The ILN Post: France and its Muslims – a dialogue of the deaf?

Author: Mohammed Amin MBE’s personal and career history and current activities are detailed on the “About Me” page of his personal website www.mohammedamin.com He is writing in a personal capacity.

In a short article, I can only provide a high-level overview of the key ideas. Expanding on the details, including looking at social attitudes survey data, is a task for academics and for think tanks such as the Islam & Liberty Network which I support with both time and money. If you care about these issues, please join us.

Fellow Muslims keep asking me why France seems to have a problem with Muslims. Very briefly, I think it is a case of the French state and many French Muslims being unable to understand each other.

What is happening and why?

On 2 October 2020 French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech “Fight against separatism – the Republic in action” whose official translation on the French Foreign Ministry website is over 9,300 words. Despite its length, I recommend reading it in full.

The most immediate reason for the speech is clearly the recent upsurge of terrorism in France committed by religiously motivated Muslims. The Wikipedia page “List of terrorist incidents in France” starts in 1800. I recommend scrolling down to March 2012, the killings by the radicalised French Muslim Mohammed Merah, to review the frequency of subsequent such attacks and the cumulative death toll.

Beyond such domestic terrorism, President Macron also expresses concern about the number of French born Muslims who have gone to Syria for example, “waging jihad”, and most importantly the goal of some Muslim groups to promote “separatism.”

Throughout his speech, President Macron is at pains to distinguish Islam and Islamism.

What is Islamism?

The word Islamism is so widely used as a term of abuse, like fascism, that it risks losing all coherent meaning. I first wrote about this a decade ago in my article “Why we need to stop using the word “Islamism””.

However, the word “Islamism” is too useful, and is clearly not going away. Accordingly, when using it you need to precise about what you mean. The best explanation of the relevant distinctions that I have seen is given by the book “The Genealogy of Terror: How to distinguish between Islam, Islamism and Islamist Extremism” by Dr Matthew L.N. Wilkinson, who is a Muslim. (I am not a neutral observer since I helped his work with both money and personal input.)

The previously linked review on my website explains the book, although it is of course no substitute for reading the full text. I have reproduced below the five worldviews that Dr Wilkinson explains in detail:

  1. The Worldview of Mainstream Islam: unity-in-diversity
  2. The Worldview of Activist Islam: diversity-in-unity
  3. The Worldview of Islamism: contingent separation and exaggerated difference
  4. The Worldview of Non-Violent Islamist Extremism: absolute Manichean separation
  5. The Worldview of Violent Islamist Extremism (VIE): absolute, eternal difference and separation with lethal consequences for the non-Muslim and wrong-Muslim out-groups

While I have no reason to believe that President Macron or his advisors have read the book, from his speech it is clear that he is not only concerned about (5) which is active terrorism. 

He is also concerned about (4) which calls for complete separation between Muslims and non-Muslims, and to some extent concerned about (3), a worldview which seeks to magnify differences between Muslims and non-Muslims, rather than focusing on what they have in common as French citizens.

I support the broad goals of President Macron when it comes to the integration of French Muslims. 

How has France performed with regard to integrating Muslims

Sadly, despite the best of intentions, France has handled integration very badly compared with other countries such as the UK and the USA. I first became personally aware of this in 2008 when I met some French Muslims in London at a networking event, when I was a partner in PricewaterhouseCoopers.

The quote below is from an article I wrote in 2013:

“About five years ago, I attended a networking session in London organised by a group of French Muslims. As I circulated, everyone I spoke with told me more or less the same story:

  • They were born or grew up in France, from an Arab immigrant background.
  • They went through the French school and university system.
  • Upon graduating, they could not get a proper “graduate job” in France no matter how hard they tried.
  • They came to London. Despite speaking English as their second or third language, very quickly they got good jobs in sectors such as banking or IT.
  • Each was certain that it was discrimination in France that stopped them getting a job, while white French people with similar qualifications got jobs readily.”

The article was “In praise of ethnic monitoring” written to explain how ethnic monitoring as practiced in the UK is an indispensable tool for identifying either deliberate or inadvertent discrimination, so that action can be taken. 

Ethnic monitoring is forbidden by French law. That reflects an ideology that all Frenchmen are equal, and therefore such monitoring is to be prohibited. 

The French state seems unwilling to recognise that this prohibition has the effect (presumably not intended) of allowing discrimination to fester without objective evidence to expose it. France also has painful historically based concerns about ethnic records. During World War 2 state held records of French Jews had the terrible effect of assisting the Nazis to identify French Jews for transport to the death camps.

France does of course have laws against discrimination. The problem is that the absence of reliable data makes it impossible to prove that the laws are not working in practice across society as a whole.

There is some interesting comparative data and analysis about French, American and British Muslims in the paper “Is Cultural Integration Determined by Income and Education? Evidence from Surveys of Muslims in Britain, France and the United States” by Justin Gest of George Mason University and Richard Nielsen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The paper is undated as far as I can tell but appears to be from around 2012.

A closer look at French and American secularism

The key French concept which lies at the heart of the issue is the French term “Laïcité.” 

This is often translated as “secularism”, as in the Wikipedia article “Secularism in France.” However, in the only footnote to President Macron’s speech linked above, the French Foreign Ministry makes a point of saying “laïcité goes beyond the concept of secularism, embracing the strict neutrality of the State.”

Laïcité lies at the heart of the French state’s concept of itself. 

The 1789 French Revolution was not just a revolt against the power of the monarchy; it was also a revolt against the power of the Roman Catholic Church. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy in 1814, for the next hundred years there was uneasy tension between the ideals that had motivated the French revolution and the role of the Church in French society. This was eventually resolved in 1905 by law, to separate church and state.

The USA is also a secular state. In the US Constitution, Article VI specifies “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” The First Amendment to the US Constitution begins “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” before going on to cover other issues such as freedom of the press.

However, the USA and France deal with religion very differently. 

Article II of the Constitution specifies the oath or affirmation to be taken by every incoming President: “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” It does not require it to be an oath, (since it can be an affirmation) let alone an oath taken upon a Bible, but every American President has, as far as I am aware, chosen to swear on a Bible. (Muslim Congressmen regularly use the Quran for their oaths of office.) 

In France it would be inconceivable for a new President to be sworn in on a Bible, since it would infringe laïcité.

The simplest way to summarise the difference between the two countries is that the USA believes in, and seeks to practice, freedom OF religion. France, as far as the state is concerned, believes in and seeks to practice freedom FROM religion.

This has many practical consequences. 

In the USA, the law protects the right of Muslim pupils to wear a hijab in school. In France, since 2004 wearing a hijab in a state school has been unlawful. The practical effect has been to alienate many French Muslims from the state. Similarly, President Macron’s new measures risk increasing this alienation.

My advice to the French state

France needs to accept that citizens who hold a religious faith wish to express that faith in their lives by following the faith’s requirements as they interpret them. That will often mean behaving in ways that French citizens who are atheists fail to understand.

To give some specific examples:

  • Women may wish to cover their heads in public spaces. That includes not just the open street, but also when they are on state property such as schools and government offices.
  • Women may wish to wear swimming costumes that cover more of their bodies than do most French women who are atheists.
  • Men / women may not wish to shake hand with women / men.
  • Religious believers may not wish to consume alcoholic drinks under any circumstances.
  • Religious believers may not wish to eat meat that has not been slaughtered in accordance with their religious requirements.

While Muslims are the most obvious, and numerically largest, group in France with such beliefs, they are not the only such group.

For example, Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) Jewish women also cover their hair in public, but normally do so by wearing a wig. Haredi Jewish men will not shake hands with women. Religious slaughter is a vital issue for practicing Jews, not just Muslims.

The French state needs to accept that its citizens wish to behave in this manner and should not seek to criminalise them when they do, or seek to make such conduct impossible. The state needs to accept that such conduct is not a sign of “separatism”,  and instead accept that all French citizens are free to follow their own behavioural norms as long as such behaviour does not cause direct harm to others.

The French state also needs to assess why France is failing to enforce its equality laws. It should remove the legal impediments to ethnic monitoring, and instead encourage its use as is done in the UK.

My advice to French Muslims

Based on my own life experiences in the UK, in January 2017 I wrote the article “Success tip: Integration advice for individual French (and British) Muslims.” The title contains “and British” in parenthesis because it was aimed at French Muslims, but the points are equally valid (with obvious adaptations) for British Muslims.

For brevity, I have not repeated those points here.

In the context of the recent terrorism in France, Muslims in France (and indeed everywhere else) need to accept that freedom of expression is a fundamental human right, one which takes priority over any alleged right (a right that I consider to not exist) to not be offended.

French Muslims need to accept that blasphemy is not unlawful in France, just as it is not unlawful in the UK. 

Accordingly, a magazine like Charlie Hebdo is free, rightly in my view, to publish anything it wishes about God, about Jesus, or about the Prophet Muhammad. No French Muslim is obliged to buy or to read Charlie Hebdo.

46 comments

  1. I absolutely agree that humans should be treated equally, but it’s also fair to say that in madrassas and similar all over the world, little kids are being indoctrinated with the idea that Islam is THE religion, and Allah and Mohammed are the only God and the only Prophet. With such a mindset did ISIS, Al-Qaeda, Taliban, Boko Haram, Al-Shabbab et al carry out their atrocities, and what links their violent actions with the Charlie Hebdo killers was the absolute certainty they were right, and everyone else was wrong.Theirs was a genuine belief that countless deaths of innocent civilians were necessary for the furtherance of their God, their Prophet and their Religion. And if you disagreed with their views you were considered to be not a ‘proper’ follower of the faith. Further, such murderous views were reinforced by quotations from the Qur’an and the hadith. In the face of these ultra-conservative views stemming from an already very conservative religion, it is unsurprising that the French authorities have taken the actions they have. The state’s duty is to protect it’s citizens. In Cheetham Hill, Manchester, a mile or two from my home, Jews and Muslims live alongside each other without seeming hostility, a good and positive situation. But should some future group of religious hotheads from either religion decide that this state of affairs was ‘wrong’ and against the ‘wishes’ of God or their prophet, it would not come as a surprise if violence was to break out. Such are the razor-edge risks of allowing one’s life to be run and controlled by imaginary and allegedly supernatural deities.

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