The Forum of Islam
Another Islamophobic act of the French government?
In its efforts to reshape Islam in France and ‘rid it of extremism’, the French government recently launched a new body made up of clergy and laymen – and women – to help lead the largest Muslim community in Western Europe. Dozens of influential Muslim figures have been handpicked by the Macron government to take part in the new Forum of Islam. They include imams, influential figures from civil society, prominent intellectuals and business leaders.
Under this new name, the French executive actually intends to mark the end of the CFCM as the official interlocutor of the State. It is a desire to break with the past and an attempt to promote an Islam less dependent on countries like Algeria, Morocco or Turkey, as per the government. From now on, the Forum for Islam in France (FORIF) intends to ensure a more legitimate representation of Muslims in the country around four working themes: the professionalization of imams, the organization of chaplaincies, the security of places of worship and the application of the law against separatism.
“We want to launch a revolution by putting an end to (foreign influence) on Islam,” French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said in a recent interview. Islam is not a religion of foreigners in France, but a French religion that should not depend on foreign money and any authorities abroad,” Darmanin said.
Several Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, have funded the construction of mosques in Europe, some of which have become hotbeds of radical Islam and extremism.
Supporters say it will keep the country — and its 5 million Muslims — safe, and will ensure that Muslim practices in France adhere to the country’s cherished value of secularism in public life.
Yet critics, including many Muslims who consider the religion a part of their French identity, say the government’s latest initiative is another step in institutionalized discrimination that holds the whole community responsible for violent attacks of a few and serves as another barrier in their public lives.
The FORIF working groups will address a range of issues concerning the country’s Muslim population, including imams’ (prayer leaders) training, Muslim clerics employed in prisons, hospitals, and the military services, mosque security, and anti-Muslim prejudice.
On the FORIF’s main concept, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin claimed that they sought to “liberate Islam in France,” alleging that the CFCM had been under the influence of various countries, including Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey.
Secular France funding Christian schools in Muslim countries
Macron and his ministers assert that the forum will prevent extremism, curb the influence of foreign powers in affairs of religious minorities in France and ensure that Muslims abide by the country’s claims of secularism in public life. It is difficult to take these justifications seriously when, at the same time, the French regime is to double its funding of Christian schools in countries with large Muslim populations.
For a self-proclaimed secular country like France to fund foreign Christian schools would seem to contradict its policy on Islam and Muslims at home. Alas, we have all become so used to the double standards of Western powers that such contradictions rarely surprise us anymore.
Islamophobia becomes a default position
Western powers have a long history of preaching democracy at home and supporting tyrants and thugs abroad, and one could argue that France is engaging in this usual absent-minded hypocrisy. However, since the early 1990s, successive regimes in France have embarked on a crusade against expressions of Muslimness.
Many analysts assume that the Islamophobia of Macron is only an election ploy. However, this view neglects how Islamophobia does not retreat to the pre-election levels after each election campaign but settles, and the subsequent campaign extends it further.
As a result of this constant ratcheting, Islamophobia has spread from being the preserve of right-wing parties to becoming the default position of large sections of the French state and society across the political spectrum.
Islamophobia is being mainstreamed across the world
The effect of this normalization of Islamophobia ranges from police harassment and violence against Muslims, discrimination in employment opportunities, the use of numerous administrative processes to ban Muslim civil and human rights organizations, including, for example, the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, which recorded and reported on racism directed at Muslims. So not only has the French establishment promoted Islamophobic policies, but they have also sought to silence those who combat Islamophobia and raise awareness of its consequences.
It would be a mistake to see the intensification of Islamophobia in France as being isolated episodes. Islamophobia is being mainstreamed across the world. Ultra-nationalist regimes throughout the world are increasingly expressing their fears and desires through the language of Islamophobia. This mainstreaming means increasing convergence in the justifications that Islamophobes use to explain their discriminatory actions.
What is especially dangerous about the mainstreaming of Islamophobia in France is not only that it directly threatens the livelihoods of six million Muslims, but it has been fostered for decades in a well-known, established liberal democracy. Thus, showing that Islamophobia is not only associated with military dictatorships, totalitarian regimes, settler-colonies or dynastic despots. Liberalism and democracy have been complicit with colonialism and racism, and there is no reason that they cannot be complicit with Islamophobia.
Islamophobic policies as a form of racism
Islamophobia is not about hate against Muslims or disputes about matters of faith. It is a type of racism that targets behaviours and groups that are perceived to exhibit Muslimness. Islamophobia is not just about attacks on Muslims on the street by individuals; it is also about discrimination by institutions. Racism is not just beliefs that people carry in their heads; rather, it is a system of rule. What is crucial to it is not the existence of “races” but the process of racialization.
That is a process that converts social groupings into identifiable biological groups. For example, when Muslims go through airports, there is an entire system of surveillance that identifies them according to how they dress, how they appear, the countries they come from or go to, what they carry in their hand luggage, how they speak. The system of surveillance identifies Muslims not based on devotional status or individual intentions and characteristics but on whether they bear the marks of Muslimness.
Muslimness, however, is not simply a matter of hijabs, beards and halal food; it is increasingly seen as an identity that is connected across the globe rather than contained in the nation-state. The figure of a Muslim is presented as being anti-national; he is made to be a sign of dual loyalty, irredeemably alien, a sign that the nation is not whole.
A colonial nostalgia
Secularization means undoing Muslimness. Secularization is not the separation of the “church” from the state; in relation to Muslims, it means annexation by the state of Islamic institutions and their compulsory nationalization. Attempts to nationalize Muslims and cut them off from any sense of ummah-like solidarity is a feature of Islamophobic regimes across the world.
It is not the belief in secularism that drives the French regime but colonial nostalgia. Paris cannot come to terms with the decline of its place on the world stage and sees in the stubborn persistence of Muslimness an affront to its sense of an imagined self. The advance of Islamophobia in France as elsewhere in the world heralds the replacement of the promise of inclusive citizenship with apartheid of colonial rule.
If the FORIF were about reconciling Muslimness with French identity, it would have a structure that represents Muslim voices rather than being complicit with the silencing of Muslims. It would not be a body of regime appointees. It would accept that Islamophobia is the problem in France, not Muslimness. It would accept that Islamophobia is a type of racism and needs to be resisted, not promoted. It would recognize the struggle against Islamophobia is not just a struggle for justice for Muslims or those who are perceived to be Muslims or allies of Muslims rather, it is a struggle to preserve and expand the hard-won freedoms for all.
The writer is a member of staff.