France’s Council of State, the highest French administrative court, recently gave the green light to the expulsion of Moroccan-national Hassan Iquioussen, an imam who had been accused by the government of hate speech. Police officers were sent to Iquioussen’s house shortly after the ruling on August 30th to take him into custody, but he had vanished. This is the latest development of a saga that started in late July when the French Minister of Interior Gerald Darmanin declared his intention to expel Iquioussen. According to Le Figaro, Iquioussen is now believed to be in Belgium and a European warrant for his arrest has been issued.
The government’s evidence against Iquioussen consisted of his antisemitic and misogynistic sermons as well as his ideological affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood. In 2003, he denounced Jews as “ungrateful” and said they “need to be called to order.” A year later, he mentioned French laws that had been “instituted by a government manipulated by Jews.” In 2005, he condemned Jews’ “international and ancient plot against the Prophet” and called on “real Muslims” to join the “resistance against the American occupation” in Iraq. In 2012, he referred to “pseudo terrorist attacks that seek to instill fear in non-Muslims.” And in 2018, he insisted that a man cannot “let his wife leave the home alone” and must ensure that “she wears the veil,” “does not apply makeup” and does not “frequent places where alcohol is served.”
The Council of State’s decision is the latest legal ruling in a controversial affair that has been the subject of extensive French coverage since late July. French President Emmanuel Macron has made clear that countering Islamist ideology is one of his priorities in a country where hundreds of people have been killed by Islamist terrorists. Some commentators, including the expert on Islamism Bernard Rougier, praised the government’s decision to expel Iquioussen as a step inspired by France’s 2021 counter-islamist legislation, but others disagreed: a representative from the French Human Rights League denounced it as a “political and opportunistic temporality” and Islamists condemned it as evidence of institutional “Islamophobia.”
Perhaps the French government did not expect that it would prove so difficult to expel the French-born Iquioussen, who was raised in France and received French citizenship when he turned 18 but, according to him, turned it down after being pressured by his father.
While Darmanin had confidently announced in July that Iquioussen would be expelled from the country, Paris’ administrative court suspended that decision on August 5th. The court acknowledged that Iquioussen’s statements regarding women were “retrograde”, but concluded that expelling him would be a disproportionate infringement of his privacy and family life as the imam’s wife, children and grandchildren all live in France.
Adding to the controversy, French news site Mediapart then published an investigation alleging that Darmanin himself had had dinner with Iquioussen in 2014. The current Minister of Interior apparently hoped that the imam would assist him in obtaining Muslim vote in the then-upcoming local elections in which he was running. Iquioussen has openly bragged about his strategy to exert influence over local officials by guaranteeing them the votes of the local mosque’s congregation.
The Ministry of Interior nonetheless appealed the Paris court’s decision in front of the top administrative court and, at the subsequent hearing, their representative described Iquioussen as a “charismatic preacher” who had engaged in doublespeak for years and was “propagating insidious ideas” that were “a fertile ground for separatism and terrorism.”
The Council of State overruled the lower court’s decision, stating that Iquioussen’s “antisemitic statements as well as his speech regarding women’s inferiority” constituted “acts of deliberate and explicit provocations to discrimination or hatred” and justified the decision to expel him. The Council of State rejected the argument that expelling Iquioussen would seriously and “illegally” affect his personal life, noting that his children are adults and that his wife, as a Moroccan-national, could follow him to Morocco.
However, it also rejected the Ministry of Interior’s claim that Iquioussen had questioned the reality of terrorist attacks and that he had rejected the laws of the Republic in favor of Islamic law, as the Ministry had apparently not submitted sufficient evidence of these allegations.
Iquioussen’s lawyer, Lucie Simon, bemoaned a “weakened rule of the law” and “an alarming context of the executive pressuring the judiciary.” Two days prior to the decision, the French government’s spokesperson, Oliver Veran, had declared that it would be “a very bad signal” if the Council ruled in favor of Iquioussen.
But French legal expert Laurent Lemasson warned that the Council of State’s decision is unlikely to bring a conclusion to the affair as the most recent ruling resulted from a brief examination of the case, rather than an in-depth study of the facts. Lemasson concluded that the French authorities do not have the “legal and material resources to systematically expel foreigners” like Iquioussen.
Given this eventful procedure and Iquioussen’s subsequent disappearance, Darmanin’s recent announcement describing the court’s decision as a “great victory for the Republic” was not well received.
Marine Le Pen, head of the main far-right party, Rassemblement National, noted that “the only Islamist that Darmanin was about to expel” was now missing. Members of her party joined in: an elected official pointed out that Darmanin wasn’t “even capable of monitoring the islamist imam” while another declared the state to be “inadequate.”
Meanwhile, the president of the center-right party Les Republicains in the National Assembly, Olivier Marleix, denounced the events as a “farce” and complained that “we’ve hit rock bottom.” Another center-right lawmaker described the latest development as a “new humiliation” for France.
On the left, reactions ranged from stating that the “court has made its decision” to denouncing the said court’s decision as “opening the door to arbitrary expulsions.”
Islamists immediately mobilized in support of Iquioussen. Perspectives Musulmanes, an organization that opposes French counter-Islamist legislation, organized a protest on September 3rd that was attended by hundreds of people and warned that Iquioussen’s expulsion was a sign that the government was targeting all Muslims. Idriss Sihamedi, a well-known Salafi whose charity was shut down by the French government, declared that “supporting Iquioussen against Macron’s anti-Islam government is an obligation for all Muslims.” And LES Musulmans, an Islamist-linked platform, in a call for support, referred to the latest ruling as evidence of the French Muslim community being targeted in an “increasingly hostile and explicit” manner.
Interestingly enough, at no point did anyone, Iquioussen included, argue that the he wasn’t an Islamist. Iquioussen’s own lawyer described him as “conservative,” “retrograde” and a partisan of “political Islam.” The question, therefore, revolved less around Iquioussen’s ideology, and more around whether the said ideology was sufficiently dangerous to justify expelling him from the country. While the top administrative court has ruled in the affirmative, this latest attempt on the part of French officials to show their commitment to counter Islamism has not gone smoothly and Darmanin’s declaration of “victory” appears to have been premature.
Martha Lee is the research fellow of Islamist Watch, a project of the Middle East Forum.