The varied reactions of French Muslims to President Emmanuel Macron’s bill curb radical Islamism and strengthening the powers of the secular state have underscored the political minefield facing governments combating religious extremism.
Some Muslims in France have expressed outrage at what they see as an increasingly harsh strategy, echoing accusations of Islamophobia made by Turkish and Pakistani leaders, while others have expressed full support to the president.
Between these two extremes, some of France’s estimates 5.7 m citizens of Muslim origin – the largest such minority in Western Europe – are worried about rising tensions linked to recent Islamist terrorist attacks and the radicalization of young people whose parents or grandparents have immigrated from former French colonies in the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa.
Nagib Azergui, who heads a small political party he founded eight years ago called the Union of French Muslim Democrats, is one of Mr. Macron’s harshest critics. “We are truly second-class citizens, enemies of the Interior Ministry,” he said. “Islamophobia is exploding in our country.”
Mr Azergui said Mr Macron’s bill “to protect the principles of the republic” was part of a “witch hunt” which also included the closing of mosques and the closing of underground or unregistered schools . “They report anyone who is a practicing Muslim as a potential terrorist in France.”
New legislation, which has yet to be debated in the National Assembly and does not mention specific religious groups, bans “virginity certificates”, curbs home schooling, bans gender segregation in swimming pools public and protects officials from hate speech online – a measure introduced after Professor Samuel Paty was beheaded in the street outside his school in October by a young Islamist furious for using cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in a classroom on freedom of expression.
For Mr. Azergui, the law is an example of “Islamo-diversion”, of a government attacking Muslims to hide its incompetence, while the mention of virginity certificates is an insulting cliché. “The Muslim community doesn’t do that kind of tribal stuff anymore,” he says. “This is not the reality of French society.”
Fatiha Agag-Boudjahlat, a Toulouse teacher whose ancestors emigrated from Algeria, takes the exact opposite, hailing the law, rejecting the Muslim “patriarchy” and criticizing Americans and other Westerners who espouse “identity politics” and consider Muslims minorities in France as victims of an authoritarian secular state under Mr. Macron.
“As a daughter of immigrants, I am very happy to be treated as a citizen and not as a Muslim,” she said. “I want to have access to the same emancipation as white women. . . We are not identities, we are people. I don’t have a ‘Muslim’ brain or a ‘Muslim’ womb. “
She added: “I think this is the most ambitious bill since the 2010 law banning masks on the streets. . . Finally, we resist the Islamists and the Anglo-Saxons [from abroad]. France is attacked on both fronts.
Mr Macron and his government have put a lot of emphasis on what they say is Islamist influence in 15 districts across France that have been identified since 2018 as areas of “republican recapture”.
Hassen Chalghoumi, a moderate imam from Drancy, northeast of Paris, who supports Mr. Macron and campaigned against anti-Semitism among Muslims, has no doubts about the dangers of extremism and the “no-go zones” where radicals dominate. He has received death threats multiple times on social media, is protected by government bodyguards around the clock and says he sometimes wears a bulletproof vest when preaching.
“This law is not against Muslims, but against Islamists,” he said. “If the government doesn’t respond like that, we will head into civil war. There is a rise in hatred and racism. ”
Opponents of the law, however, insist that the government misunderstands or deliberately misrepresents the problem by equating religious devotion with violent extremism.
“We have to understand that we have a common enemy: Islamists and terrorists,” Azergui said. “All these people who turned to terrorism did not go to mosques. These are people who are really on the margins of society.
Tareq Oubrou, an imam of Moroccan descent from Bordeaux who once adhered to the Puritan principles of Salafism and the Muslim Brotherhood but has since adopted more moderate views, said the way Muslims lived and worshiped in France tended to to separate them from the rest of society and put them at risk of radicalization.
Muslims – a disparate community in France that includes Moroccans, Algerians, Turks, sub-Saharan Africans, Islamists and radical secularists – feel vulnerable and “stigmatized,” he added.
There are areas where the analyzes of Muslim authorities and leaders converge. They agree, for example, that prisons and detention centers have been a dangerous breeding ground for the radicalization of young Muslims, as is the case in other countries. And there is a consensus that the last generation of people of immigrant Muslim origin feel more and more distant from the French customs adopted by their parents and grandparents.
According to a IFOP opinion poll in October, 57% of French Muslims under 25 think sharia law is more important than French republic law – a 10 percentage point increase from four years ago.
“There is a fanaticism, a religious orthodoxy that is on the rise in the new generation,” Ms. Agag-Boudjahlat said.