As he revealed his plan to fight "separatism" in France, President Emmanuel Macron referred to the preference given to religious law over the country's republican and secular values by Muslim citizens. In doing so, he put himself on a collision course with Islam and Muslims in his attempt to fight "Islamic radicalism" in France.
Macron indicated that he would be a spearhead in this battle, no doubt in the hope that other world leaders will follow suit. He insisted that he would make "no concessions" in his plan to crackdown on Islam and Muslims in France. "Islam is a religion that is in crisis all over the world today," he claimed, "we are not just seeing this in our country."
He wants to protect the French laïcité, the separation of church and state dating from 1905 which supposedly keeps the state neutral in terms of religion, leaving people free to follow any faith that they choose. "Secularism is the cement of a united France," he said.
The French president said that he will submit a bill in December that will solve the problems which arise in the name of religion. In the meantime, he accuses Muslims of seeking to separate themselves from the Republic and therefore not respect its secular laws.
His bill will thus seek to prevent Muslim children from attending boarding schools which offer Islamic education along with the secular French syllabus. It will also prevent distance learning for Muslim students who are not allowed to join government schools because, for example, they are girls who insist on wearing hijab.
The bill will also crack down on mosques, as it will prevent foreign Imams from being invited to lead prayers during Ramadan and end the system of "seconded Imams" which allows them to be trained in Muslim countries like Algeria, Morocco and Turkey before moving to France.
Macron's speech offended France's six million Muslims, who accused him of "stirring up Islamophobic and racist feeling." There were also reports of many Muslims around the world accusing him of spreading hatred and inciting violence.
Away from the Muslim backlash, it's worth looking at his proposed bill. In a secular state, there should be mutual tolerance between people of different faiths and the state should be neutral and not discriminate in its dealings with its citizens irrespective of their religion. Freedom of religion is actually stipulated in Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: "Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance."
Is Macron planning to violate Muslims' rights in France in order to develop a secularised "French Islam"? This would not be a surprise, as France has a track record of violating human rights and passing discriminatory laws targeting Muslims. In 2010, for example, Muslim women were banned from wearing hijab in government schools and public spaces, and in 2015 the one-piece "burkini" swimsuit was banned on public beaches and in public pools. Muslim women were thus ordered by law to reveal their bodies in public, against the tenets of their faith.
According to Lanna Hollo, a senior legal officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative in Paris, Macron, French politicians and French laws are mainly targeting Muslims, who are "best allies" to the police in maintaining public order. "Discrimination against minority communities is not only unlawful, but it is also counterproductive," wrote Hollo. "Repression and discriminatory treatment invariably breed resentment and reaction."
Hassen Chalghoumi is a moderate French Imam in a suburb of Paris. He told the New York Times that "[He] thinks conversions have also been propelled by France's official secularism, which he says breeds spiritual emptiness." Secularism, he pointed out, "has become antireligious."
Macron claims that his bill is necessary after attacks carried out by Muslims, including the attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine which published satirical cartoons of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and that it aims to crack down on extremism and radicalism among converts to Islam. I am sceptical about this, because only genuine religious and even secular education can counter this negative phenomenon among Muslims, including converts.
Rigid rules in France push young Muslims and converts to drop out of education. Emilie, a 14-year-old French girl who converted to Islam was obliged to quit her school after she was banned from wearing the hijab. Emilie was taken to a reformatory by the Justice Ministry, which handles difficult cases involving minors, from delinquency to radicalisation.
"They were worried that I had radicalised, when that wasn't the case at all," she explained. "I just wanted to practice my religion in the way that made sense to me." If Emilie was not a Muslim at that time, she would have been radicalised at the reformatory due to the harsh interrogation and staying with difficult youngsters. She would not have received the education needed at her age.
"Islam has a peaceful effect on converts," Samir Amghar, a sociologist and an expert on radical Islam in Europe told the New York Times. "The world looks clearer [to converts] after they've converted." He pointed out that Islam provides more structure and discipline than other religions.
The Atlantic reported evidence about this when it found that people who carried out the attacks in Paris and Nice "were not pious Muslims who regularly attended mosques, even though they killed in the name of the religion." It said that Redouane Lakdim, the Carcassone and Trèbes attacker who was killed in 2004, "had been jailed in 2015 and 2016 for firearms and drug possession, respectively, and was known to be active on Salafi websites."
The French pursuit of Islam and Muslims is illogical. "We're in the process of trying to organise a religion that concerns six million people in France, in order to prevent 200 of them from becoming terrorists," Olivier Roy, a scholar on Islam and professor at the European University Institute in Florence told the magazine. "Can't we see that it's absurd?" He noted that "it's up to Muslims" to assess and make reforms regarding their religion, not the state.
Macron's claims about Islam and Muslims are refuted easily. I would suggest, therefore, that he is indeed "stirring up Islamophobic and racist feeling so as to appeal to far-right voters" and is desperately trying to escape from his repeated policy failures at home and abroad. Is the French President really working to de-radicalise Islam? Not at all; he just wants to be re-elected.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.