Muslims Recoil at a French Proposal to Change the Quran

Some of France’s most prominent figures, concerned about anti-Semitism, have signed a shocking manifesto aimed at curbing it.

Two young girls reading the Quran
Two girls read the Quran as they attend a Quran memorization lesson. (Mohammed Salem / Reuters)

A manifesto published in the French daily Le Parisien on April 21—signed by some 300 prominent intellectuals and politicians, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls—made a shocking demand. Arguing that the Quran incites violence, it insisted that “the verses of the Quran calling for murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and nonbelievers be struck to obsolescence by religious authorities,” so that “no believer can refer to a sacred text to commit a crime.”

Although it’s not entirely clear whether “struck to obsolescence” means wholesale deletion of verses, the manifesto was perceived as a call to abrogate Muslims’ holiest text. And although pushing for a theological reform of Islam in France is nothing new—everyone from leading imams to President Emmanuel Macron have made plans to restructure Islam—demanding that scriptural verses be deleted is another thing altogether. In Islam, the Quran is considered divinely revealed; because it’s deemed to be the word of God, altering or deleting any part of the text would be blasphemous.

The manifesto came a month after the grisly murder of Mireille Knoll, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor who was stabbed to death in her apartment in an act authorities are calling an anti-Semitic crime. Last year, Sarah Halimi, a 67-year-old, was beaten to death and thrown out of her window, in the same area where Knoll lived. Her attacker yelled “Allahu Akbar!” as he committed the act; Knoll’s reportedly did the same. It took judicial authorities nearly a year to label Halimi’s death an anti-Semitic crime.

France is home to the largest Jewish community in Europe. Since the early 2000s, French Jews have seen a rise in anti-Semitic acts, and although 2017 saw fewer overall incidents than 2016, those that did occur were more violent in nature. This wave of violence is part of what the manifesto’s signatories call a “new anti-Semitism”—new in that it is perpetrated not by the far right, but by French Muslims. The manifesto denounced what it characterized as the government and media’s refusals to recognize this “Muslim anti-Semitism.” It also labeled as “low-volume ethnic cleansing” the trends that have forced Jewish families to change neighborhoods, leaving suburbs, or banlieues, that are home to significant immigrant populations, and to pull their children from public schools.

The manifesto generated an immediate outcry among Muslims in France and beyond, with critics labeling its usage of the phrase “low-volume ethnic cleansing” hyperbolic and accusing it of homogenizing all Muslims. Days after the manifesto’s release, 30 imams signed a counter-letter in Le Monde. The Observatory for Islamophobia, an organization affiliated with the Egyptian government, described the manifesto as “hateful racism” that proves that “France is not a land that welcomes Islam.” The proposal to abrogate certain verses of the Quran was most controversial of all.

Tareq Oubrou, the prominent French imam who oversees the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux, called the characterization of the Quran “nearly blasphemous.” Viewing the scripture as anti-Semitic, he told me, is the falsified interpretation promoted by the very radicals France seeks to combat: “ignorant Muslims who remove texts from their historical context.” Furthermore, the notion that anti-Semitism is built into Islam is “theologically false,” he added. As monotheistic “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians enjoy a special status in Islamic law. Historically, they were considered protected dhimmi communities, which meant they were allowed to practice their own religions, although they were subject to a tax and various indignities that symbolized their subordination to Muslims.

Rather than calling for absolute violence, Oubrou said the Quran advocates for a “defensive combat, against aggressors, within a historical context.” For instance, one verse says, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture—[fight] until they give the jizya [tax] willingly while they are humbled.” The Quran, like many scriptures, is internally inconsistent on this and other matters. Oubrou argued that the problem is not religion itself—it’s that through radical, literalist interpretations of the Quran, “delinquents use the religion as a veneer for cheap crimes.” By demonizing the Quran as a text that contains anti-Semitism, he said, the manifesto casts a shadow on an entire religion, glossing over the role of interpretation and the other factors driving some young Muslims to develop hatred toward Jews.

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.”

Dlioueh stressed the importance of an “enlightened Islam”—and he considers it his daily job to foster that. “Imams are a shield against radicalization,” he said, and “we’re already working to that end—to promote tolerance, on the ground in rough neighborhoods, in our Friday sermons.” Rather than deeming certain verses dangerous, he said, Muslims should consider the entire text open to interpretation, and look to history as a reference for peaceful coexistence among Jews and Muslims (for example, in the Ottoman Empire).

Oubrou promotes what he terms a “preventive theology” that takes into account why so many young people are vulnerable to what he calls “erroneous interpretations of the Quran.” He acknowledges that any religious text can be used to justify violence; the goal is to recognize the source of that manipulation, and why it becomes so compelling.

Yet even if imams successfully promote a critical, contextualized reading of the Quran, the ability to fight anti-Semitism purely on the basis of religion is limited. Although many of the recent perpetrators of violence against French Jews have been Muslim, it would be overly simplistic to chalk the phenomenon up to religion alone. The gang leader who kidnapped 23-year-old Ilan Halimi in 2006, and held him hostage for two weeks, said he did it because “Jews have money,” drawing on the anti-Semitic tropes that have long plagued Jews. Those stereotypes are alive and well in France today: Survey data from 2016 reveal that 35 percent of French people believe Jews “have a particular rapport with money;” 40 percent think that “for French Jews, Israel counts more than France;” and 22 percent think that “Jews have too much power.”

The Quran, Oubrou said, can become a “pretext” to legitimize deeper feelings of disdain for Jews, which themselves can be fueled by a host of external factors—including social exclusion, a sense of being dominated, conspiracy theories, and a misinterpretation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The last one, he said, “has been transformed into a religious cause by both sides,” enabling it to be grafted onto the way Muslims and Jews see each other in France.

“Even if we delete verses that are being interpreted problematically, that won’t eradicate anti-Semitism if those concerned have hatred toward Jews,” Oubrou told me. The challenge, he added, is to “change the perception, not the text.”