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Confronting France’s Muslim problem should be through dialogue

Nov 03,2020 - Last updated at Nov 03,2020

Religious extremism is not exclusive to Muslims as demonstrated by Buddhist zealots in Myanmar, Jewish fundamentalists in Israel and white Christian supremacists in the United States. There are other examples as well but the focus in the past two decades has been on various Islamist movements that have embraced a revisionist and violent dogma that is shunned by the majority of Muslims around the world. Neither Al Qaeda nor Daesh is a true representation of what over a billion Muslims believe and practice every day.

When French President Emanuel Macron says that “Islam is a religion which is experiencing a crisis today, all over the world”, he is in fact generalising and creating a stereotype that is false, insulting and misleading. He is no authority on Islam as a religion and he should draw the line between the faith that is embraced by billions of people and what is now called political Islam with its various manifestations.

What Macron should focus on instead is the state of France’s 5 million Muslims who are citizens and most were born in the country. What he should investigate are the causes of radicalisation among Muslim youth in France. His remarks had angered Muslims all over the world; triggering calls for a boycott of French products. Sadly, his speech was later followed by the hideous killing by a young Chechen of a French teacher, who had displayed offensive cartoons of Prophet Muhammad to his class. Few days later, a Tunisian immigrant attacked worshippers in a Nice church killing three. These are revolting murders that are condemned by all, especially French Muslims. Nothing can justify the killing of innocent people in the name of religion, any religion.

Following the two murders Macron should have shown moral leadership that is needed in a polarised society. Even before the terrible murders he should have initiated a dialogue with French Muslim organisations aimed at resolving the challenges that a majority of French Muslims face especially the state’s failure to integrate many into society. The mainstream organisations have embraced the principles of the Republic, including the separation of state and religion, while those on the fringe feel left out and are easy prey for extremists.

France has a Muslim problem and it had it for some time. There have been 36 terrorist attacks attributed to Muslims in the past eight years. This week, Macron expressed his understanding for the shock expressed by Muslims at the offensive cartoons. “I understand and respect that we can be shocked by these caricatures. I will never accept that we can justify physical violence for these caricatures and I will always defend in my country the freedom to say, to write, to think, to draw,” he said. Finding common ground where the principles of the Republic and the freedom of worship can coexist is something that must be arrived at without foreign interference. This must be done through dialogue and cooperation rather than incitement.

This week, more than 20 European Muslim organisations have called on the French president to end his “divisive rhetoric” and show moral leadership. In an open letter, they stated that “maligning Islam and your own Muslim citizens, closing mainstream mosques, Muslim and humanitarian rights organisations, and using this as an opportunity to stir up further hatred, has given further encouragement to racists and violent extremists”.

The main issue for French Muslims is socio-economic and has to do with schooling, social integration and economic opportunities. The state is right to curtail foreign intervention but it must also provide alternatives and give young French Muslims the opportunity to succeed. Even Macron in his controversial speech admitted that the country’s Muslim citizens had been let down by successive governments. He admitted that France had created its own “separatism” by dumping poorer people in suburban ghettoes with poor housing and few jobs.

Macron should be wary of unleashing waves of Islamophobia in France that would target millions of moderate and law-abiding Muslims. According to studies, a minority of French Muslims embraces a radical, paranoid anti-Western version of Islam. For Macron and his ministers to talk about civil war, the fight to death and France under siege is not the right way to resolve France’s Islamist crisis. Dark clouds loom ahead as the far- right prepares to take over in the coming elections banking on rising hatred and distrust with the French society.

On the other hand, one should not fall for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s opportunistic rhetoric targeting Macron. His tussle with Macron goes beyond religion and is purely political. Erdogan sees himself as the titular head of Sunni Muslims, and his incitement is both dangerous and reckless. Erdogan’s controversial approach to regional politics has undermined his credibility both at home and outside. His use of religion to mobilise followers seeks to divide and serves no good purpose.

Last Friday, French Muslim Council circulated a sermon to mosques that said this: “The law of the Republic permits these cartoons but obliges no one to like them. We can even detest them. But nothing, absolutely nothing, justifies murder.” This is the kind of message French Muslims should embrace.

 

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman

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