PARIS — Islamists have an “intellectual monopoly” over public debate among Muslims in France and the state must intervene to limit foreign influence over worshippers, according to a new report submitted to President Emmanuel Macron.
The 617-page report, “The Fabric of Islam,” presents a comprehensive plan for reform of Islamic institutions in France following a call from Macron to bring them under the aegis of the state. During a July address to lawmakers at the Palace of Versailles, Macron committed to giving Islam “a framework and rules” by the fall. His goals: discouraging insular Muslim communities and combating extremist strands of the religion.
“Muslims, notably the young, inform themselves of the religion more and more on social media,” warned the report’s author Hakim El Karoui on BFM TV on Monday, adding that Salafist-aligned Saudis play a disproportionate role online.
His report, which was unveiled Sunday and published by liberal think tank Institut Montaigne, calls for the development of a “French Islam” — an autonomous, France-centric branch of the faith which would respond to French law. El Karoui, an essayist and ex-Rothschild banker, is also the nephew of former Tunisian Prime Minister Hamed Karoui.
Whether Macron chooses to act on the proposals could have political consequences.
Apart from concerns over terrorism, which have grown in France since a series of deadly attacks in 2015, officials have long expressed concerns about the development of a “parallel society” of Muslims within France. The idea that such enclaves breed radical ideology and, ultimately, terrorism was a central plank of Marine Le Pen’s 2017 presidential campaign, which called for tougher policing of mosques and expelling suspected terrorist sympathizers with dual nationality from France.
Now Macron has set himself the challenge of reforming Islam. His initiative coincides with the run-up to campaigns for the European Parliament election, when the president faces his strongest challenge from conservative and hard-right groups urging stronger oversight of Muslim clerics, mosques and schools. One of their criticisms is that Macron has not done enough to address the roots of Islamic fundamentalism — a critique that such a reform would address.
But Macron is following in the footsteps of presidents who have tried, and failed, to establish an “Islam of France.” Drawing on the example of Napoleon Bonaparte’s 1808 “concord” with France’s Jewish community, which established a religious authority recognized by the state, ex-French President Nicolas Sarkozy tried, as interior minister, a representative council for French Muslims. But that group and its successors failed to gain traction with a majority of worshippers, largely due to divisions between Muslim groups from different countries.
Meanwhile, whereas foreign countries heavily fund mosque construction and employ imams in France, the host country cannot do the same to compete for influence, given its secular constitution.
To resolve the stalemate, El Karoui calls for bypassing a mediative approach and directly backing moderate strands of the faith against Islamist sects, who place political ideology above the tenets of the French Republic.
“The question of organizing Islam in France is not a question of representativeness,” El Karoui said Monday on Europe1 radio, adding the problem’s solution only required “a system with men, money, and financing to combat [radicalization].”
“Because there are activists on one side and nobody across to say something else, [the Islamists] have an influence that goes well beyond their number of followers,” he said.
To fund a French alternative, El Karoui proposed taxing Halal foods, which in France generate €5-6 billion annually. He also called for restricting funnels of religious funding from abroad, regulating Saudi Arabia-approved tour guides for the Hajj pilgrimage, and increasing public school offerings of Arabic, all to reduce the influence of foreign actors on France’s Muslims.
Whether Macron chooses to act on the proposals could have political consequences. Bruno Retailleau, senator for the right-leaning Les Républicains party, issued a statement Monday critical of the report: “Not only will an Islam of France not protect the French from radical Islam, but it risks fragilizing the republican pact.”
Retailleau added particular suspicion about increasing Arabic instruction, saying: “The State is not for comforting communities in their difference, but to the contrary promoting a common foundation.”