Macron is 'rebranding' French Islam - he must do so in good faith

A new charter between France's government and Muslim leaders could be the starting point for constructive dialogue
A couple look at the Eiffel Tower from the Debilly footbridge over the river Seine, at sunset on January 17, 2021, in Paris. / AFP / Martin BUREAU

Images of the state funeral of Samuel Paty, a schoolteacher murdered in a Paris suburb in a terrorist attack last October, showed France's steadfast commitment to its core values of freedom of speech and secularism. Paty's killing is one in a string of similarly brutal attacks to hit the country in recent years. His death also hurried President Emmanuel Macron's push to agree a new charter between the state and religious leaders from the country's Muslim community advocating "enlightened" practice of the religion in France.

The document, signed on Saturday, addresses foreign infiltration of extremist and political Islamist ideology, asserts gender equality, rejects the concept of apostasy and emphasises the protection of minority groups against hatred falsely justified in the name of religion. From now on, all of France's Muslim preachers will have to agree to these requirements.

Defining a national brand of Islam is unprecedented in the history of Europe, which has traditionally avoided attempts to shape the manner in which Muslims interpret the spiritual tenets of their faith.

epa08924239 (From L) French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin and Mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo pay their respects outside Charlie Hebdo's former offices in Paris, France, 07 January 2021, during a ceremony marking the sixth anniversary of the jihadist attack of the satirical magazine that killed 12 people. The attack on the weekly -- with its long history of mocking Islam and other religions -- was the first in a series of assaults that have claimed more than 250 lives since 07 January 2015, mostly at the hands of young French-born jihadists.  EPA/THOMAS COEX / POOL  MAXPPP OUT
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There are other social issues to address if Mr Macron truly wants to weaken extremism in the country

State involvement in regulating doctrine does not, as some claim, necessarily go against the value of religious freedom. Enlightenment and tolerance are already promoted within most of the global Muslim community and in much of Islam's history. Rather than constituting state overreach, empowering religious tolerance will realise the unique role faith can play in building a better society.

Constructive co-operation between government and religious leaders is common in many Islamic societies. The UAE, for example, is building the Abrahamic House for Human fraternity which aims at being a beacon for understanding and peaceful coexistence. UAE initiatives led to Pope Francis and Ahmad Al Tayyeb, Grand Imam of Al Azhar University signing the Document of Human Fraternity.

The historic moment in Abu Dhabi showed that doctrinal clarity on issues of peaceful coexistence is an important part of combatting extremism. In France, however, there are other social issues to address if authorities truly want to weaken extremism in the country.

The conditions in which some of the nation's poorest citizens and migrants, many of them Muslim, live are dangerously conducive to radicalisation. Poverty, crime and lack of opportunity are rife in the huge housing estates of the more disadvantaged French suburbs. In such desperate conditions, extremist viewpoints are often sold by malicious actors as the only way to bring meaning and structure to people's lives.

Resolving ideological and social challenges will not only reduce the rising threat posed by terrorism in France, and perhaps elsewhere in Europe. It will also take momentum away from growing nationalist and often xenophobic extremism, which is just as dangerous as its fanatical and militant Islamist counterpart. Europe's leaders must address this ideology with equal determination, or risk appearing as though they are singling out extremism only within the Muslim community.

It is not anti-religion to promote tolerance. But in a continent that has never before forayed so far into the issue of combatting terrorist ideology, dialogue between communities, in good faith, must be the guiding principle.