By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

The resurgence in attacks by radical Islamists in France, home to Europe’s largest Muslim population, has rekindled fierce debates about Islam, secularism, and discrimination. The deplorable assassinations in October 2020 of Samuel Paty, a teacher, and three Catholics in the Basilica of Nice have accelerated the political will of the authorities to adopt a law meant to tackle some of the root causes of Islamist terrorism.

These two events followed the publication of a public opinion survey carried out in August 2020 by the well-known institute Ipsos. One key finding of this survey was that 57% of young Muslims in France who had been educated in the schools of the Republic, were placing the shariah above the Law of the Republic. As is the norm in France, when there is an intractable problem, a new law is seen as the solution.

Law on separatisms or law on separatism?

The proposed law announced by the President of the Republic and the Minister of the Interior is often titled ‘law on separatisms’, in the plural, while other times it is in the singular form. This is not a mistake, an inaccuracy or a hesitation about spelling or grammar. It reflects the current uncertainty of whether to take the risk of identifying the problem as a religious one and to exclusively target one religion: Islam.

According to the French authorities, a specific group of Muslims are said to separate themselves from the historical majority of society and from its values in a dangerous manner, for example by rejecting scientific truths or by contesting the Holocaust. To avoid the accusation of Islamophobia and concerns about religious discrimination if they were to use the term ‘separatism’ in the singular, the French government plans to include other religious groups, especially ones labelled ‘sectes’ to instrumentalize them as an alibi of its good faith while ignoring some very closed Jewish communities. The inherent flaw with this approach is that the security threat is considered religious in nature, which it is not.

The enemy is not a religion, it is a political ideology

The source of the problem is a political ideology: radical Islamism. Its objective is to impose a theocratic governance in Muslim minds whether they are in Muslim majority countries or not. This is accomplished by instilling its ideology in Muslim families, parents, and children, even before school education.

The enemy to combat is not a religion or some religions and their disciples, but a political project. If the French authorities singled out an entire religious community as a threat, they would make the work of radical Islamism all the easier.

Therefore, the proposed law should not target Islam as a religion, but should instead tackle political Islamism, in particular Salafism and its organisations such as the Muslim Brotherhood and its satellite associations.

Consequently, the fight against radical Islamism should only be waged where it is active and solely against individuals who preach or publicly support it, including on social media.

A false diagnostic leads to a false solution

The proposed law plans to implement Chapter V (articles 25-36) of the 9 December 1905 Law On the Separation Between Churches and State which is titled   Police des cultes and intended ‘to protect places of worship from the spreading of ideas and statements as well as from acts hostile to the laws of the Republic’.

In line with this law, some mosques have been closed for a few months. However, closing ‘suspicious’ mosques is not a solution and is counter-productive. Such a restrictive measure angers those directly affected and other Muslims nationwide and is a violation of the international standards on freedom of religion or belief. It’s not ‘mosques’ that disseminate extremist ideas, but rather the individuals in leadership roles in some mosques who instrumentalise religious teachings for political purposes. Certain imams and preachers, who have been identified by the authorities for a very long time, behave as political militants instead of providing faith-building to their communities. The proposed law must combat them, not the religious community they belong to.

The announced news of the involvement of the police des cultes sets the fight against radical Islamism at the religious level when it should be carried out at the ideological and political one instead. Other religious or spiritual communities and other categories of believers have nothing to do with this political militant activism. The problem to be solved is political, not religious. 

Some collateral damage of this false solution

The proposed law also includes obligatory school education being introduced earlier, at the age of three, to facilitate children’s socialisation and integration into French society. Although it is laudable, prohibiting home education as a strategy against Islamism does not make sense. To date there has not been a case where a child who was educated at home then became an Islamist or a terrorist.

In these difficult times, it is senseless to upset families of believers across all faiths, including Catholics, by measures intended to fulfil objectives that are political and not religious. In fact, many Muslim families in France have suffered from the experience of one of their children running away from home to fight in Syria. Those parents are not responsible for the decision of their minor or young adult children. Most of the time, they never taught them this political Islamism, but they are the victims of it.

What comes next?

The French government’s plan is to present the proposed law to the Council of Ministers on the symbolic date of 9 December 2020, perhaps even earlier, and then to update it by then. The timing of this legislative process will coincide with the anniversary of the 9 December 1905 Law. Additionally, it would provide a swift response to the horrific beheading of Samuel Paty who gave a lesson about civic education, specifically on freedom of expression, that included a respectful debate about caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. It would also address the attack in Nice that resulted in three Catholics murdered.

As of today, no draft of the proposed law has been made public but associating it with the existing religious legislation would be a regrettable mistake. The objective is to fight against a terrorist political ideology that is segregationist and discriminatory, that fractures and fragments society with the intent of inciting violent community-based confrontations to create a fertile ground for its expansion.

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