WASHINGTON DC: Those who believe in the “clash of civilizations also claim that Islam cannot flourish in the West without creating a threat there.
However, such talk falls on deaf ears in France where Islam has been present since the Middle Ages, albeit in very small numbers initially.
The Algerian conquest in 1830 and the French protectorates over Morocco and Tunisia conferred a distinctly North African tone to Islam in France.
And it was to pay tribute to the sacrifice of tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers during the First World War that the French Republic decided in 1922 to build the Great Mosque in the heart of Paris.
Secularism is deeply rooted in French history and this far-reaching heritage also affects the current situation of Muslims. While the Revolution of 1789 granted full citizenship to the Jews of France, it denied them the right to organize as a community and, to this day, the Republic is extremely wary of anything resembling multiculturalism.
Although the separation between church and state was established in 1905, Islam was not a party to this covenant between the Republic and the Catholic Church. This is why, in France, mosques are often an outcrop of cultural (as opposed to religious) associations.
French law prohibits the collection of statistics based on religious or ethnic origin, but current estimates set the country’s Muslim population at four to five million, or six to eight percent of the total population.
Both in absolute and relative terms, France hosts the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, and it has also granted citizenship more generously than neighboring countries. Muslims in France are therefore French first and foremost, and links with their countries of origin become naturally weaker with the second and, even more, with the third generation.
The rate of marriage with non-Muslims is in the range of 20 to 50 percent, depending on the groups concerned. This fact flies in the face of the very concept of “community .
In view of its great diversity, Islam in France cannot be reduced to a stereotype. For one thing, when polled, a large proportion of Muslims describe themselves as having no religion. For another, those who do practice say that they prefer individual worship to collective worship in a mosque, even on a weekly basis.
Fasting during Ramadan, however, is gaining ground and is often celebrated in evening dinners open to all. A number of Sufi orders are active in France and 40,000 people go on the yearly pilgrimage to Mecca. Finally, conversion to Islam is a remarkable feature, as witnessed by the football player Franck Ribéry or rapper Abdel Malik.
While the secular Republic has no religious (or non-religious) bias, it must also engage with Muslim leaders on certain matters, such as ritual slaughtering, the religious calendar, religious cemeteries, and chaplains in the armed forces, among other things.
In 2003, a painstaking consultation process finally resulted in the election of a French Council for the Muslim Faith, whose legitimacy and mandate are strictly confined to religious issues. In fact, many voices arose to deny this council any claim to other types of representation.
The first president of the council was the rector of the Paris Great Mosque, Dalil Boubakeur. He was re-elected in 2005, but the position was handed over to Mohammed Moussaoui in 2008, a university professor, thus displaying an evolution charged with meaning and symbol. However, the bulk of the work gets done in the regional councils for the Muslim Faith in cooperation with the local authorities.
The 2005 riots in the suburbs were wrongly described as “Muslim , mainly by the Anglo-Saxon media, although Islam played no part whatsoever in those serious social disturbances – neither in a positive sense (none of the appeals for calm issued by the mosques had any impact), nor in a negative sense (no politicised Islamic agitator as such was identified).
A few months after the disturbances, a Pew Research Center poll conducted in four European countries revealed that three out of four Muslims in France see no contradiction between religious observance and social integration (versus one in three in the UK).
In France, the respondents defined their identity equally in terms of French citizenship and Muslim faith, contrary to Germany or Spain, where only a tiny minority cited citizenship as part of their identity. The inclusion of Muslim diversity in the secular structure of the French Republic largely accounts for this result.
Jean-Pierre Filiu is a professor at Sciences Po (Institute of Political Studies) in Paris and a visiting professor at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. His last book, Apocalypse in Islam (Fayard, 2008), won the main award at the French History Convention. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).