French essayist Hakim El Karoui speaks to journalists following a meeting with French Interior Minister and Islam representatives at the Interior Minister, in Paris, on August 29, 2016. / AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE
French essayist Hakim El Karoui. / AFP PHOTO / MATTHIEU ALEXANDRE

French Muslims must resist Islamist extremists: Hakim El Karoui



The role of a revolutionary from within is never an easy one but for Hakim El Karoui that is exactly the challenge he has set himself as he seeks to change the place for Islam in French life.

The banker turned author can remember precisely when he realised that he could no longer remain on the sidelines as divisions rose within France. In the early days of 2015, the first of what would be a series of deadly attacks that rocked all France targeted the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and then a supermarket in Paris.

"I asked myself, can people like me do nothing?" he recalled to The National. "The answer to the question is obvious: no. I have been involved in the political debate for the past 15 years. I wrote several books on political and economic subjects and I decided that Islam was going to remain a private matter. But after the attacks I told myself that this was not going to be possible anymore."

The author of a new report for the Institut Montaigne, Mr Karoui proposes a wholesale overhaul of the role of the French state in its relations with Islam. In the document he calls for an umbrella body that is more involved and seeks clearly defined outcomes.

Above all the report is based on his own insight that if the voices of moderation don’t speak up then the extremists prevail, like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Qatar-based ideologue Yusuf Al Qaradawi.

“If enlightened Muslims don’t mobilise, the French and Western population will believe that Islam is the Islamists, that Islam is the Muslim Brotherhood,” he says. “When one looks at what is happening on the social media, there are only the activists and Islamists speaking.”

A nephew of the former Tunisian prime minister Hamad El Karoui, the author believes that many French Muslims underestimate the nature of the extremist agenda.

“I think Islamism is a big project, a big ideology that interprets the world and gives it meaning, that wants to organise societies and the re-partition of power,” he says. “It is an ideology that is rival to the Western ideology. It is not a reaction to the Western thought, it is competing with it.”

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It is wrong, he thinks, to subscribe to the view that the tensions seen today are a product of bitter historic struggles between different communities. “In France we often say that if Islamism exists it is because the West made mistakes – colonisation, the Iraq war, the segregation of Muslims in popular quarters, racism – and that therefore Islamism is the Muslim response to everything that the West has done,” he said.

Instead of an unthinking critique or giving in to hopelessness in the face of violence, moderates should match the organisation and dedication of the extremists he believes.

“Islamists are organised and I think we should do the same. We need to have organisations, militants, funds and discourse,” he said. “We need people to fight back on things like discrimination, who can explain that France and Muslims are not on opposite sides. This must be a global mobilisation, and only a global mobilisation can avoid a fracture and the rise of the far-right.”

Having looked at some of the best-practice thinking produced from the UAE, Mr Karoui also advises French officials to look for cooperation from outside. “I think that France and the UAE must engage more in a religious debate. The positions of the moderate Muslims in France can be close to the ones of the UAE.”

Mr Karoui adds that it’s a misconception that the constitutionally mandated secular nature of the French state means officials must stay aloof and that it can support the moderates seeking change. “I tell Muslims that secularism is their ally against Islamism, because Islamists cannot succeed in making France Islamist,” he said. “Islamists want to impose their vision of Islam, but secularism protects the right of every Muslim to say: I have the right to believe in whatever I want.”

While known to be close to President Emmanuel Macron – a 2016 report from the Institut has been cited as an influence on the French leader's thinking – Mr Karoui can only say he hopes his ideas will be reflected in the reform package the Elysee Palace has promised to deliver before the end of the year.

“Emmanuel Macron always presented moderate proposals on this subject,” he said. “He always considered the fact that one must avoid the risk of adding fuel to the fire, as they say. I think he agrees in principle – because what I have said is nothing but the discourse of the republic. On what must be done next, I hope that he can be convinced.”

Above all he hopes to convince French Muslims like himself to engage with the issue for the alternative is to cede ground to extremist thought. He said: “Those who are in the middle – the true Wasatia, not the Wasatia of al-Qaradawi – they do not speak up.

"For those Muslims who are caught in the middle, the best way to deal with it is to take action"

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