In this third and final instalment on Islam in France, Colin Randall explains why harmonious inter-communal relations are so difficult
France's divided response to Islam and extremism
While few areas of the world are immune from extremism, France feels its impact more than any other European country, an unenviable distinction that lies at the heart of President Emmanuel Macron’s plans to streamline the organisation of Islam.
As a source of jihadist fighters enlisting with ISIS and similar groups in Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as in terms of death and injury caused by repeated terrorist attacks, France has suffered disproportionate levels of social turmoil.
The challenges faced by the president – and community leaders who sometimes seem at a loss to offer effective guidance – go beyond questions of countering radicalisation.
Academics as well as Islamic figures recognise a glaring need to make young French Muslims feel a sense of belonging in a society riddled with racism and mutual suspicion.
But it is the hard statistical evidence of extremism that preoccupies the currently dominant centre and right of French politics, widening a fierce intellectual divide on causes and effects.
More than 250 people have been killed on French soil, and almost 1,000 wounded, in the wave of terrorist atrocities that began when Mohamed Merah, switching from petty crime to violent Islamism, killed three French soldiers and four Jews, three of them children, in southwestern France in 2012.
The attacks have ranged from mass murder, as in the Paris and Nice outrages that cost 216 lives in 2015 and 2016, to individual acts of what some experts now call ”low-cost terrorism”.
Recent examples include a knife murder in Paris, the deaths of four people in the southern towns of Carcassonne and Trebes and the killing of two young women outside the railway station in Marseilles.
A new study from a Paris-based think thank, the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), says no western country has been more affected than France by the “Syrian jihad”. Some 1,300 French citizens have involved themselves in Syrian and Iraqi conflict zones, hundreds more have been arrested while trying to get there and, by February, 323 – including 68 minors – had returned.
The IFRI report’s author, Marc Hecker, identifies several common denominators including poor education, unemployment, a history of crime and strong ties to the Maghreb or sub-Saharan Africa among 137 studied cases of individuals prosecuted for jihad-related offences.
But one in four was a convert to Islam rather than born into a Muslim family. Other researchers point out that while the number of French “foreign fighters” is the West’s highest, Belgium – with its small population of 11.3 million, six times fewer than in France – has by far the greatest per capita figure (46 for every million people compared with 18 from France).
Three powerful open letters, all published since Mr Macron began a consultation process ahead of a major initiative on Islam in France expected this month, highlight both the good intentions of Muslim leaders and the divisions, complexities and misunderstandings that make truly harmonious inter-communal relations so difficult to achieve.
In late April, an open letter signed by 30 imams and appearing in the left-of-centre Le Monde, bitterly attacked the “confiscation of our religion by criminals” and said “ignorant, disturbed and idle” young people had become easy prey for dangerous ideologues.
Their initiative followed a few days after the publication in another daily newspaper, Le Parisien, of a statement signed by more than 250 individuals – including a former president, Nicolas Sarkozy, three past prime ministers and a wide range of parliamentarians and intellectuals – deploring a “new anti-Semitism”.
The signatories were motivated by an increased number of anti-Semitic incidents in France, including the murders of Jews in circumstances where their faith was seen as a factor. According to the authors, 11 Jews have been murdered “in recent history” by radical Islamists because they were Jewish.
"This terror is spreading," the open letter read. "Anti-Semitism is not the business of the Jews, it is everyone's business.
“When a prime minister declares in parliament, to the applause of the whole country, that France without the Jews is no longer France, it is not a beautiful consoling phrase but a solemn warning: our European history, and particularly French history for geographical, religious, philosophical and legal reasons, is deeply linked to various cultures among which Jewish thought is decisive.”
The signatories claim there is evidence of “low-level ethnic cleansing" that has driven thousands of Jews out of areas of the Paris region.
Some of their arguments echo criticism of left-wing elements in such neighbouring countries as Britain, when the opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been accused of failing to rid his party of those crossing from disapproval of Israeli policy to downright anti-Semitism.
The open letter in Le Parisien accuses “French elites” of minimising or ignoring what was previously a far-right phenomenon because they see Islamist radicalisation as a social revolt.
But in also demanding that verses of the Quran “calling for the killing and punishment of Jews, Christians and unbelievers” be declared obsolete by Islamic theological authorities, the signatories caused anger and dismay to many Muslims.
In their own open letter, the 30 imams said this showed “gross ignorance” and implied that Muslims could be peaceful only if they distanced themselves from their faith.
The imams stressed their compassion for “all our fellow citizens who have been directly or indirectly affected by terrorism and by the anti-Semitic crimes that have blindly struck our country”.
“Indignant, we are as French citizens affected by the despicable terrorism that threatens us all,” they wrote. “We are also Muslims, like the rest of our co-religionists peaceful Muslims, who suffer from the confiscation of their religion by criminals.”
Denouncing the ”deadly temptation” and misguided sense of martyrdom offered by extremists bent on radicalising the young, they urged the young to ”heed the Prophet's warning that a Muslim who harms the life of an innocent person living in peace with Muslims will not feel never the perfume of Paradise".
The third open letter – the first of the three to have been published – appeared in the conservative newspaper Le Figaro in March under the headline “No to Islamist separatism” and was signed by 100 figures from politics, academia, law and the arts.
They deplored “a new Islamist totalitarianism that seeks to gain ground by any means and presents itself as a victim of intolerance”.
Separately, a study of attitudes in high schools in areas of high Muslim population revealed some startling statistics. About 45 per cent of Muslim pupils did not unreservedly condemn the murders of 12 people at the Paris offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and 20 per cent supported taking up arms “in certain circumstances” to defend their faith.
The question on many lips as Mr Macron’s much-anticipated speech approaches is perhaps as tough as any to answer: how can any state-sponsored reform of Islam shift such deeply entrenched positions?