCM will focus on developing an “enlightened Islam.” Just last year, the CFCM was criticized for declaring the hijab to be a religious obligation. This marked a clear turn toward hardline Islam, as it had previously recognized the existing debate around the question.

The CFCM is currently led by prominent French Muslim leader Mohammad Moussaoui, who is close to the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Moroccan regime, as well as activist Abdallah Zekri. Zekri and Moussaoui are also both part of the Fondation pour l’islam de France, an organization that will receive 10 million euros ($12 million) in government funds for its involvement in the government’s plans.

Both Zekri and Moussaoui have a history of justifying or downplaying the threat of Islamism. Earlier this year, Zekri was at the center of a media scandal after he tried to excuse death threats sent to a teenager who had denounced Islam.

As for Moussaoui, when interviewed by French senator Jacqueline Eustache as part of a Senate investigation into Islamist radicalization, he repeated the old canard that Islamists have absolutely nothing to do with Islam and have appropriated both the term and the religion itself. His reasoning was elucidated when he then attempted to avoid questions on his views of the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi influence in certain French neighborhoods. When Senator Eustache insisted, he declared that groups should not be entirely rejected on the basis of ideology and encouraged combatting ideas, not people.

And so we wonder: Which hardline ideologues will the CFCM refuse to reject as partners in the government’s counter-radicalization efforts?

Macron was not the first to suggest that the CFCM manage the certification of imams. Indeed, shortly after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, the CFCM itself expressed its desire to manage imam certifications. In 2016, several months before Macron was elected, the then-CFCM president Anouar Kbibech mentioned that the CFCM was pursuing this goal by working on “harmonizing” different curricula offered by private institutes, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Institut Européen des Sciences Humaines (IESH).

The IESH was founded by members of the UOIF, an Muslim Brotherhood proxy. Its academic programs were designed by theologians including hardline cleric and supporter of suicide bombings Yusuf Al-Qaradawi. Its most-promising students continue to pledge allegiance to the Muslim Brotherhood. Its graduates include a recruit to ISIS in Syria. And the IESH has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the terror-linked Qatar Charity (QC). In 2007, Mohamed Karmous, the school’s treasurer, was arrested by Swiss authorities while bringing €50,000 ($59,000) in cash from a QC official to the IESH.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the IESH is enthusiastic about Macron’s announcement. Indeed, IESH director, Larabi Becheri, recently told a journalist that Macron’s intention regarding imam-training was what the IESH had always called for. Becheri expressed his approval of the plan, describing the CFCM as “the most legitimate body.”

For some secularists, Macron’s plans to work with the CFCM are arguably an improvement to his original idea of putting in place a “concordat” where the separation of mosque and state would no longer apply and the state could train clerics directly. Now Macron insists that the French state would not be involved in these training programs at all. Instead, the CFCM alone would be responsible for building an “enlightened Islam” in France. But this still isn’t entirely accurate.

It is the government that chose to delegate this “immense responsibility” to the CFCM. It is the government that participated in negotiations with Saudi Arabia to manage the question of Hajj. And it is the government that has promised to continue exercising “immense pressure” on the CFCM to regulate French imams. The crafting of a new French Islam will be a government-led, Islamist-managed initiative.

There is, of course, a wide variety of opposition to the plans. Other French Islamists have condemned Macron’s proposed new measures, as well as the rhetoric employed. Some have accused Macron of opportunistically focusing on Islam to avoid confronting “real” separatisms, ostensibly including economic inequality and discriminations. Hardline Salafis from the purist strain, meanwhile, have encouraged Muslims to leave the country, declaring that imperfect Muslim countries are preferable to France.

Macron is also facing criticism on both sides of the political spectrum. The head of La France Insoumise, the main far-left party, denounced Macron’s comments as a “speech against Muslims.” And on the right, many were unhappy with Macron for not going far enough and taking too “few strong and brave measures.”

While it is certainly a positive development that Macron has explicitly used the term “Islamism” and did not hesitate to mention groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood as a threat (avoiding the usual mistake of just focusing on Salafi-jihadists), some of his proposed measures appear likely to exacerbate the problem of Islamist radicalization and extremism. It really should be more obvious to policymakers that Islamists are not good partners in the fight against Islamism.

In the aftermath of the most recent attack against the schoolteacher, the French police arrested several people for varying levels of alleged involvement, including an imam who encouraged the preceding online furor against the schoolteacher. French authorities also closed a mosque for having shared a video on its social-media account denouncing the schoolteacher.

Thus, even law enforcement’s own actions show that Macron’s proposed micro-management of imam-training programs is an odd obsession for a counter-radicalization program. The problem of Islamism is not a future prospect, but a thriving, current reality — found in France’s Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood–controlled mosques, community groups, and activist organizations.

It would be preferable for government instead to focus on extremist institutions and individuals already operating across France. Backed by secularist statute books, the state could take far more aggressive measures to incapacitate Islamist networks — diminishing their finances, their foreign support, and their infiltration and exploitation of all facets of French society. Much could be achieved by following some of the suggestions recently published by the French Senate. Some suggestions include banning extremist clerics such as Yusuf al-Qaradawi from coming to France, training more French law-enforcement agents to monitor Islamist movements, and setting up systems to warn local government of Islamist mosques and clerics in their areas. Training programs explaining to local officials the various violent and nonviolent strains of Islamism active across France are also recommended.

French secularism and government control over political expression are far different from in the United States. Legally, it is already possible to close radical institutions and to fine individuals for hate speech. And yet French administrations have avoided using these existing powers. The government could also dedicate more attention to investigating Islamist charities that financially underpin so many Islamist movements and close them down without hesitation if extremist links are found.

By deputizing CFCM to carry out his own plans of Islamic reform, Macron has employed an organization inseparable from the two threats that Macron claimed France must face: malign theocratic foreign influence and the growth of extreme conservative Islam in France. It is already sufficiently challenging for the French government to monitor Islamist movements across the country and to intervene when necessary. Attempting to reform French Islam itself is bound to fail, and will distract from more urgent and necessary efforts. Extremists will thrive in the chaos.

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