Wednesday, June 12, 2024

France’s Half-Baked Plan to Fight Islamist Separatism

NewsFrance’s Half-Baked Plan to Fight Islamist Separatism

A new ban on foreign-appointed imams in France is aimed at combating Islamist separatism, but the policy risks making matters worse by handing future decisions about hiring imams over to local groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood. The French move is an example of a political decision that sounds superficially positive. Unfortunately, it fails to address the complex, often unofficial processes by which Islamist ideology is currently disseminated. As such, it offers an object lesson in what not to do, worthy of close observation.

“The most radical imams are French imams who know society better and are therefore more attuned to comfortably advocating a separatist discourse.”

Bernard Godard

As of January 1, 2024, imams employed at mosques in France must be homegrown — fluent in French, knowledgeable about French culture and society, including secularism, and partially or wholly trained in France. The new policy, which ends the long-standing practice of importing imams from abroad, seeks to curb political and theological interference from foreign countries.

The change abolishes the long running system of so-called consular Islam (l’islam consulaire), which began after French decolonization in the 1960s and consisted of bilateral agreements between France and Muslim-majority countries — mainly Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey — to provide imams to serve in French mosques. France, addressing a shortfall of qualified clerics at French mosques, issued residence permits to foreign imams for renewable four-year periods, while their governments paid the clerics’ salaries.

In recent years, the arrangement became increasingly strained as foreign governments sought to exercise religious and political control over their respective diasporas. Efforts by French leaders to enforce the 1905 law on secularism (laïcité), which declares that the state is neutral with respect to religion, were often challenged and opposed by the leaders of the countries whose imams were serving in France. For example, in 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan condemned French President Emmanuel Macron’s effort to counter Turkish Islamism in his country. Moroccan officials have also resisted Macron’s pledge to “free Islam in France from foreign influences.”

The decision to ban foreign-appointed imams — sometimes referred to as “seconded imams” (imams détachés) or foreign state civil servants (fonctionnaires d’Etat étrangers) — was originally announced by French President Emmanuel Macron in two speeches (one in February 2020 in Mulhouse and another in October 2020 in Les Mureaux) in which he spelled out a detailed plan to “free Islam in France from foreign influences” and rid France of what he called “Islamist separatism.”

“Law Won’t Change Much”

The new policy involves approximately 270 out of the 2,700 imams officiating at 2,500 mosques in France. They include 150 imams from Turkey, 120 from Algeria, and around 30 from Morocco, according to the French Senate.

Observers say that France’s new policy has at least five glaring flaws that make its implementation either futile or counterproductive: 1) it hands future decisions about hiring imams over to local mosques, many of which are controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups; 2) homegrown imams are often more separatist than those appointed by foreign governments; 3) France lacks sufficient imam training facilities; 4) most mosques in France cannot afford to pay the salaries for imams; and 5) social media is often a far greater driver for Islamic radicalization in France than foreign-appointed imams.

First, France’s new system for recruiting imams transfers that responsibility from foreign governments to French mosques, many of which are controlled by Islamist groups and receive financing from abroad. French law requires only that mosques declare all foreign funding over 15,300 euros annually. In practice, barring a change to existing law, foreign governments can and will continue to control mosques even if they do not directly appoint the imams who preach in them.

French anthropologist Florence Bergeaud-Blackler, an expert on the Muslim Brotherhood in Europe, said that the French government’s plan, which involves only 10 percent of imams in France, is “not a solution” and that the goal of eradicating radical Islam “will not be achieved.” She noted that simply controlling imams “will not solve anything” because “it is those who finance the mosques who exercise control, not the imams, who are only prayer guides.”

Bergeaud-Blackler added that the problem of Islamic radicalism in France encompasses far more than just imams and mosques. She said that Islamism has spread from mosques to enter “unions, universities, associations, sports halls, fashion, and the entire halal economy” due to “the actions of the Muslim Brotherhood.” She warned that banning detached imams “will rather favor the Muslim Brotherhood, a globalized movement which seeks to detach itself from all state supervision.”

Second, foreign imams are just as likely as homegrown ones to promote Islamic radicalism. As Focus on Western Islamism (FWI) has documented, since Hamas’s October 7 massacre of more than a thousand Israelis, French imams have repeatedly incited violence against Jews and Israel by falsely accusing the Jewish state of committing “genocide” against Palestinians.

Bernard Godard, a prominent expert on French Islam, doubts whether a ban on foreign-appointed imams is an effective way to fight Islamist separatism. “The most radical imams are French imams who know society better and are therefore more attuned to comfortably advocating a separatist discourse,” he said, adding, “detached imams are precisely those who are most controlled compared to others.”

Tareq Oubrou, rector of the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux, agrees. “There are many imams who are French and who have a discourse that is not necessarily extremist, but which can inspire separatism,” he told Radio France. “There is theological separatism, which is not violent, but which can put the French Muslim in a symbolically separatist situation, because there are practices which isolate Muslims from society.”

Bergeaud-Blackler, the Islam expert, noted that most imams in France are already homegrown — second-generation immigrants who were born or socialized in France — and many of them deliver sermons that are “unsuitable for the French context.” She added that banning the practice of consular Islam “will not prevent foreign imams from officiating in France and being paid by private funds.”

Third, only two schools in France currently train future imams. The Al-Ghazali Institute of the Grand Mosque of Paris (L’Institut Al-Ghazali de la Grande Mosquée de Paris), which has a half dozen extension programs nationwide, and the European Institute of Human Sciences (L’Institut Européen des Sciences Humaines, IESH), which is controlled by the Muslim Brotherhood and receives financing from Qatar.

Both institutions claim to promote moderate Islam, but both are suspected of promoting radicalism. Al-Ghazali’s rector, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the Algeria-born head imam of the Grand Mosque of Paris, one of the largest and most influential mosques in France, has been accused of engaging in “doublespeak” to conceal his alleged ties to Islamists. IESH, surveilled by French intelligence services for advocating radical Islam, has been described as “one of the flagships of the Brotherhood movement.”

Fourth, the new law requires mosques to pay the salaries of imams, but most cannot afford to do so. Hafiz, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, said that his organization, one of the largest in France, cannot pay for more than a few imams. “I could hire three or four. If it were three, it would already cost me €90,000 per year,” he said in an interview with La Croix.

IESH Dean Larabi Becheri said that even when students graduate, only a few become imams because of low pay and a lack of retirement or social welfare benefits. “The profession of imam does not appeal to a majority of young Muslims,” he concluded.

French Senator Nathalie Goulet has proposed a tax on halal products to pay the salaries of Imams in France. (Photo Nathalie Goulet from Orne, France, via Wikimedia Commons)

French Senator Nathalie Goulet has proposed collecting royalties on France’s 6-billion-euro halal sector to pay the salaries of imams in France. But to arrive at this solution it would be necessary to tackle its opacity. “The income from slaughter taxes, imam certificates, and so forth,” she said, “constitute a totally opaque whole, the secrets of which are well kept between three large mosques — Paris, Lyon and Évry — which do not want transparency to be achieved at any price.”

Fifth, social media is often a far greater driver of Islamic radicalization in France than foreign-appointed imams. Oubrou, the imam of Bordeaux, described the government’s plan as “superficial” and “a very small part” of the solution. “Today, separatism develops more on social networks than in mosques, within virtual communities rather than physical and collective spaces,” he said. “Imams have become YouTubers and social media influencers with profit motives.”

Senator Goulet, in an essay for the news magazine Valeurs Actuelles, concluded that banning foreign-appointed imams “will not alone resolve the separatist excesses of radical Islamism.” She warned that “besides the online hate preachers and the infamous Imam Google, there remain deadly and active influencers in our country, and in Europe, such as the Muslim Brotherhood networks, which must be fought with firmness and without naivety.”

Soeren Kern is a Middle East Forum Writing Fellow.

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