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Islam in France

10/05/2004 | by Camus, Jean-Yves  

France is a country with a population of 60 million where Churches and State are separated since 1905, which means, among other things, that asking people about their religious affiliation in a population census is forbidden. However, it is believed that between 4 and 5 million Moslems, whether foreign residents or citizens, live here, compared to roughly 600,000 Jews .[1] After the bombings of September 11th, 2001, as elsewhere, France has had its share of often-harsh controversy about the compatibility of Islam with the values of the Republic and Western-type democracy. Some marginal, but very vocal voices, within the Jewish community and conservative right circles close to the Jewish political right, have openly questioned the possibility for Moslems to fully integrate into French society, and even compared Islamic fundamentalism to national-socialism, which is both irrelevant and dangerous.

France has a large Moslem population, which lives here to stay, and most of the young Moslems are now French citizens. This situation is the result of history: France has been a colonial power and still retains overseas territories; Algeria was French until 1962, Morocco and Tunisia until 1956. Furthermore, the Moslems were predominant in most of the African countries that were granted independence at the beginning of the 1960s. The Comoro Islands were a colony until 1976, and the now Republic of Djibouti, until 1977. As a consequence, it is likely that one will find a Moslem association, mosque or prayer room, catering to the needs of a specific ethnic group from those countries, in the major cities, and in the first place, in the Paris area. To the population coming from former French colonies, one should add the numerous immigrant communities from the Balkans, Turkey and the Indian subcontinent that follow Islam, certainly making France the second place in Europe when it comes to diversity and strength, after the United Kingdom.

Putting fears and ignorance, which lead to prejudice, aside, this is the reason why it is time for the Jewish communal institutions to have a clear picture of French Islam in 2003. Although the wave of anti-Semitic incidents, which took place here since the beginning of the Intifada Al Aqsa, marked an all-time high since the Second World War—and although many of the identified perpetrators are Moslems—the overwhelming majority of the community rejects violence, even among the fundamentalists. And the very strident anti-Zionism of many exponents of the Palestinian cause, which gathered crowds of several tens of thousands at demonstrations in support of the Intifada, often has more to do with Arab nationalism than with Islam. Before starting our description of the trends within French Islam, we have to choose the vocabulary we shall use with great care.

In a must-read essay, Olivier Roy wrote that the Islamist movements, such as the Muslim Brothers, the Turkish Refah Partisi, the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the Sudanese Hassan al Tourabi or the Iranian Revolution, “see Islam as a true political ideology which makes possible the building of the Islamic society through the State.”[2] On the other hand, he thinks that those who go back to their Muslim roots (what he calls “re-islamisation”) are “neo-fundamentalists”, because their main concern is the practical aspects of the implementation of shariah in one’s everyday life, not building the Islamic State. However strange this may sound, it is true that neither the Afghani Taleban, nor the Salafi in the Paris suburbs, nor Bin Laden himself, have ever expressed what looks like a political platform.

Following Roy, we have also restricted the use of the words “radical Islam” to the Jihadist-type groups which are an offspring of the neo-fundamentalist movement that is, the Al Qaida network, Hizb ut-Tahrir and the jihadist branch of the Salafi school of thought, which is represented in the United Kingdom by sheikh Abu Hamza al Masri of the Finsbury Park mosque, but is almost non-existent in France. Finally, we have deliberately chosen not to describe the various terrorist cells and networks which have been dismantled by the French intelligence services, in order to delve more deeply into the intricacies of those movements which have a public activity. In order to do so, we have conducted field research, between August 2001 and February 2003, in places of worship, demonstrations and various public expressions of the Muslim faith. Some of the information contained in this report has been previously published as articles in the French Jewish weekly newspaper Actualit? Juive .[3]

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