The CFCM (above) has proposed a plan for a national register of imams to president Macron. But how that could or should work is obscure.
Yves Coleman responded to questions from Martin Thomas from Solidarity. More by Yves: Anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism in Europe (Workers' Liberty 3/49).
CFCM, the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman, CFCM, set up in 2003 with the encouragement of Sarkozy as a "Muslim" interlocutor, has proposed, and Macron has accepted, the idea of a national register of imams run by CFCM, but how will that work given that most mosques do not recognise CFCM? Macron indicates that he doesn't want imams paid by other governments, but how could that be regulated by law? Mosques operate under the "1901 law" regulating associations in general, which actually gives them more latitude than the "1905 law" regulating churches and synagogues. Under the law, how could the government intervene in mosques?
Macron is facing a very difficult problem. On the one hand, he does not want to be labelled as an "Islamophobe", and on the other, all the measures his government proposes imply that Muslims are not able to study Islam correctly without the "help" (control) of the State, and not able to spot and denounce fundamentalist anti-Republican imams or militants in mosques or Muslim associations. This looks like a very paternalistic attitude towards Muslims, whether they have a foreign passport, French nationality, or have been recently converted to Islam (some thousands convert every year).
The CFCM is not considered as a representative institution by most Muslims. A recent study made by "The Muslim Platform" shows that the majority of Muslims don’t even know the name of the president of the CFCM. Macron is trying to push the CFCM to the front of the stage and to oblige them to write a declaration of republican principles within the next two weeks, but it does not seem very realistic.
Macron made a big mistake in not contacting the most sophisticated and educated imams and not letting them leading the debate inside the Muslim community. As regards "mosques" (which most of the time are just prayer rooms, i.e. meeting halls or warehouses, with no minarets), the government has cops and informers, and from that information it can launch legal action against imams who are making jihadist propaganda or anti-republican propaganda. There is no need of a new law for that. But by focusing on foreign imams, the government does not really help Muslims to forge an "enlightened Islam" as it claims.
Concerning the training of future imams, it could be financed by a tax taken on the plane tickets sold for the pilgrimage to Mecca, but this project has not been approved by the CFCM yet because its members are competing to manage this money. Another option could be to create a specific formation inside the university system (the Catholic Institute is ready for it) but once more it puts into question the separation between the state and the churches...
As regards the verification of possible foreign funding, tax services and "prefectures" can check the accounting books of any association created under the 1901 law. That’s true in theory ; in practice the state will probably need to recruit thousands of employees to do that job on a national scale, for the 1.4 million associations – if it were to do that verification without any special bias against Muslims. This looks more like a symbolic threat than a measure which can be applied.
Last point: the government wants to oblige the cultural associations managing the mosques and prayer-rooms under the 1901 law (less strict in terms of state control), to switch to the 1905 law regime (which would help the state to watch these religious associations more closely).
What other measures is Macron proposing, and to what extent can they be judged as rationally secularist, racist in a colonialist-paternalist fashion, or as denying religious freedom?
I have difficulty to define what can be "rationally secularist", because that implies the State should be the main guardian of secularism. People in schools, universities, places of work and communities are able to manage and discuss what secularism means and to make reasonable compromises. For example (a much debated question) accepting that Muslim mothers who volunteer to accompany school children to the swimmming pool, or any state school outdoor activities, can wear their hijab without the necessity of adopting any new law…
As I wrote in 2005, the growth of Islam has had “negative consequences for the working class and feminist movements”, but as atheists, we have to separate the growth of one religion as a powerful reactionary cultural trend among the youth (and it’s true also for Protestant, Catholic and Jewish youth in the Western world) and the appearance of internationalist jihadism. If we don’t separate those two very different phenomena, we will only feed anti-Muslim racism.
What is "racist or colonialist" is certainly the idea that doctors should not have the right to write certificates of virginity or the repeated mention of polygamy as an important problem in France. Polygamy is already prohibited; Muslim foreigners who ask for a stay permit have to prove they don’t have another wife in their native country; if they contract a second marriage they can lose their permit to stay, etc.
As regards virginity, I don’t think the state should target Muslim women or Muslim religion for this question. It’s up to the doctor's conscience, not to the state. The government has given no statistics about this imaginary problem but a gynecologist working in a district hosting a high proportion of “Muslim" migrants testified that, over 6,000 women she receives every year, only two or three ask for such a certificate. And another gynecologist said these certificates could protect some young women against the reactions of their conservative family, so she would not hesitate in signing that kind of document, whatever the truth is.
Not to mention that virginity is an issue in all religions and has no relationship whatsoever with jihadism....
Among the governmental measures many are ambiguous and certainly paternalistic or worse, for example, teachers are encouraged to inform on children who are supposedly engaged in a “radicalisation” process: this is a very dangerous way to deal with children and their religious or political views, specially as most incidents occur with children who are less than 11 years old (for example some hundreds, of about 12 million students, refused to respect one minute of silence after Charlie Hebdo’s murders in 2015 or after Samuel Paty’s beheading).
The fact that Macron wants the various Muslim federations to sign a republican protocol (like the one the antisemitic Napoleon imposed on the Jews) proves that the State does not trust these associations and this measure represents a kind of humiliation for them and their religion. The fact that the CFCM is supposed to give a certificate to the imams proves that the government does not want to take into account the internal problems of the Muslim communities in France. And the mention of foreign imams as a problem is a xenophobic statement for two reasons: first, the imams officially appointed by foreign countries to work in France are part of an agreement with those states; and second, none of those imams has contributed to the radicalisation of French jihadists.
As regards the denial of religious freedom, the State should not close mosques because of one anti-republican or fundamentalist imam, or because of a small minority of radical believers. By closing a mosque, it punishes all believers and treats them as irresponsible children. The same with the big scandal organised against the leader of the UNEF (a leftwing student trade union), a converted woman who wears the hijab. The members of this union are the only ones who have the right to decide who their leader is, not the state, although I think the "headscarf" is a very negative political and religious symbol.
What is your picture of the response among different sections of French Muslims to Paty's murder and to Macron's measures?
Muslims are tired of being targeted all the time. They are victims of a "double imperative": on one side they are supposed to keep their religious beliefs a private matter; on the other side, they are asked to take position, as Muslims, on any bad thing a Muslim does.
Samuel Paty’s decapitation has shocked most Muslims, that’s obvious. As regards Macron’s measures I think there is a certain resignation. Muslims see most political parties use Islam, the hijab, the terrorist attacks and murders, al Qaeda, Daesh, social problems in North Africa or in the Middle East as arguments against their very presence in France, including those who have French nationality. So they just think: "Let’s be patient and ignore all this discussion because it only gives us headaches. Anyway, it will start again next year, or even in a few months, so let’s just live our life".
A minority of educated Muslims (professionals, lawyers, doctors, academics, imams, theologians, etc.) has decided that enough is enough, and groups like the “Muslim Platform” are determined to oblige the French state to respect its motto “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”.
What is very positive is the fact that there is no growing hate against Muslims among “ordinary" French people. I tried to check with my friends who work in secondary or high schools, and none has seen a rise of anti-Muslim racism among the teachers. I was at the Sunday demonstration after Paty’s beheading and it was very peaceful and respectful; no anti-Muslim hate was expressed. This lack of pervasive hate was also observed after the 2015 attacks; the little messages laid at Place de la République and at the Bataclan and the cafés attacked were all peaceful messages, as well as in Brussels the same year.
This means that what both far right populists and Islamists want is not occurring... for the moment at least.