A New Plan to Create an 'Islam of France'

Can a French government effort to remake a religion succeed without buy-in from the country’s diverse Muslim communities?

Khaloar Abdarahim holds a placard reading "Not in my name" as he poses inside the Arrahma Mosque in Nantes, France, in 2014.
Khaloar Abdarahim holds a placard reading "Not in my name" as he poses inside the Arrahma Mosque in Nantes, France, in 2014. (Stephane Mahe / Reuters)

When French President Emmanuel Macron said in an interview last month that he plans to “set down markers on the entire way in which Islam is organized in France,” he wasn’t making an unprecedented announcement. Rather, he was pledging to succeed where his predecessors have failed.

Successive governments since the 1980s have tried to create a brand of Islam particular to France, with the dual objective of integrating the country’s Muslim minority and fighting Islamist extremism. The goal has been to create an Islam that both conforms to national values, notably secularism, and is immune to the radical interpretations that have gained a footing in certain parts of the Muslim world. Ironically, past attempts to codify a sort of French Islam—transforming Islam in France to an Islam of France—have been deeply entangled with French Muslims’ countries of origin, especially Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey. In 2015, for example, then-President François Hollande signed a deal with the Moroccan monarchy to send French imams to a training institute in Rabat.

The result is a crisis of representation and legitimacy. Existing organizations, affiliated with the state or otherwise, don’t represent the diverse Muslim communities in France. This undermines the integration of Muslims into the broader society and, according to Macron’s government, creates space for dangerous ideologies. At the same time, many Muslims consider a top-down approach to manage Islam domesticating or patronizing, particularly in light of France’s unresolved colonial legacy in the Arab-Muslim world—a way to assimilate Islam to the point of invisibility.

There’s another reason why observers may look upon state-run efforts with skepticism. The primary objective—rarely stated explicitly and often folded into rhetorical platitudes about social cohesion—is clear: fighting radicalization. “It’s always implied that a French Islam is a moderate one, opposed to terrorism,” said Olivier Roy, a scholar on Islam and professor at the European University Institute in Florence. “But what does it mean for a religion to be moderate?”

France’s estimated 6 million Muslims—8 percent of the population—are at the core of a contemporary reckoning over national identity in a country that holds fast to laïcité, or state secularism, the 1905 legal principle that separated church and state and mandated the state’s neutrality on religion. More recently, that debate has been grafted onto the fight against Islamist extremism, and this month’s attacks in the southern cities of Carcassone and Trèbes, committed by a man of Moroccan origin who was naturalized in 2004, have further deepened public anxieties. Since 2013, at least 1,700 French nationals have joined the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria; citizens were behind several of the attacks France faced in 2015 and 2016. But the national angst about Islam’s very compatibility with the French Republic dates at least as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, when immigrants who had come as temporary workers from former French colonies (particularly in North Africa) began to settle permanently in France. That reality unleashed a series of state attempts to manage Muslim integration.

“The Muslim community is tired and disappointed with a series of ridiculous and humiliating offers,” M’hammed Henniche, the president of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis—a majority-Muslim district northeast of Paris—told me, referring to policies that have tethered French Islam to the Arab world.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith, which then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy created in 2003, exemplifies that grievance. According to a 2016 survey, barely a third of French Muslims even know what it is, and its opaque leadership structure disproportionately represents entities tied to Algeria, Morocco, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar. Other organizations have close ties to Algeria, Morocco or the Muslim Brotherhood.

Yet it’s no surprise that, in trying to institutionalize Islam, French officials outsourced religious affairs. “The state can’t interfere in the management of religion or in theological questions,” said Roy. “Yet, for 30 years, French governments have tried to do just that. The whole project is a profound contradiction,” he said, in which a staunchly secular state cobbles together a plan to harbor its own national Islam.

Although the objective to reorganize French Islam isn’t new, Macron’s initiative is distinct in both circumstance and outlook. “Macron entered office in 2015, on the heels of recent terrorist attacks,” said Bernard Godard, who, from 1997 to 2014, served as the Interior Ministry’s in-house expert on Islam. “For French public opinion, organizing Islam needs to be a security question” and assuage fears that, according to a January survey, preoccupy the nation. “But concretely, we don’t know what that means.”

One of Macron’s plans is to break with foreign funding in order to disentangle Muslim organizations in France from other countries. Another proposal centers on training imams. Whereas past governments, like Hollande’s, looked to allies such as Morocco—“an Islam we know,” as Godard put it—Macron has suggested training imams at home. In keeping with secularism, the training would be in cultural values, not religious texts, in order to foster a generation of imams “made in France.”

Yet levying a national training program to fight radicalization presupposes that the imams preaching hatred are in fact foreign. That’s hardly the case; currents like Salafism have gained momentum in France. “It’s illogical to say that’s due to an Islam from the Maghreb or elsewhere,” said Godard. “We need to recognize that in France, there’s a French Salafi Islam.” Some of the most dangerous imams, he added, are French, and preach in French.

The lessons drawn from recent terrorism challenge the notion that an inherently moderate French Islam—if it’s even possible to create one from the top—could serve as a bulwark against extremism. French academics have clashed over the drivers of radicalization, but significant evidence points to their non-religious undertones. That’s not to imply that Islam has no role in the spread of radical ideas. But the young men behind the massacres in Paris or Nice were not pious Muslims who regularly attended mosques, even though they killed in the name of the religion. Instead, attackers tend to have histories of petty crime, serving brief stints in prison, where they are often exposed to extremist ideologies. Others radicalize online, where recruiters for groups like the Islamic State thrive. Redouane Lakdim—the Carcassone and Trèbes attacker—fit that profile: He had been jailed in 2015 and 2016 for firearms and drug possession, respectively, and was known to be active on Salafi websites.

“The idea that if all of the imams in France embrace a moderate Islam there will be no more terrorism is ridiculous and irrelevant,” Roy told me, adding that France couldn’t constitutionally replace Salafi imams with “moderate” ones without violating the neutrality mandated by the 1905 law. Still, the recent attack has led some opposition politicians to demand a “ban on Salafism.” It’s unclear what that would entail and whether it would be legally feasible, not to mention effective as a counterterrorism measure.

Roy considers the government’s dogged focus on religion to be “ideological”—the product of an increasingly hardline laïcité in which religion, and Islam in particular, disappears from the public space. That reactionary bent was particularly prominent under Hollande, whose prime minister, Manuel Valls, seized on the terrorist attacks to advance an anti-religious agenda in the name of security, notably with his 2016 attempt to ban burqinis on beaches.

Valls, who recently called Islam a “problem” for France, is not a fringe voice. And although Macron has tried to temper the debate around laïcité and Islam—warning against a “radicalization of laïcité,” which some considered a veiled reference to the former prime minister and his numerous followers—he’s in the minority, both in his government and among the public. One of the scholars Macron plans to consult on Islam, Gilles Kepel, is a member of the Printemps Républicain (Republican Spring), a group of intellectuals and journalists who, from the left, advance an agenda in keeping with Valls’s views. According to a February survey, 43 percent of the public considers Islam “incompatible with the values of the Republic.” That’s down from 56 percent in 2016, but is still a testament to just how divisive Islam has become, complicating any attempt to institutionalize or manage the religion in a way that is both politically palatable and doesn’t alienate Muslims themselves.

That raises the question of legitimacy. While the spike in anti-Muslim sentiment that followed the 2015 and 2016 attacks has significantly receded, many Muslims say this prejudice is still pervasive both socially and legally. They cite, for example, a 2004 law that bans religious symbols in public schools (including symbols of religions other than Islam), a 2010 ban on the full-face veil in public, and, as of January, a ban on religious garb in the National Assembly. For some Muslims, then, the very notion of a French Islam created by the state may seem like a continuation of policies they see as tools of assimilation that are stifling religious expression.

According to Hakim El-Karoui, a fellow at the Institut Montaigne think tank and one of the experts Macron intends to consult, the state should enable the emergence of a French Islam, not create one itself. He applauds Macron’s objective to distance French Islam from the Arab world, and believes it should go even farther: “I’m proposing that we shift responsibility to French Muslims who have no interest other than that of France,” he told me, referring to those he calls “silent Muslims”—members of the middle class and elite.

But that might not be so easy. “Many Muslims who have managed to climb the social ladder don’t want to be linked to Islam, too frequently associated with jihad, or the banlieues,” said Roy, referring to the often impoverished suburbs that surround French cities.

El-Karoui, who is Muslim, isn’t convinced that the “silent Muslims” will shy away from the task, but acknowledges that the challenge is long-term. For him, it’s about drowning out the extremist ideologies that have managed to conquer the radio waves. “On social media, or in the public debate, who talks about Islam, who talks about religion? The Islamic State on the one hand, and Salafis on the other,” he said. That’s somewhat of an exaggeration, but those groups are the loudest, with well-oiled PR machines that overpower the smattering of other, disunited actors. “We need another public narrative on Islam,” El-Karoui said, adding that this could help reduce anti-Muslim sentiment, chipping away at a faulty conflation of Islam and terrorism.

But it’s unclear whether the mobilization El-Karoui envisions will include the Muslims who embrace rather than downplay their religious distinctiveness, and have even—perhaps in a jab to laws like the 2004 ban on headscarves in public schools—redeployed religious symbols in order to combat perceived discrimination. When I raised this with him, he described the headscarf as a decisive emblem of Islamism, the political ideology that has inspired violence, not Islam, the religion. The women who wear it, in his view, should recognize that the symbol they associate with their religion in fact represents a nefarious political ideology.

Yet that would be a tough sell. While the Quran doesn’t require women to wear the headscarf, that isn’t necessarily relevant to those who wear it. Many girls affected by the 2004 law, for example, feel rejected by a restrictive vision of what it means to be French. In an interview, Linda Merzouk, an 18-year-old who removes her headscarf daily before entering her high school in eastern Paris, lamented an obligation to “leave an integral part of [herself] at home,” and described the ban as an “infringement on religious freedom” that “closes doors” for her in French society. That perception of being sidelined could fuel the narrative of victimization that the likes of the Islamic State have so effectively manipulated to sway young people.

For now, Macron has only laid the groundwork. A break with foreign funding would at least in part disentangle Muslim institutions from foreign interests. But if the goal is to protect France from violent ideas preached in the name of Islam, a one-size-fits-all approach—especially imposed from above, with little attention to the demands of France’s diverse Muslim communities—may be missing the mark.

For Roy, that much is clear. “We’re in the process of trying to organize a religion that concerns six million people in France, in order to prevent 200 of them from becoming terrorists. Can’t we see that it’s absurd?” he said. And while he agrees that the current situation is untenable, any shift will require legitimacy if it’s to be successful. “It’s up to Muslims to take the lead. It’s their historic mission.”