Column: A Dispatch from France’s New Wars of Religion, part two

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Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series from Lyonel Perabo considering the tensions between France’s secular policies and its Muslim minority population in the aftermath of a schoolteacher’s murder and the Macron administration’s crackdown on Islam. Part one is available here.

These pieces discuss extremely difficult topics, including religious extremism, colonialism, and racism, and involve descriptions of violence. Reader discretion is advised.

Studies Show France’s Very Different Religious Lives

In the years following the Charlie Hebdo attacks and their aftermath, a number of opinion polls, sociological studies, and books confirmed the growing divisions between the secular majority in France and the Muslim community. One key study, which was conducted at the behest of Charlie Hebdo by the national polling organization IFOP last year, summarized the division between the minority Muslim population and the greater French population in the following way: “If the great majority of French Muslims strongly condemn the terror attacks, this condemnation receives less unanimous support than among Frenchmen as a whole.”

Looking at the data on whether individuals fully condemn the Charlie Hebdo attackers shows this discrepancy quite well: while 88% of French people do so, the proportion of Muslims who share a similar opinion is only 72%. The study also revealed that younger Muslims display less sympathy for the victims of the terror attacks than do their older peers.

A further study, conducted by IFOP following the October 2020 attack and published in Marianne, looked further into the way the French view secularism, public displays of religious faith, and the importance of religion as a whole in society. This new study unfortunately confirmed that the gap between the Muslim minority and the rest of the population might be much wider than previously thought.

Regarding school, 78% of surveyed French people supported the right of teachers to show illustrations that mock or caricature religious figures in the context of teaching freedom of speech, while only 36% of Muslims did so. According to Frédéric Dabi, director of the opinion section of IFOP, this study confirms that Muslims in France increasingly see freedom of speech as an attack on their religion: “Behind these numbers is the refusal to see a distinction between the right to blaspheme and the interdiction to act in a discriminatory fashion or be racist towards a community. The idea being also that by showing the caricatures, one does not respect believers.”

In 2012, Le Monde asked Muslims to express their feelings regarding the caricatures. While opinions were mixed, a number of interviewees expressed feelings of sadness and humiliation following the repeated caricatures published in Charlie Hebdo. “It is very upsetting,” a respondent named Abdelfattah said. “It is once again gratuitous provocation that has but one goal: hurt more. This time, it was about wanting to humiliate Muslims a little bit more by showing degrading images of what is dear to them. As a Muslim French citizen who is attached to democracy and consequently, to freedom of speech: Do we have the right, in the name of that freedom, to attack the individual about what concerns his private life?”

Indeed, since the publication of the first Muhammad caricatures in France, a growing number of Muslims have expressed the feeling that publications and institutions that criticize and mock their faith are merely using their privileged position to denigrate a minority group, an opinion that has since then become popular among a number of left-wing intellectuals and politicians. In the latest Marianne opinion poll, 57% of French minors believe that defending laicité is often instrumentalized to denigrate Muslims. On the other side of the spectrum, in another poll, a majority of French people appear to be highly attached to their laicité, and consider it to be threatened (87% of respondents), if not directly being assaulted by the forces of Islamist extremism (79% of respondents).

The Rise of Public Religion Among French Muslims

From the outside looking in, it might be hard to understand what caused such a degree of religious and ideological polarization.

As discussed earlier, the first visible sign of a burgeoning Muslim identity in France came to light towards the end of the 1980s. In the years that followed, Islam became significantly more visible in the public square as mosques, prayer rooms, and Muslim enclaves in cemeteries started appearingall over the country. The growth of Islam in France was caused by a number of factors, including immigration from majority-Muslim countries, proselytizing by Islamic organizations, and a search for self-identity and spiritual meaning among the children of immigrants.  This religious renewal helped to establish a new religious landscape in which adherence to, and a public practice of, Islam became the norm in a number of areas.

In France, Muslims as a whole have thus come to express a significantly higher degree of religious devotion than their Christian peers: over 80% of Muslims surveyed in a 2015 study answered that their religion was important or very important to them, as opposed to just 20% of Christians. Unsurprisingly, this religious enthusiasm resulted in a more public practice of the religion, which in turn led to tensions with the greater French population. Use of religious garb at work, more gender segregation in public places, calls for banning pig-meat in schools’ cantinas, and large-scale public prayer events are some examples of religious behavior in the public sphere that, in the eyes of some French people, go against traditional French values.

This phenomenon is especially noticeable among younger Muslims, who tend to be more resolute in their faith than the older generations. In the Marianne poll, some 38% of Muslims in France stated that they considered the norms and rules of Islamic law to be above those of the French state, while this number jumped to 57% among 18-to 24-year olds. Unsurprisingly, this uptick in faith among younger people can sometimes translate to heightened tensions in schools. In recent years, for example, teachers have reported increased conflicts between Muslim and non-Muslim pupils, and between Muslim and Jewish students.

Pro-Palestinian protestors burn an Israeli flag during a demonstration in Paris in 2014 [Association Nationale de Formation à l’Actualité et aux Documentaires (2014), CC 2.0]

In a country that is otherwise mostly populated by lapsed Christians or strongly secular atheists, the fear that Islam might significantly alter society is a potent one. What we are seeing in France might simply be that different demographics seem to agree less and less on what constitutes a common lived reality. Similar in some ways to what we are seeing in the United States today, a nation that was thought to be united and dedicated to a common goal turns out to be more a splintered collection of competing identities and worldviews.

The coming-apart at the seams of French society is no less apparent among minority religious groups that do not quite fit in the Christian, atheist, and Muslim division, such as the minuscule French Pagan scene. Indeed, while the French Pagan community (3,000 to 5,000 individuals) is rarely talked about, the ongoing socio-religious tensions have affected it in more ways than one. While on the one hand one can witness the burgeoning of a North-American influenced movement where Witchcraft merges with social justice and anti-Islamophobia (with, for example, the Witch Block group active between 2017 and 2020), the development of right-wing Pagan groups is just as notable.

With deep roots in the New Right and an identitarian worldview not unlike that of groups such as Generation Identity and nativist, anti-immigration political parties, these networks have clearly taken a side in the socio-cultural and religious struggle for the soul of France: they dream and strive for a France and a Europe free of Muslims and Africans who they believe to be impossible to cohabit with.

This antagonistic worldview in which the nostalgia for the pre-Christian beliefs of Europe intersects with white separatism and white nationalism was best expressed in the writings of recently deceased New Right veteran Guillaume Faye. Faye, an avowed Pagan who popularized concepts such as “archeofuturism” and “ethno-masochism” in his four decades as a writer, spent his last months on earth working on a book that aimed to summarize this apocalyptic vision of civilizational warfare. The book, Guerre civile raciale, or “Racial Civil War,” released mere days after his death, warns about an upcoming racial and religious conflict that the author prophecies will bloody France and Europe – a true Ragnarök for the ages, in which everyone, Pagans included, would have to choose a side.

Prior to the 2015 attacks, the French state had little official dealings with domestic Islamic organizations, mostly working through various faith-based diaspora groups or other representative institutions. However, following the 2015 attacks, the government of Franc̦ois Hollande set out to reorganize the way it dealt with these religious organizations and become more involved in the coordination of Islamic worship in the country.

This initiative was controversial. Commentators wondered to exactly what degree a secular state should become involved with the way Muslim organizations are run, and whether any type of state-sanctioned involvement would be seen as legitimate, either by the Muslim community or the French population at large. In the end, the Hollande government did very little: it established the Foundation of Islam in France, a mostly cultural, state-recognized NGO aimed at promoting what the French government like to call a “Republican Islam,” or an “Islam of the Enlightenment.”

This largely symbolic move hardly convinced anyone that the relation between the state and the Muslim community was on the mend. In the years that followed, the now Macron-led government engaged in a number of projects aiming at “reforming French Islam.” While some Muslim representatives, like the head imam of Paris’ main mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, were among those who called for such a reform, the news that the government was planning on becoming even more involved with Islamic worship was met with ever-increasing waves of controversy.

Still, in the three years that followed, very little was achieved. A charter for French imams pledging transparency and a sincere attachment for French Republican ideals was adopted by one Muslim organization, and a slew of additional, vaguely-worded proposals was presented.

Macron’s Turn

President Emmanuel Macron [French government (2019) under license CC BY-NC 2.0]

Then, in late 2019, President Macron began to toughen his rhetoric. Over the span of a year, the president seemed to largely forget about his government’s religious reform project and instead began to fight what he called the “separatism” of a certain strain of Islam. Announced in early in 2020 and then presented in the fall, the “proposed law against separatism” appeared to represent a near complete paradigm shift. Instead of talks of cooperation with Islamic representatives and the use of a largely symbolic soft-power, the government looked like it was ready to engage in a more aggressive form of policing. His address to the nation on October 2, 2020, left little doubt as to what was in the works:

“The problem isn’t laicité […] laicité is the cement of the united France […] What we have to attack is Islamist separatism. It is a conscious and theorized politico-religious endeavor which materializes itself by repeated deviation from the values of the Republic, which often translates by the establishment of a counter-society and whose manifestations are the unschooling of kids, the development of ghettoized cultural and athletic practices which are a pretext for the teaching of principles which do not conform with the laws of the Republic. The problem is this ideology, which claims that its own laws are superior to that of the Republic.”

The cat was out of the bag. The enemy of France was named, and it was Islamism, political Islam, radical Islam, separatist Islam. The fact that such a straightforward denunciation of any part of the Muslim religion could be expressed by the President himself would have been completely unthinkable only a few years prior, and yet here was Macron, throwing all of his cards on the table.

Macron, assisted by his interior minister Gérald Darmanin, proposed a miscellany of new measures and the strengthening of a couple of preexisting ones: a near-total ban on homeschooling; making it easier for the government to ban organizations it deemed to be engaged in criminal acts; making any publicly-funded NGOs sign a charter upholding republican values; and enlarging, and more strictly enforcing, the requirement for public service and public-service-affiliated institutions to remain religiously neutral. More minor measures, such as criminalizing virginity testing, demanding heightened transparency for religious organizations, making it easier to investigate potential forced marriages, and forbidding the teaching of immigrant languages in schools were also included.

Long gone were the times when Macron openly sang the praises of multiculturalism. In a country where socio-religious communities are growing ever further apart, Macron essentially declared that the state would not let that happen: French people of all walks of life would have to live together under the auspices of the Republic and under a stricter interpretation of its laws, practices, and values. It is almost as if Macron had heeded the words of rightwing pundit Philippe de Villiers, who, years ago, bemoaned that “a multicultural society is a multi-conflictual society.”

While Macron did try to express sympathy for the greater Muslim population during his speech – “let us not walk into the trap set up by polemists and extremists, he said, “which consists of lumping and stigmatizing all Muslims” – his words were not received kindly by a significant number of domestic and foreign Muslims. “Islam is a religion that is today undergoing a crisis all over the world,” Macron said at one point. “We do not only see this in our country, it is a profound crisis which is linked to tensions between fundamentalists, justly religious, and political projects which we see all over the world.” This statement provoked furor throughout the Muslim world.

A number of French media outlets reacted by dubbing the President’s new line as “state-sanctioned Islamophobia,” while foreign Muslim media and governments voiced their indignation. Mahathir Mohamad, the former prime minister of Malaysia, in a now deleted tweet evoking France’s colonial past, even stated that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” In Pakistan, the minister for human rights, Shireen Mazari, stated that “Muslim children will get ID numbers just as Jews were forced to wear the yellow star on their clothing for identification,” a statement that, while false, would spread rapidly on Twitter.

The decapitation of Samuel Paty, which took place during the height of what was now a major international affair, did not do anything to extinguish the controversy. When Macron came forth stating that France would not be giving up on its secular tradition and its right to display caricatures of Muhammad, the controversy became even fiercer. Calls to boycott French goods were heard all over the Muslim world. For some, this was just a natural reaction by Muslims who had suffered insults because of their faith. For others, it was a vindication of Macron’s view that France was threatened by a certain strain of Islam.

For the proponents of the latter, the following days and weeks provided more fuel to their fire as a terror attack in the town of Nice involving an undocumented knifeman led to the deaths of three bystanders. Later, in December, Samuel Paty’s murderer received what can only be called a hero’s funeral in his home village in Chechnya, with local media giving a platform to friends and family who praised his act in no uncertain terms. Thus closed a year of controversies, tensions, and further division in the French Republic.

France’s Future

What will happen now? Will Macron’s reforms manage to create peace in the country? As of the time of writing, nothing could be less sure. Given Macron’s complete control of the Parliament, and a right-wing majority in the French Senate, the law against separatism will most likely be adopted some time next month. Once it passes, applying its new principles might be complicated, and developing a new relationship with France’s Islamic institutions will prove much harder.

In these ultra-polarized times, when numerous mosques and Islamic organizations have already condemned Macron’s plans, how can the government hope to reestablish confidence and mutual trust? While representatives of some Muslim institutions are working with the government to draft the upcoming charter on secular values, a number of fundamentalist Islamic organizations are already contesting its contents, especially its passage on the right to apostasy. From the looks of it, this document might very well just end up as yet another ineffectual piece of paper that will create more division between those organizations and individuals that symbolically “bend the knee” and those which deny the right of the state to influence their religious beliefs.

In truth, Macron’s controversial rhetoric and measures will probably not significantly alter the current identity crisis from which France currently suffers. If there is anything at all that could potentially bridge the ever-growing gap between the Muslim minority and the majority of French citizens, it is certainly not a legislative intervention. In a country in which terror attacks claim victims at semi-regular intervals, where the quality of life steadily deteriorates, and where political and religious radicalization rages on, words and laws just won’t be enough; and if the current zeitgeist is anything to go by, the future of the country looks anything but bright.

Will the government become even more hardline towards Islam even as the Muslim vote becomes increasingly crucial? Will right-wing rhetoric become even more fervently anti-Muslim and anti-immigration? Will Muslims become more politically organized? Will Islamist terrorism abate? Will further clashes take place? Will the French make an 180 degree turn and give up on their once-cherished laicité? Will people grow so far apart that one day, the thought of taking arms against one another will stop seeming far fetched? Will I one day be reporting on a new war of religions tearing my homeland apart?

I pray this day will never come, but even as I try to find a small remnant of hope in my own Pandora’s box, I recall the words of the former interior minister Gerard Collomb and dread comes flooding back. “We live side to side,” he said. “I fear that tomorrow, we will live face to face.”