Source: New York Times
By Kamel Daoud; is an Algerian novelist.
State secularism works in funny ways.
PARIS — What to do about Islam in France? Considering Islamist terrorist attacks, communalism and the international manipulation of Muslim communities, the matter is pressing. But it’s contentious, because managing Islam seems to go against laïcité, France’s staunch version of state secularism, and a 1905 law that mandates the separation of church and state.
Wouldn’t revising that law be an admission that secularism is bowing to Islamism? On the other hand, if the law isn’t revised, or if the French state cannot find other ways of monitoring and steering Islam, then Islam in France risks falling under the control of foreign states or the influence of radicals. That is already the case, actually: Since laïcité prohibits the French authorities from using public funds to build mosques or train imams, Algeria, Morocco, Turkey and Saudi Arabia have stepped in. According to the newsmagazine L’Express, 70 percent of imams practicing in France are not French.
In an attempt to overcome these paradoxes, President Emmanuel Macron recently convened at the Élysée Palace the country’s various Muslim leaders and then representatives from all religions. The order of the day for the broader meeting, held on Jan. 10, was old emergencies: how to punish radicalism, control the financing of mosques and make Muslim authorities accountable. The news daily Le Monde, which obtained the note that the president handed to attendees, reported that the government was proposing to revise the 1905 law while “confirming” “its principles.”
It was an attempt to square a circle, a malaise, so very French. And the narrower question of what to do about imams — their origins, their trainings, their salaries — summarizes it well.
Here is a first hurdle: It’s virtually impossible to tally imams in France. No one really knows how many there are, partly because the collection of data based on ethnic or religious grounds is prohibited. The last available estimates from the interior ministry — which date back to 2012 — put the number of mosques in France at around 2,500. (A 2016 report by the Senate said it was closer to 3,000.) But those figures are as outdated today as they were imprecise in the first place: What even counts as a “mosque” when so many Muslim believers gather in the basements of low-income building complexes or other improvised prayer halls? And there being 2,500 mosques doesn’t mean there are 2,500 imams: In Sunni Islam, the version of Islam most prevalent in France, anyone can declare oneself an imam and volunteer to lead prayers or the Friday Sermon.
There is no central authority overseeing Islam in France. Anyway, how do you supervise the mosques you don’t fund or imams you can’t pay?
For the time being, France, for lack of its own theological schools, has favored filtered immigration: It brings in imams from abroad, mostly from the home countries of its main immigrant communities, either for long stretches or just for Ramadan. Paradoxically, one of the justifications for this policy — though rarely admittedly publicly — is security: It seems less risky to rely on an official imam from Algeria than to let a self-proclaimed imam emerge in a Paris banlieue, or suburb.
For example, Algerian imams wishing to go to France must first undergo investigations. And as the Algerian government puts it, modestly, the “Algerian expertise” in internal security matters ensures quality vetting. The government has also offered its services to the United States, Belgium and Italy.
In 2018, Algeria sent approximately 100 imams to officiate in France. Morocco and Tunisia contributed about as many each. In 2017, L’Express ran the headline “Morocco, the factory of French imams,” with an article on imam-apprentices, some sent from France, whom the kingdom was training in how to dispense “middle-ground” Islam before dispatching them abroad. According to the news weekly Le Point, Turkish “consular structures” oversee more than 250 mosques and about 200 official imams seconded by Turkey to France.
— TheMuslimTimes (@TheMuslimTimes2) July 17, 2017