That response didn’t sit well with the manifesto’s defenders. “The problem is that Islamists refer to the same texts as ordinary Muslims,” said signatory Pierre-André Taguieff, a research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research who has published extensively on anti-Semitism. Samy Ghozlan, a signatory who formerly served as police commissioner in the Paris banlieues and who founded a hotline for anti-Semitism, defended the manifesto’s willingness to “name the problem,” and its call for theological reform. “In Islam,” he said, “believers are instructed to respect the Quran—there’s no room for commentary.”
That’s not how many imams see it. “The text might be the same, but the way it’s understood varies, as is the case for any text,” Abdallah Dlioueh, the imam of Valence, told me. “The Quran doesn’t tell anyone to be racist or anti-Semitic—in fact it expresses deep respect for Jewish figures such as Moses. But a minority of Muslims fall into a misreading,” he went on. “By promoting one vision of those verses, the manifesto makes the same error as terrorists.”
Oubrou and Dlioueh were among 30 imams who signed a letter in Le Monde voicing indignation with “the confiscation of [their] religion by criminals,” a reference to those who preach violence, from certain Salafi imams to online recruiters associated with groups like the Islamic State. The authors expressed the consternation they feel—as both French citizens and Muslims—as they watch “Islam fall into the hands of an ignorant, disturbed, and idle youth” who have become “easy prey for ideologues” preaching hatred and inspiring anti-Semitic violence.
Although the letter was published amid a heated debate over anti-Semitism, the conversation about Islam’s theological role in driving terrorism isn’t new. As France has struggled to grapple with terrorist attacks—often at the hands of nationals—scholars have clashed over what exactly prompted young men to kill concertgoers at Paris’s Bataclan theatre in November 2015 or drive a truck into a packed promenade in Nice the following July. Are jihadis devout Muslims who see violence as a religious obligation, or are they rebels—petty criminals and dropouts dismayed by their socioeconomic hardships—in search of a cause?
The answer is likely some combination of both; jihadist terrorism neither has nothing to do with Islam—as some have said following attacks while urging against scapegoating of Muslims—nor is it an exclusively religious phenomenon. This debate aside, the Le Monde letter was a recognition that, despite the nonreligious factors driving violence in the name of Islam, religious authorities have a role to play in fighting it.
But that needn’t mean abrogating certain verses of the Quran. Some Muslim scholars encourage believers to approach the Quran through a critical lens, putting it in historical context and recognizing its limitations. “A lack of human intelligence is blocking Islam today,” Razika Adnani, a scholar of Islam and member of the Foundation for Islam of France, told me. “Conservatives promote an idea that everything is in the texts, blocking human thought,” she added, and urged Muslims to “work to make Islam a religion of today.”