Is ‘French Islam’ possible?

Sunday 25/09/2016

The results of a recent survey about French Muslims published by France’s liberal think-tank Institut Montaigne fuelled more controversy than most similar surveys in the country in recent years.

According to the survey, A French Islam is Possible, 5.6% of France’s population is Muslim. This figure runs counter to the unjustified fears of Muslim migrants swarming France and gradually replacing the natives.

Contrary to another common misperception, the overwhelm­ing majority of Muslims in France are French citizens; only 26% are foreign nationals. They are also mostly younger, with 84% under age 50, and more socioeconomi­cally challenged than the rest of the population; 38% are not part of the active labour force compared to 16% among the rest of France’s population.

The study results come a few months after the Nice terrorist massacre and the Paris shootings of last November. Muslims of North African origin were implicated in both incidents. Since then, the issue of Muslim immigrants in France has been one of the most hotly debated topics of the pre-electoral season.

As they look to the 2017 presi­dential race, candidates from the far right, as well as some from the more mainstream right, have been trying to use the migrant issue to their advantage.

Former president Nicolas Sarkozy raised eyebrows when — in an over­simplification of French history by the son of Hungarian and Greek migrants — he addressed natural­ised foreigners saying: “Once you become French, your ancestors are the Gauls.” In other words, Arabs, Africans and other ethnic groups need not apply.

In this heated political context, the survey has provided ammuni­tion to both sides of the debate. For many of France’s staunch secular­ists, it came as a shock that most French Muslims said they believe in religious rites and are inclined towards conservative mores. Ma­jorities said they buy halal food and support the wear­ing of the hijab by women.

More problematic, how­ever, is that about 28% of Muslims in France adhere to an ultra-conservative form of Islam, which toler­ates such practices as the wearing of the niqab and burqa.

According to Hakim Ka­roui, author of the survey and a former French official, a younger and poorer segment of the Muslim minority aims by its adherence to this “reactionary form of Islam” to “buttress its revolt” against a soci­ety in which it is not integrated.

“When you have four or five times less chance of getting a job because you have a Muslim name, it makes no sense to speak of the republic or of equality,” he said.

The survey is, in many regards, reassuring about the adherence of the majority of French Muslims to the French secularist value system of laïcité: 66% of Muslim respond­ents said they see secularism as guaranteeing the free practice of religious faith and 84% consider religion a private matter.

The problem may be that the survey reflects a sharp contrast between attitudes of the fairly religious Muslim community compared with the non-Muslim majority whose ties to religion have frayed.This contrast is partially the result of the enduring influence of the culture and societal trans­formations of North Africa, from which 60% of French Muslims hail. Maghrebi migrants, whether naturalised or not, did not sever cultural ties to their countries of origin. Because of those ties, they were not immune from the sweep­ing tide of conservatism which gradually replaced the early mod­ernist aspirations that predomi­nated after independence.

Socioeconomic dissatisfaction and related feelings of margin­alisation, especially among the ill-educated and the underem­ployed, fuelled an identity crisis. Resentment of Western policies towards Iraq and Palestine further shaped attitudes, as did the narra­tives promoted by the preachers of radicalism.

An additional influence is the internet. The survey revealed that 70% of Muslims in France said they go online when they need informa­tion about their religion. It is likely that a minority of disgruntled Muslims will never get on with the (secularist) programme. Others are likely to emerge from the sidelines only when they see that they have a stake in their own society.

But it remains a fact that integra­tion has succeeded with the vast majority of French Muslims. That is no minor feat and the Institut Montaigne survey proves it.

The survey, however, does point out that one-in-four French Mus­lims are not registered to vote and only one-in-two said they will cast a ballot in 2017.

One easy way for French Muslims to demonstrate their adherence to French values is by changing their voting patterns and participating in the 2017 elections — elections in which they are inescapably one of the key issues of debate.