France Grapples With Proposals to Counter Radical Influences Among French Muslims

Fayçal Benhassain | September 12, 2018 | 8:34pm EDT
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A Muslim man walks through the Grand Mosque in Paris, France in January 2015. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Paris ( – A new report on Islam in France is stoking debate between those who believe its proposals will help counter the spread of radical thought, and those concerned that they would work against attempts to assimilate Muslims into French society.

Coming at a time when many European countries continue to grapple with issues of Islamist radicalization, the report is now under consideration by President Emmanuel Macron, who told lawmakers in July that he plans to take decisions on the organization of French Islam in the fall.

The report’s author is Hakim El Karoui, an expert on Islam and senior fellow at the Paris-based thinktank, Institut Montaigne. He said in media interviews this week that foreign countries in the Muslim world have too much influence with French Muslims, and that the time to act is now.

In the report’s crosshairs is Salafism, the theology that underpins extremist interpretations of Islam. Key concerns include the involvement of foreign funders – especially Saudi and Turkish – of Islamic entities, and the fact many Muslims learn Arabic not at school but in the mosques.

The report proposes the creation of an independent French Islamic organization that will supervise all issues linked to the Islam faith, and promote the learning of Arabic at schools.

It also suggests a tax on halal products, to finance the envisaged new organization, build and maintain mosques, and train and pay imams – rather than expose French Muslims to foreign funding and influences.

El Karoui said the envisaged new Muslim Association for Islam in France would be totally independent of Muslim countries.

It would collect the halal products’ taxes to finance Islam in France, organize and control French Muslims’ annual pilgrimage to Mecca, and work to limit the influence of Salafists in France.

“The number of Salafists [in France] is growing and they have a kind of monopoly in the Muslim discourse,” he said, adding that Muslims under 35 years of age are especially affected.

El Karoui pointed out that almost all responses to religious questions posted on Islamic websites are provided by preachers with Salafist outlooks or links.

The report’s proposal on increasing the learning of Arabic at schools – rather than at mosques – has sparked an uproar from conservative political parties.

Experts and some moderate imams argue that Arabic should be taught at schools like any other language, using grammar books rather than purely focusing on the Qur’an.

Education Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer said he favors teaching Arabic at schools, but Republican lawmaker Annie Genevard said in a radio interview it was a mistake to think teaching it at school would keep Muslim children from learning at mosques, adding that the proposal “will not solve the problems of the rise of Salafism.”

Nicolas Dupont Aignan, head of the conservative France Arise party, strongly opposed the proposal, saying that non-French people living here must assimilate the values of the country and the best place to learn them is at school.

“We need more French courses at schools instead of encouraging communitarism by teaching Arabic,” he said in a television interview. “I don't want the Arabization of France.”

Abdelali Mamoun, an imam in suburban Paris, said the teaching of Arabic at school might help young Muslims get out of closed communities they often live in. He noted that many young Muslims are now learning the Qur’an in French – rather than in Arabic – on the Internet.

Bernard Godard, an expert in Arab and Muslim countries who was formerly at the interior ministry, said he supports teaching of Arabic at schools rather than mosques.

A 2016 report by the Montaigne Institute estimated that some 80,000 Muslims are taking Arabic courses at a place of worship.

The Pew Research Center estimated late last year that there are 5.7 million Muslims in 2016, or around 8.8 percent of the population.

An existing body, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), has previously proposed teaching Arabic at schools.

CFCM was founded in 2003 as an official interlocutor with the French state, to regulate Muslim religious activities.

Its president, Ahmed Ogras, said he was not totally opposed to the new proposals, but believes the changes should originate from the CFCM.

Ogras also complained that the report had been published on the eve of the Islamic new year, an inappropriate time in his view.

“Publishing this report now shows that the author does not know Islam,” he said of El Karoui. “He is not legitimate, he is disconnected.”

(El Karoui, the son of a Tunisian Muslim father, has not responded precisely when asked if he is a practicing Muslim.)

El Karoui’s envisaged new organization would replace the CFCM, a body viewed as critics as problems due in part to foreign funding.

Meanwhile conferences on Islam in France are taking place in various regions of the country. Godard said Macron is probably waiting to see what comes out of the discussions before taking decisions on “this difficult topic.”

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