A recent law passed in France's National Assembly aims to strengthen republican principles by curbing "Islamist separatism". To evaluate its measures, it is worth considering the situation of Muslims in the country.
A plurality of France's six million Muslims is well embedded in society and is in the process of inventing a 21st-century method of practising Islam that combines individual preferences with collective practices. Some, often first-generation immigrants, have kept the values of their country of origin but do not want to impose them on the rest of society.
But another group, which includes, worryingly, 45 per cent of young people under 25 – according to a survey conducted by the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne – has a very conservative vision of an Islamic identity that goes far beyond the commonly accepted tenets of the religion. For this group, defending their vision of religion is to defend their identity and their place in society.
The vast majority of French Muslims live in the context of the country's integration process. It is both demanding and ambitious – demanding because it involves changing one's culture, and ambitious because at the end of the road society allows a whole new citizen to join the community. But integration is, by its very nature, a messy process of transition, often brought about through tension and misunderstanding, at times even between generations of the same family. The "identity quests" of some young teenagers from immigrant communities are, therefore, an unsurprising manifestation of this messiness.
It is ripe for exploitation by extremist zealots, who often try to appeal to teenagers who feel detached from their national identity. They are told that perhaps they do not feel entirely French, Senegalese, Moroccan or Algerian, but they are unambiguously Muslim, and so Islam can serve as their cultural and political framework. It also grants access to the universalist identity that France often preaches but does not always uphold. The universalist nature of Islam is undoubtable. And yet, ironically, it is exploited by extremists to sell young people on a version of it that caters specifically to their rebellious politics. Their idea of faith becomes harder, more demanding and more austere because it is meant to be symbol of purity and resistance. It is easy to see why some lawmakers might fear these sentiments will encourage separatism.
Although legislative action alone will never really be enough to defeat extremism, the National Assembly's law offers much that will ultimately benefit the Muslim community. It regulates home schooling and the financing of religious associations; protects public officials and takes measures against online harassment; and curbs certain behaviours, including virginity tests and forced marriages, that are often falsely claimed to be religious doctrines but are really political and cultural practices that can cause harm. Mosques and the imams and other staff who work in them will also see more scrutiny over how they are paid and by whom.
These proposals will be useful in fighting the power of extremist ideology. But it fails to address some of the broader processes that contribute to the problem. One is that native-born French people and new immigrants do not interact across all areas of daily life as regularly as they should. They miss out on opportunities to get to know one another. Immigrants are increasingly concentrated in the same neighbourhoods. For instance, the proportion of immigrants in Seine-Saint-Denis, a Paris suburb, rose from 15 per cent to 30 per cent between 1982 and 2015, while at the same time the percentage of immigrants in the French population rose from seven per cent to nine per cent. Moreover, these neighbourhoods are chronically underfunded.
Efforts to prevent extremism from taking root are also underfunded. France's Court of Audit estimates that between 2015 and 2019 more than €9 billion ($10.6bn) were spent on the fight against terrorism but only a few tens of millions on prevention. Yet, the ideological fight is now necessary to stem the rise of extremism and if the state cannot finance it, it must at least help Muslims to organise themselves to do so. This explains the importance for Muslims in France to have a financing system that will allow, on the one hand, to carry out theological work to promote the emergence of a practice of Islam that is firmly rooted in French life and, on the other hand, to finance religious organisations locally so that they are less vulnerable to foreign influence.
Finally, there is today a new generation of Muslims who carry a progressive and reformist discourse but who are constantly attacked. Those who reject the very idea that Islam can exist in France accuse them of concealing malicious intentions towards the national community. Conversely, extremists treat them as misguided or even renegades. It is necessary for the state to protect these new voices and to promote a climate of calm dialogue. It is also up to other Muslims to mobilise with them against extremism.
Working today on Islam in France requires debate but also an earnest open-mindedness that accepts – even cherishes – complexity. As the French poet and resistance figure Rene Char once said, we must often stand "on the dividing line between light and shadow". But in today's France, both sides of the fight, progressive and conservative, have their own shadowy corners in the form of racism and religious extremism. Manning the line is becoming more difficult but all the more important.