Reframing the Debate on Islam in France

By Tareq Oubrou

Why does the public expression of Islam pose a problem – not just in France, but all over Europe? Yesterday, it was the construction of minarets in Switzerland; the day before, it was the headscarf. Today, it is the demand for halal (permissible according to Islamic law) meat in canteens and banned street prayers that have fuelled a sense of exclusion and led to tensions within French society.

It’s in this context that a new report on Islam in the Arab majority French suburbs was published in October. Titled Suburbs of the Republic, this report by Gilles Kepel, a French political analyst specialising in Islam and the contemporary Arab world, comes a few months before the French presidential election, and confronts both politicians and Muslims with reciprocal responsibilities.

Suburbs of the Republic, which addresses some of the issues regarding Muslim integration in France since the 1980s, notes that there has been a strengthening of religious feeling in poorer districts. This increased religiosity in the suburbs is partly due to insensitivity and negligence on the part of political and public authorities. Because of the isolating social housing policy upheld by both leftist and rightist governments for decades, for example, Muslims immigrants have often had to live in homogenous communities, rather than in diverse ones.

When it comes to the failure of education in these parts of the country (more than 50 percent of students in these suburbs do not obtain an advanced degree), who is responsible? For obvious reasons, Kepel highlights education as a major challenge in his main conclusion, which is directed at the government.

These socioeconomic issues are bound to have a negative impact on Muslims dealing with their identity, leading them to feel that being Muslim might equal exclusion from French society. But this phenomenon is not unique to matters of religious identity; it is also an issue of being part of an underprivileged social class. Kepel explains that “this assertion of identity should not be understood too literally; it is also another way of asking to integrate in society, not necessarily to reject it.”

In no way does this absolve French Muslims of their responsibility. In fact, addressing the other side of the problem falls to religious, intellectual or cultural Muslim leaders themselves. This recent eruption of the public expression of Muslim faith has been sudden, often chaotic, identity-based and at times reactive. The majority of Muslim leaders have yet to realise the level of concern this has triggered in secular societies, such as France’s.

One thing is certain: everyone agrees on the values of the French republic. The issues under question are strictly of a technical and ethical nature. I propose two principles that might help us, within existing laws, to find viable ethical-technical solutions. Discourse ethics is a concept coined by German sociologist and philosopher Jürgen Habermas, for whom mutual understanding is the product of debate and discussion. Additionally, reasonable accommodation, a legal concept invented by Canadians to allow accommodations when possible in order to avoid discriminating against minorities, could also offer a general framework for the resolution of this major social issue of integration.

Take the example of Muslims praying on the street. The street prayer ban in September made media headlines. The solution to this problem involving the perceived takeover of public space is incredibly simple and can be addressed through the Canadian principle of reasonable accommodation. Namely, since Friday prayers are fairly short a mayor could, for example, rent out a room to those observing it for a few hours, pending the purchase of their own facility.

In the absence of any other solution, and to accommodate the needs of the faithful, a Muslim congregation could also conduct two or three prayer services every Friday, instead of just one in which people spill over onto the street. This canonical option is indeed possible.

With a modicum of goodwill and common sense, a solution can always be found, provided ideology, politics and fanaticism don’t mix. The key is a desire to live together in respect and fraternity – the national motto of France.

Tareq Oubrou is Director of the Bordeaux Mosque and president of the Imams of France Association.

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