French President Emmanuel Macron has advocated for a ‘French Islam’, a controversial term that was also used by former presidents. We spoke to French Muslim activist Abdelaziz Chaambi, on how words politicians use impact everyday life for Muslims.
French President Emmanuel Macron has advocated for a “French Islam” to address the issues of radicalisation and extremism in the country. But the plan has drawn immediate controversy, with French Muslims at the forefront of the criticism.
But the use of the term is not new and previous French leaders have also announced plans for an indigenous Islam.
We spoke to Abdelaziz Chaambi, the president and founder of Coordination against Racism and Islamophobia (la Coordination contre le Racisme et l’Islamophobie), also known by the acronym, CRI.
He spoke about the problem with government-led initiatives to redefine Islam, and how current policies towards French Muslims have helped contribute towards anti-Muslim attitudes.
What role have politicians and the media played in the ‘demonisation’ of Muslims and Islam in France?
ABDELAZIZ CHAAMBI: In France there is a category of journalists, politicians and intellectuals who are real arsonists: they are people who position themselves against our own country, who position themselves against France by demonising Muslims, and who sabotage peace and civil harmony.
Some people hate Muslims and want to raise people against each other by presenting Muslims as a threat to the country's identity and culture. They consider them a fifth column, as the devil himself. (People) who would have come for the great replacement or who have a secret plan to destabilise the Republic, impose their way of life and impose polygamy, etc.
All these delusions and slander have no basis since Muslims have been (in France) for decades, even centuries, and have never sought to impose their way of life or their culture or tradition on anyone.
In France, there is indeed a category of influential men of opinion makers who are arsonists who are people who light fires to endanger civil peace.
What are your thoughts about the term ‘French Islam’?
AC: Islam is unique, it is not French or German or Turkish or Russian or English: Islam is Islam.
There are indeed specificities, there are social, historical, and traditional characteristics. When you live in Senegal, when you live in France, Russia, or the United States, these are different contexts.
So French Islam lives well in a context and we take that into account. We were the first in Lyon at the UJM (Union des Jeunes Musulmans) to fight for a ‘contextualised’ Islam that takes into account social relations and the specificities of the country in which we live.
For example, we imposed the French language in religious instruction courses, we asked that the Friday sermon be translated into French, we asked that the speakers at the conferences be able to speak in French, so that the young people of this country could understand the message we have to convey to them and the message of Islam.
We have started working on unions with Christians, with atheists, with people of different political tendencies to say we are together in a society called French society and we will try to improve it all together. Islam is also about thinking about the public interest and the common interest, not about selfishness and individualism.
French President, Mr Macron, uses the formula of ‘French Islam’, but it is not in the same terms that we hear them at all. When we talk about French Islam, we are talking about a committed, free, independent Islam that can enable Muslims to organise themselves as they wish, to talk about the problems that interest them, that concern them. Whereas Mr Macron in his intention, when he talks about French Islam, he means effectively controlling, guiding, and directing Islam and Muslims as he wishes by trying to put them in a mould.
Mr Macron is no exception to the rule, since he is like his predecessors; Mr (Jean-Pierre) Chevenement, Mr (Nicolas) Sarkozy, or Mr (Francois) Holland, who all had to control Islam, to impose spokespersons who speak on behalf of Muslims though they have never been elected. It is the reproduction of the colonial pattern when docile and helpful people were designated as the representatives of Muslims. And not much has changed since the colonial period; in the 1920s there was the Interministerial Commission for Muslim Affairs which included soldiers, politicians, people representing the Muslim faith and appointed by the colonial forces. They were supposed to speak on behalf of Algerian Muslims: so we had the same thing with Mr Sarkozy in 2003 with the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM).
With Mr Sarkozy, we were entitled to the CFCM in which there were people appointed by the government, to the detriment of secularism, which prevents it from interfering in religious affairs. Also to the detriment of democracy, which encourages citizens to vote to appoint their representatives. So there is indeed political control on the issue of Islam in France.
How can politicians and Muslims cooperate more closely? What do Muslims expect from politics?
AC: Policies will only be able to take Muslims into account when they are organised or engaged at the very least, that is, when Muslims become citizens who fulfil their duties by voting, electing representatives, applying for positions of responsibility themselves, and getting elected. To become a political strike force so that the political class respects them. Otherwise they will remain instruments in the hands of politicians; Muslims have every interest in occupying the political field, because for the time being, they are only objects of manipulation, demonisation, and political exploitation.
There is no way for us other than taking responsibility.
What is missing in politics to offer constructive solutions to key problems? What role does the culture of secularism play in this question?
AC: What is missing in politics in order to offer constructive solutions is that the people concerned, the groups concerned, are involved in the search for solutions, that they are involved in the reflection, are considered as people capable of providing solutions.
The current problem is that the problems are hidden by society and the media, when you talk to a girl wearing a headscarf, for example, a veiled Muslim woman, she will tell you about the difficulties she faces in school, university, work, commerce, on the street, public services, and when you hear her you discover things you don't think about because you don't belong there. I think if you want to solve these difficulties, you have to involve the actors.
The book La laïcité dévoyée ou l’identité comme principe d’exclusion, (Secularism corrupted or identity as a principle of exclusion), written by Jean Bauberot, sheds light very well on this manipulation used by politicians, journalists, and intellectuals to transform a political and social legal framework into a prison for Muslims. Secularism is the neutrality of politics vis-à-vis the religious and vice versa, and it is freedom of conscience and freedom of worship, yet these things are not respected when it comes to Muslims.
While lawfulness means respect for belief and non-belief, and the possibility of living one's religion without being disturbed in public in private, individually and collectively, this is confirmed by the Constitution and the European Convention on Human Rights.
What can Muslims and Islamic organisations do to master the policies linked to establish a ‘French Islam’?
AC: Muslims must become actors in the French political arena with their organisations, this is the only method that can enable them to influence what is called ‘French Islam’. There are more than 2,500 mosques or places of worship, there are also thousands of Muslim associations, there are between five and six million Muslims in France and they can have a decisive influence in political life in this country if they ever get involved.
They must also take a stand against and express themselves against radicalisation, extremism and terrorism, so that they can have clear positions to explain that Islam is not a concern and that Islam refuses radicalisation, extremism and terrorism. They must do a lot of teaching to explain to the population what Islam really is, which remains very little known in this society.
This interview was translated from French and was edited for clarity.