Should France Have Its Own Version of Islam?

With Marine Le Pen headed to the second round of elections, a top imam says he understands why some voters fear Muslims.

Marine Le Pen, one of two remaining candidates in the French presidential election, attends a recent political rally in Chateauroux, France.
Marine Le Pen, one of two remaining candidates in the French presidential election, attends a recent political rally in Chateauroux, France. (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

With France’s first round of voting complete, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen is among the final two contenders for the presidency, along with centrist Emmanuel Macron. Given how often Le Pen invoked the specter of Islamic fundamentalism throughout her campaign, one might expect French Muslims to be worried about the potential for her to win the May 7 runoff.

But Tareq Oubrou, the popular imam of Bordeaux’s Grand Mosque and a prominent theologian, told me he is not concerned. Nor does he blame those elements in French society that harbor fears of Islam. The morning after the results were announced, he spoke about “legitimate fears” among the French, and seemed to put the burden on Muslims to make Islam more compatible with France and its strong flavor of state secularism, known as laïcité.

Oubrou, who was born in Morocco, is a leading advocate of progressive Islam. Beloved among France’s political elite, he preaches in French as well as in Arabic, critiques the veil or headscarf, insists that Islam is compatible with French ideals at the deepest level, and shrugs off the death threats he gets from radicals.

“It’s religion’s job to institute reform and to respect the laws of the republic,” Oubrou told me, before going on to explain how he and other imams are working to create a new French Islam. This reformed religion, complete with what he calls a “preventive theology,” is meant to be, if not terrorist-proof, at least resistant to being coopted by fundamentalists. Our conversation, which I translated from the French, has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Sigal Samuel: What do you make of the results of the first round of voting?

Tareq Oubrou: These results were expected; they weren’t a big surprise. But the rise of the National Front is an indicator that French society is in crisis, an economic and identity crisis. The same questions that animate America—globalization, unemployment, terrorism—these questions play an important role in our elections today. French society is scared of Islam, is scared of terrorism, and the advance of the National Front is a sign of that fear.

Samuel: How do you feel about a potential Le Pen victory and its impact on Muslims?

Oubrou: It doesn’t worry me. The National Front’s main issue is with immigration, not French Muslims. And Le Pen can’t change the law. French society will react. It doesn’t accept racism. Just because Le Pen is in government, doesn’t mean society will go along with anything.

But I don’t think the National Front will govern. … It’s not easy to govern when you don’t have the experience and you don’t have a clear plan. How do you leave Europe? How do you isolate yourself from the world? How can you definitively seal the borders? Politicians promise a lot of things, but once they gain power they realize that the reality is very complex. We saw this with Trump: He promised to withdraw from the world, but reality is catching up to him—he has to engage with the world, otherwise there’s chaos.

Samuel: How would a Macron victory impact Muslims?

Oubrou: Macron didn’t play off identity issues. He portrayed himself as the candidate of Europe, of open identity. He has talked about the need to fight terrorism, but rarely about Islamism. I don’t know his mind, but from his declarations it seems he has no problem with Islam—the problem is terrorism.

But what counts for Muslims is what’s happening in society, over and above the politicians. … The French don’t understand religious practice because their own traditions are so, so secular. For them, any Muslim practice is a form of Islamism. This prejudice gets reflected by many politicians, on the right as on the left.

Samuel: Several candidates in this election suggested that the assimilation of Muslims in France is a major problem. How do you respond to that?

Oubrou: I understand it. A French person who is scared of Islam—I understand it. If I were a Frenchman who didn’t know Islam, I’d also be scared, because every time they talk about Islam it’s in terms of terrorism. There are legitimate fears. It’s legitimate to be scared when you hear about people who kill in the name of God and in the name of Islam. You’re going to ask yourself: The Muslim next to me, isn’t he at risk of becoming a fundamentalist and a terrorist? So the idea circulates that every Muslim, even if he’s nice, risks becoming a fundamentalist or terrorist. Prejudices circulate and fear is the response. How can you prevent that?

There are Islamic practices that haven’t been adapted to French culture. The French don’t understand that. And Muslims don’t manage to explain why they do these practices. So ignorance leads a minority of French people to be scared. Take the question of women, for example. A certain way of practicing the religion gives the impression that Islam doesn’t give women their rights. There are prejudices that sometimes get confirmed by the behavior of a certain number of Muslims. When a woman goes to the hospital in labor and refuses to be examined by a male doctor, in France they don’t understand this. It’s bizarre! It’s enough for this to happen twice in a hospital for people to start asking themselves questions.

Samuel: So do you believe that some of the fears French society has about Muslims are legitimate?

Oubrou: It’s not a question of legitimate or illegitimate. These are feelings. We’re talking about fear.

Islam is poorly understood, poorly explained, and people are scared of what they don’t understand. The question of the headscarf, of religious visibility in public spaces—France has a particular history with religion, and we need to take that into consideration. France has lived through wars between religions—Protestants, Catholics—in its past. French laïcité was constructed in opposition to Catholicism, which dominated society, so religious visibility in public spaces is still viewed as threatening. Muslims need to make an effort to adapt to the culture.

Samuel: Is it that Muslims need to adapt to French society or that French society needs to do more to understand Muslim practices?

Oubrou: First and foremost, it’s Muslims who need to adapt. That’s obvious. The woman who refuses to be examined by a male doctor—that’s not Islam. The problem is that many Muslims do things in the name of Islam that have nothing to do with Islam. Or, it’s one interpretation. But we should choose the more adapted interpretation.

Samuel: How do you respond to critics who suggest that by trying so hard to prove compatibility with and fidelity to the state, you’re falling into the trap of Islamophobia?

Oubrou: It’s not like that. You just have to be normal! If you’re Muslim, even if you’re in America, you have to adapt to succeed. You can’t just show up to work in Middle Eastern clothing, for example.

Samuel: At a certain point, does this become a self-defeating exercise in trying to be more French than the French? Would the minority of Muslims who voted for Le Pen be an example of this?

Oubrou: No. Each one has his reasons. For example, there are second-generation French Muslims who are unemployed, and who see new Muslim workers coming in from their home country, Algeria, and taking their place. So they’re against immigration, because the immigrants are taking their jobs.

Samuel: In your opinion, what should France’s Muslim leaders be doing to fight radicalization?

Oubrou: We need to pay attention to the training of imams. The terrorist acts have been a shock for imams, and they are starting to take this very seriously. There’s already an intense crisis of conscience: We can’t let our children keep getting seduced online and elsewhere, we have to make an effort to prevent radicalization. Many imams are trying to better explain the Islamic texts that the terrorists use to recruit youth. They’re mobilizing to respond to these interpretations. There’s a theological response underway.

Samuel: Do you think most French people know that imams are fighting this way?

Oubrou: They have no idea. Because there’s no information. Mass media only covers things that aren’t working. And we all know how politicians exploit and aggravate problems so they can propose the solution.

Samuel: How are you personally working to make Islam more compatible with the secular values of France?

Oubrou: I myself am working on [an intellectual framework that I call] “the sharia of the minority”—how to adapt Islam, theologically speaking. Muslim theology in France must do the work of acculturating Islam, adapting it to French culture. It’s possible to simplify Islam and preserve what’s important to the Muslim tradition and respect French law and culture. There are a number of Muslims working on a theology of adaptation, to adapt Islam to the West in general and to France in particular.

I am also working on a “preventive theology”—how to elaborate a religious discourse that won’t lend itself to terrorism or fundamentalism.

Samuel: Would it be fair to call your project a reformation?

Oubrou: Yes, it’s a reformation. But it’s always been like this: Every time Islam found itself in a new historical context, it adapted. All religions adapt. Why not Islam?

We need to take into consideration how long it takes to integrate, though. It doesn’t happen in an instant. Islam is a religion that has only relatively recently established itself in France. Simply adapting the theology won’t make people adapt—you need time, too.

Samuel: Do you believe that eventually this will happen, that Muslims will fully integrate into society and the rest of French society will accept them?

Oubrou: Yes, yes, yes. I’m confident. With time, there will be a solid integration.