Open letter on anti-Semitism sparks fierce debate on Islam in France

The controversial letter called for certain verses of the Quran to be 'declared obsolescence by theological authorities'.
Sunday 29/04/2018
Stirring up hate. A woman holds a white rose as she stands outside Mireille Knoll’s apartment during a silent march in Paris. (AP)
Stirring up hate. A woman holds a white rose as she stands outside Mireille Knoll’s apartment during a silent march in Paris. (AP)

LONDON - An open letter published in French newspaper Le Parisien condemning a “new anti-Semitism” and signed by numerous public figures trained a spotlight on the relationship between France’s Jewish and Muslim communities.

The letter drew a direct link between rising anti-Semitism in France and Muslims, explicitly blaming “Islamic radicalisation” for what it described as a “quiet ethnic purge” of Jews from Paris.

Written as a manifesto “against the new anti-Semitism,” the letter was drafted by former Charlie Hebdo Editor Philippe Val and signed by more than 300 prominent public figures, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy, former Prime Ministers Manuel Valls and Bernard Cazeneuve, former Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe, actor Gerard Depardieu and singers Charles Aznavour and Francoise Hardy.

The letter called for certain verses of the Quran that are used by extremists to justify anti-Semitic views to be “declared obsolescence by theological authorities” and played down Islamophobia, saying that Jews in France were more likely to be victims of assault than Muslims.

Since 2006, 11 Jews have been killed in France in anti-Semitic crimes, the letter stated. The most recent anti-Semitic attack to rock France was in March when 85-year-old Mireille Knoll, a Holocaust survivor, was stabbed 11 times and her body was set on fire. Two men, aged 22 and 29, have been charged with the crime. Knoll’s granddaughter claimed she was killed by a Muslim neighbour.

The incident recalled the killing of Jewish teacher Sarah Halimi, 66, in April 2017, whom prosecutors say was killed in an anti-Semitic attack by “a Muslim neighbour she knew well.”

While some praised the letter’s intent to raise the issue of anti-Semitic crimes, others said Muslims were being unjustly singled out and that the manifesto’s tone could lead to further division.

“This letter, which unfairly puts French citizens of the Muslim faith and Islam on trial for anti-Semitism, presents the obvious risk of dividing religious communities,” Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, warned in a statement.

Boubakeur called for “reason, civility and fraternity” to avoid falling into the “trap” of division and highlighted examples of interfaith outreach between France’s Muslim and Jewish communities.

“We, French citizens of Muslim faith, wish to make the fight against both anti-Semitism and anti-Muslim racism a national cause to eradicate these poisonous and extremely harmful views,” he added.

“The only thing we can agree on is that we must all unite against anti-Semitism,” Ahmet Ogras, head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith umbrella group, told Agence France-Presse.

Even France’s chief rabbi, Haim Korsia, a signatory of the letter said he disagreed with some aspects of it, including the “comparison between the inherent threats of being Jewish and those inherent to being Muslim.”

“I was most reticent about the fact that it was [presented as] a sort of competition. Who was the most at risk,” he told Franceinfo radio.

Abdallah Zekri, head of France’s   National Observatory against Islamophobia, described the letter as opening a “nauseating and catastrophic debate.”

“In Islam and France’s Muslims, the failed politicians who are suffering from a lack of media attention have found a new scapegoat,” he said.

Tareq Oubrou, imam of the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux, criticised the idea that verses of the Quran should be excised. “Any number of holy texts are violent, even the Gospel,” he said.

A few days later, 30 imams signed an open letter in Le Monde in response to the Le Parisien “manifesto.” The letter argued that mistaken interpretation of Islam by extremists — not the Quran itself — is the problem.

The imams’ letter warned that Islam had fallen into the hands of “an ignorant, disrupted and idle youth. A naive youth, easy prey for ideologues who exploit this dismay.”

“For more than two decades, subversive readings and practices of Islam have been rampant in the Muslim community, generating a religious anarchy, rife throughout society. A cancerous situation to which some imams unfortunately contributed, often unconsciously,” the letter said.

The imams also called on non-Muslim leaders, schools and police in France to “show greater discernment between Islamic extremists who have attacked France in recent years and Islam itself.”

The letter was signed by senior imams tied to the Alpes-Maritimes region in south-eastern France.

While the issue of anti-Semitism came to the fore following Knoll’s death, official figures from France’s Interior Ministry indicate that the number of anti-Semitic crimes fell in France in 2017 for a third consecutive year, down 7% from the previous year.

France has the largest Jewish community in Europe, with approximately 400,000 members. However, this number is down from 500,000 in 2000.