The “French Awakening” Against Political Islam: Motivations and Future Repercussions

Ahmed Nadhif | 21 Dec 2020

Despite the lack of official figures on the number of Muslims in France for reasons related to legal barriers, France is the largest European country in terms of the number of Muslims. According to some estimates, five million Muslims live in France, ranging between citizens and residents, which makes this mass a source of general controversy that is renewed with every terrorist attack launched by Muslims. This has been the case since October 2020 in the wake of the attacks that struck the city of Nice and the assassination of the teacher Samuel Patty. However, the controversy this time coincided with an official campaign that some called "an open war against political Islam", while others dismissed it as a "circumstantial campaign" similar to the campaigns carried out by the French authorities in the past.

This paper sheds light on the motivations of the recent French awakening against political Islam, the actions taken by the administration of President Emmanuel Macron, the extent of their radicality, and their possible future repercussions.

The historical contexts of the rise of Islamism in France

While the Islamic presence is somewhat old in France, the settlement of Islamist political and Haraki (activist) groups was late. The Tablighi Jamaat (Society of Preachers) began, since the mid-1960s, its activity among the Maghrebi workers who came to France in the wake of the waves of national independence in Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria. The group settled in the eleventh Parisian district, and established two mosques in the Belleville neighbourhood which is characterised by a large Maghrebi community.

At the time, France used to view the presence of Muslim migrant workers as temporary. Therefore, it was not concerned about the existence of prayer houses in the workers' quarters, and some large mosques. On the other hand, the soft and apolitical organisational nature of the Tablighi Jamaat group was an encouraging factor for the emergence of politically-oriented Islamist groups at that time. Until the end of the 1970s, the activities of Muslims in France did not go beyond worship and some advocacy activities that were completely devoid of politics, such as teaching Arabic, inculcation of the Quran, and some religious lessons. They were further weakened by the French legal barriers that prevented foreigners from establishing associations of all kinds, including religious and political ones.

However, the historical turning point in the formation of French political Islam began with the Iranian Islamic Revolution and the rise of Islamic groups, especially the Brotherhood-affiliated ones, in the countries of the southern Mediterranean, and the involvement of those groups in a clash with their countries, which led their leaders and members to flee to European exiles, including France.

Since 1981, i.e. the date of the rise of President Francois Mitterrand to power and his tendency to open the door wide to the flow of waves of labour and political migration and lift the legal barriers to foreigners in establishing associations and unions, a nucleus of Haraki (activist) Islamic activity began to form, initiated by Tunisian students who belonged to the Movement of Islamic Tendency (today’s Ennahdha (Renaissance)) and elements of the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. Subsequently, the Brotherhood’s activity in France developed widely until 1983, the date that the group’s French branch was officially established under the name of the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF). Later on, with the growth of the Sahwa (Awakening) Movement in the Arab Mashreq (Orient), the Salafist (Pious Forbearers) current began to appear on the French scene, establishing networks of associations, economic companies and mosques, in addition to the emergence of a third current loyal to the Turkish Islamic movement led by Necmettin Erbakan in the context of the conflict with the ruling secular regime, establishing a home for itself in Europe.

Map of Islamist trends in France

For decades, the environment of French freedoms has been an attraction for Islamic groups. Most of the Islamic groups existing in the Arab and Islamic countries are active on French soil, including minority groups with their various sectarian and doctrinal diversity, and with all their political orientations. However, the influential Haraki (activist) Islamist groups, which began to be targeted by the administration of President Emmanuel Macron through its new policies in the face of what it calls "Islamist separatism", are the following:

1. The Muslim Brotherhood

The Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF) constitutes the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is the group’s largest branch outside the Arab region. Today, it includes more than 250 Islamic societies all over France that are active in various educational, charitable and economic fields, nearly 100 mosques and places of worship, in addition to dozens of training centres, and a university institution for religious education. The Brotherhood branch in France has been the epicentre of Brotherhood activity in Europe since the 1980s, having contributed to the establishment of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe (FIOE), the European arm of the international organisation of the Brotherhood since 1989.

The Brotherhood institutions in France are divided into two types: the first is the associations that work in the charitable, economic and religious fields and provide social services to mobilise support and gain a representative social base; and the second is active in the political and student fields and is interested in maintaining relationships with the French academic, political, financial and party elites to gain support for the group within the French decision-making centres.

The French branch of the Brotherhood relies for its funding on donations from the advocates and the proceeds of the economic and commercial institutions that it runs through its members in France, especially in the field of "halal commodities" trade, while half of its budget comes from external financing that comes mainly from Qatar, Turkey, and Malaysia.

The Muslim Brotherhood in France seeks to cope with the strict nature of French secularism through the game of political integration and the adoption of a public rhetoric that highlights a kind of "civil Islamism" in complete contradiction to the literature and rhetoric that are taught and broadcast in their religious pulpits, centres, and mosques. The "declared integration game" has since the end of the 1990s succeeded in drawing the attention of the French authorities to the group that presented itself as one of the representatives of Muslims in France, despite the fact that their influence on the social base of the general Muslim population is extremely weak, according to the latest survey conducted by the Institut Montaigne in 2018.

Since the inception of the French Council of the Islamic Faith (CFCM) in 2003, the Union of Islamic Organisations, which is the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, became represented by the Council along with seven Islamic unions representing other ethnic and sectarian entities. The French state, which wants to put an end to Islamist separatism, continues to this date to recognise the French branch of the Brotherhood as one of the representatives of the Islamic community in the country.

2. The Salafi movement

In contrast to the Brotherhood movement, the Salafi movement in France does not have a strict hierarchical organisation due to the nature of the Salafi movement in general which does not have established traditions in political organisation. However, this movement is distributed among hundreds of societies and organisations with different sectarian and political orientations. While there are Salafi advocacy associations that do not interfere in politics and do not present any positions, contenting themselves with advocacy work and the management of mosques, other associations express political positions that are opposed to the French government, some of which are close to the positions of extremist groups. Most of the prominent preachers of Salafism in France are of Algerian descent who have settled there in the 1980s and 1990s, especially after the outbreak of the confrontation between the Algerian state and the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), one of the pillars of which was the Haraki (activist) Salafi movement led by Ali Benhadj (also Belhadj).

The estimates of the Institut Montaigne for 2018 indicate that the Salafist movement in France has nearly 20,000 active members. In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood movement which is concerned with infiltrating the French elites and creating a lobby, the French Salafists focus their efforts on controlling mosques to promote their ideological narratives. Thus, the most prominent figures of this trend are not the heads of organisations or workers in the political and student fields such as the Brotherhood, but rather the imams (worship leaders)  of mosques, preachers, and teachers of Islamic sciences who rely more on the power of rhetoric and religious text than on political action. Therefore, the French Salafi phenomenon can be described as separatism and attempting to create a society distinct from the French reality. As such, the Salafis stayed away from the official institutions that represented Islam in front of the French authorities.

However, it is noteworthy that the conflicts that characterised the Brotherhood’s relationship with the Salafists in France for years have transformed in recent years into a kind of alliance or rapprochement, especially in the post-Arab revolutions period, for reasons related to the wave of criticism that has begun to be levelled by a large segment of the French elites to the Haraki (activist) Islamic currents active in France, some of whose counterparts in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Morocco have come to power.

3. Turkish Islam

The Turkish presence in France dates back to the 1950s, when the Turks, like other workers, arrived to work in the construction campuses in the aftermath of World War II, and settled in the French east, namely in the cities of Strasbourg, Mulhouse and Metz, where they established their own mosques due to sectarian and linguistic considerations, far from the rest of the Muslims of Maghrebi origin. Towards  the mid-1960s, Necmettin Erbakan began to expand the activities of his Islamic group that is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. He established the Milli Görüş (National Vision) movement in many European countries, including France, to mobilise the Turkish community to its ranks in the face of the Turkish secular military regime at that time. Today, it runs nearly 300 associations and mosques in France.

This Islamist activity drove the Turkish state to protect its community from drifting behind Erbakan, considering that this community has been one of the economic tributaries of Turkey. In agreement with the French state, it supported the establishment of the Coordinating Committee for Turkish Muslims in France (CCMTF), which is an organisation affiliated with the Turkish Presidency of Religious Affairs, in terms of both funding and management. Currently, it runs nearly 350 mosques, where the Turkish state pays the salaries of 150 imams assigned by it, and runs a university for the graduation of Turkish imams in the city of Strasbourg in the east of the country.

Subsequently, with the rise of Recep Tayyip Erdogan to power, the activity of the Turkish organisations in France shifted from conflict to alliance, as the Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration began using those organisations as a card in its foreign policies towards France, increasing its financial and political support for them. It even succeeded in integrating the CCMTF into the CFCM since the former’s inception, and then succeeded in elevating Ahmed Oğraş, a businessman and a member of Erdogan's party, to the presidency of the CFCM in 2017.

The motives of the French awakening

The recent terrorist attacks to which France was exposed were not the motives behind the confrontation with "political Islam". The official approach towards this confrontation did not come about on the spur of the moment. Rather, it was one of the points of President Macron's electoral programme, inspired by his friend and former advisor Hakim El Karoui, the author of the book "A French Islam is Possible", which was published in 2016 by the Institut Montaigne, one of the liberally-oriented influential research centres.

In 2015, France was the target of the most violent terrorist attacks. Therefore, political Islam and terrorism were one of the issues that preoccupied Macron before his entry into the Elysee Palace, relying on Karoui's diagnosis of the situation, which is summarised in the idea that there is a need to fight not only terrorism, but also the ideologies that fuel it, including and most importantly "political Islam". To this end, Karoui has developed sets of measures that need be followed. These have started to appear in recent months within Macron's policies.

Therefore, the French awakening in the face of the Islamists was not based on mere speculations or circumstantial reasons, but rather on recommendations, analyses and multiple reports of several French research centres that have been working in synergy for many years with the decision-making authority in the Elysee, in addition to reports on the work of parliamentary committees and others belonging to the ministries, including another report related to the reality of the educational institutions and the penetration of sectarian thought into them. All those research and official reports that offer analyses by the security centres in France clearly showed that the problem of violent extremism that has targeted France in recent years had direct causes related to immediate events and indirect causes related mainly to the narratives of political Islam that have come to serve as a conveyor belt for extremism and isolation from the values ​​of the French society.

Investigations have revealed that a large number of the French who migrated to Syria to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra (Front of the Supporters) or Daesh (the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS) had, before their migration, learned from the lessons taught in the mosques of the Islamist Brotherhood and Salafi societies that control the suburbs. For those young people, violence was only the last episode of their formation based on true hostility to French secularism and the rights and freedoms that govern the French society. Islamist narratives nourish feelings that incite isolation and hidden hostility to the French model, and thus the rejection of the whole lifestyle therein, leading to violent opposition thereto at the moment when the appropriate conditions are available, given that the justifications for violence against the state and its institutions are embedded in the thinking of those young people of the second and third generations.

The pace of the measures taken by the Macron administration accelerated following the two incidents of the beheading of history teacher Samuel Paty and the attack on the Nice Church in October 2020. However, those measures actually started months ago, relying on the administrative powers enjoyed by the executive authority, pending the adoption of a bill on fighting "Islamist separatism" in parliament at the beginning of 2021, so that it would have a legal framework to work through, in the direction of institutionalising "and legally consolidating confrontation against Islamists". The most important of those measures are the following:

  • Dissolving associations and organisations accused of spreading extremist or racist discourse: the authorities have so far dissolved a Salafi organisation (BarakatCity), two associations close to the Brotherhood (Sheikh Yasin Gathering and the group Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF)), and a racist Turkish organisation (Grey Wolves). During the past three years, the authorities were able to close nearly 250 Islamist spaces and activist groups, including schools and mosques that teach a separatist ideology, according to those authorities.
  • Opening investigations into the finances of institutions affiliated with the political Islam movement: in July 2020, the authorities opened an investigation into suspected foreign funding related to the funding of the European Institute of Human Sciences (EIHS), which is a non-governmental institution for higher education that is close to the Brotherhood and that offers training for imams in particular.
  • Launching the "Unity of Republican Counter-Discourse", a project affiliated with the Minister Delegate for Citizenship, whose aim is to counter the propaganda spread by the political Islam groups on social networks and the Internet.
  • Launching `"Breaking the External Impact", which is a programme that was approved by the National Defence Council on 30 October 2020, and aims to break the influence of foreign countries over the Muslims of France. Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin had revealed that the programme is implemented by the French intelligence services at all levels, and aims to prevent the influence of foreign propaganda towards moderate Muslims who have become threatened with slipping towards extremism after the strong campaign launched by Turkey against France.
  • A moratorium on bringing over mosque imams from abroad: the authorities ended previous agreements with Morocco, Algeria and Turkey under which hundreds of imams used to come annually to France to handle mosque affairs. There are nearly 151 imams who were sent by the Turkish state, while 120 imams were sent by Algeria, and 30 by Morocco. On the other hand, President Macron, in agreement with the CFCM, tends to establish a "National Council of Imams" whose task would be to grant accreditation and training for imams and preachers.
  • The bill on "Islamist separatism": the French administration suffers from a legal vacuum, which made it impotent in front of many organisations and individuals belonging to Islamic groups. Even the urgent measures it has taken are often overturned before the administrative judiciary on the grounds that there is no clear legal text criminalising what the administration considers to be violations in the cases of the extremist rhetoric, suspicions related to financing, and others. To overcome this legal impasse, the government submitted a bill which was described by the Minister Delegate for Citizenship as "addressing all grey areas in the existing laws through which violators of the values ​​of the Republic cannot be punished".  On 9 December 2020, the Macron-led cabinet approved the bill, which was called the "Law to Strengthen the New Republican Values", comprising 54 articles. Parliament with both its chambers (the National Assembly and the Senate) will begin to discuss it at the beginning of 2021. The prospective law provides “the legal basis for prosecuting and punishing those who violate its provisions, which cover a wide range of fields, including homeschooling for children, external funding for mosques and places of worship, severing the link between the two sides, imposing oversight on Islamic associations and institutions, prosecuting those who promote extremist rhetoric on the Internet and social media, and providing additional powers for police directors and governors”.

Consequences and likely prospects

For three decades, France has been witnessing seasonal campaigns against Islamic groups. During those decades, the country had taken many measures to curtail and besiege the phenomenon of political Islam. However, those measures remained mostly circumstantial and of a security nature, such as the Charles Pasqua campaign in the 1990s against Algerian associations associated with the Armed Islamic Group (AIG) and the ideology of Islamic groups that spread in France with the rise of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in Algeria, or some limited laws such as the Stasi Law that prohibits the Islamic sectarian dress and religious symbols in French institutes. The predominance of the circumstantial and limited security aspects over those measures leads to a question regarding the feasibility of the recent French measures, especially the draft law of "Islamist separatism".

While the lessons of the historical experience do not reveal any radical orientations of the French state towards political Islam, the position reached by the Islamic groups in the French interior in terms of the expansion into the neighbuorhoods and suburbs, and the depth of civil, associational and economic work, is unprecedented in the history of France. Some large neighbourhoods and cities became "isolated" epicentres from the rest of the French society. Indeed, a report issued by a parliamentary commission of inquiry within the French Senate in July 2020 clearly states: “Supporters of political Islam are currently seeking to control Islam in France in order to establish a caliphate, and they fuel a ‘separatist tendency’ in some cities”.

The author of the report Senator Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio called for "acting quickly", because "all regions of France are affected today. Otherwise, within a few years, some of those regions and neighbourhoods may leave the Republic", as she put it. This is a situation that has not been witnessed by France before, and it gives the impression that the recent confrontation was not circumstantial and purely security-oriented like its predecessors. Rather, it is sustainable and inclusive of security, educational, cultural and financial aspects. Careful tracking of the financial and economic networks would greatly weaken the activity of Islamic political groups, considering that financial weight constitutes the most important tributary of the existence of those groups.

However, the radicality of the official policies in the face of political Islam in France does not at all mean that those policies would inevitably succeed. This is attributable to objective reasons related to the opponent. Today, Islamists in France are not merely mosque associations, but rather a huge network of organisations, places of worship and commercial companies. They have support within the French academic and political elites, and maintain strong external relations and receive great external support and funding, even as countries such as Turkey and Qatar link their interests with France with the interests of those Islamists. Therefore , the French administration will face external and internal pressures while addressing this issue. The repercussions of this confrontation will also include France's foreign relations, which could turn more problematic with the Turkish side, and could become chilly with Qatar and with the countries whose rule is shared by Islamists.

There are also subjective reasons related to the alternative that the French authorities want to offer, that is what has become known as "French Islam". The matter seems difficult and lacks the structure, tools and parties capable of promoting an Islam other than the ideology of political Islam that controls mosques and Muslim societies, especially that the French government continues to rely on the CFCM to be the locomotive of this "French Islam", although the CFCM constitutes a project that contradicts the government’s project, considering that each of its seven unions owes its loyalty to a country outside France. Indeed, one of the prominent unions therein is the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Conclusion

  • The pace of the measures taken by the administration of French President Emmanuel Macron accelerated following the two incidents of the beheading of the teacher Samuel Paty and the attack on a church in Nice in October 2020. The most prominent Haraki (activist) Islamic groups that the authorities have begun to target are: the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Salafist movement, and Turkish Islamic organisations and associations active in France.
  • The new campaign of the Macron administration against political Islam does not appear to be comparable to the campaigns carried out by previous French governments. This time the campaign is more serious and more profound. In addition to its security dimension, the confrontation includes other dimensions, mainly: both civil and religious education, the economy, virtual networks, foreign loyalties, and foreign financing.
  • Macron wants to pass the draft law on "Islamist separatism" to create a solid legal framework with which to confront the Islamists instead of the administrative decisions that are annulled by the courts every time, especially the decisions to dissolve associations, expel extremists from the country, and stop radical imams from work.
  • Macron and his government are expected to face great internal pressures from Islamist groups and their support networks (elite, financial, and political), and external pressures from the Muslim Brotherhood networks in Europe and the countries that support them, mainly Qatar and Turkey. The French administration is likely to face structural and methodological problems in formulating an alternative to political Islam in France, or what it calls "the formation of a French Islam”, considering that this requires the existence of enlightening religious and Islamic elites that are not dependent on foreign loyalties.

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