By: Arshad Alam
In a debate on the place of Islam in France, the centrist French interior minister accused the far right leader Marine Le Pen of being ‘too soft’ on Islamism. Not only was Le Pen shocked and started fumbling, the left leaning daily Le Monde described this exchange as ‘unprecedented’ and called it an ‘unexpected gift’ for Pen to have been ‘portrayed as a moderate by a minister without having to change her poliمcies’. This political encounter not just highlights the confusion over how to deal with Islam but also how far the centre in France has traversed to the right. Islamism and its associated political violence is not new to France. The country has been facing this problem for more than a decade now. The current debate within France is in the backdrop of the killing of Samuel Patty, a teacher who had discussed the issue of Charlie Hebdo with his students as an example of free speech. There is some evidence to suggest that parents who got upset over the content of this kind of teaching, had called for him to be punished. His beheading by an immigrant Muslim sparked a fresh round of talk about the place of Islam and Muslims in France. It must be recalled that the French president Macron had publically stated that Islam is going through a major crisis and that there was a need to curb foreign influences on this religion. He had talked about bringing in a new law to tackle this problem. That law is currently being debated in the French parliament and there are good chances that at the end of this debate, we will see a much stricter law than was envisioned by the president himself. Certainly the law will have the support of the right but not without making it more specific to Islam. The proposed law has very nearly divided the French society. Those opposing the law are largely from the left who have been arguing that the attempt of the French state should be the integration of Muslims rather treating every one of them as potential terrorist, which this law intends to do. The left has been highlighting issues like racism and discrimination against Muslims, which they argue, leads to alienation, violence and terrorism. The problem of ‘Muslim separatism’, according to them, can be solved by putting policies in place which integrate more and more Muslims within the opportunity structure. This solution is extremely ill informed of the complexities of Islamism. Research suggests that Islamism does not occur because of lack of opportunities but because it subscribes to a certain ideology. That ideology is one of establishing Islamic supremacy all over the world and making a particular interpretation of Islam as the master narrative. Certainly there is no racism and discrimination against Muslim in the Islamic world and yet we see some of these countries in the grip of Islamism and terrorism. Granted that Muslims in Europe are at the margins but this precariousness of their material situation must not be seen as the sole reason for the growth of Islamism. Moreover, the left, and not just in Europe, has been making the mistake of defending Muslim regressive practices like sexual segregation as a matter of communitarian choice. A community policing its women and children is not a matter of choice but simply a matter of political subjugation. The left, in turning a blind eye to a whole host of anti-libertarian practices within the Muslim community, is simply not being true to its own political philosophy. That said, the law should not be open to misuse and an entire community should not be held guilty for the folly of a few. The law might create the impression that Islam is incompatible with France which might further stigmatise Muslims. One aspect of the proposed law is an increased surveillance on mosques in a bid to control radicalism. While not discounting the fact that one particular mosque was related to the killing of Samuel Patty, most radicalism now happens online and through international networks. One is not quite sure how an increased surveillance over mosques would be potent in controlling radicalism and terrorism. Moreover, the government should be seen to be just and fair when it comes to Muslim groups. While it has banned the “Collective Against Islamophobia”, which fights against discrimination of Muslims, the government hasn’t dealt with the far right Generation Identitaire in a similar fashion. Such double standards create the impression that the current French government is simply interested in stigmatizing Muslims rather than having an earnest interest in fighting Islamism. At the same time, there are aspects of the law which should have been addressed by Muslims themselves. The law seeks to curb home schooling and allow it only in exceptional circumstances like medical condition. Part of the reason why some Muslims are objecting to this provision is because they believe that the French schooling system promotes values which are antithetical to Islam and hence they want educate their children at homes. Parts of the legislation also seeks to crack down on any behaviour that violates the dignity of people, especially women. The provisions of the proposed law seek to ban ‘virginity tests’ and put stricter measures against forced marriages and polygamy. There is no justification today for schooling children at home simply because parents want to inculcate certain religious values in them. Fundamentally, this goes against the right of children. Similarly, the advocacy of sexual segregation in schools by certain Muslim groups should necessarily be seen as an attempt to control women’s sexuality and not celebrated as the choice of a community. In the first place, Muslims themselves should have come forward and put a stop to these practices. In not addressing issues such as forced marriages and segregation, they themselves have left the space wide open for intervention by the state. It is heartening to note that despite the brouhaha to the contrary, many Muslims in fact are welcoming such reforms. The voices of these Muslims need to be amplified for they sure tell us that there is nothing inherently antagonistic between Islam and the French state; that there is a meeting ground between the demands of the state and the reformist impulses of Muslims.