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Will banning foreign funds for French mosques help combat terrorism?

© Patrick Kovarik, AFP | The Grand Mosque in Paris, one of 2,300 mosques in France, home to Europe's largest Muslim population.

Video by FRANCE 24

Text by Benjamin DODMAN

Latest update : 2016-07-29

In calling for a ban on foreign financing of French mosques, France’s prime minister has touched on a tricky debate in a country where the state’s relations with a fragmented Muslim community are constrained by entrenched secular rules.

Manuel Valls, who is under pressure amid a string of terrorist attacks on French soil, said Friday he was “in favour of the idea that – for a period yet to be determined – there should be no financing from abroad for the construction of mosques”. In an interview with French daily Le Monde, the Socialist prime minister also called for imams to be “trained in France, not elsewhere”.

Valls said Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve, whose portfolio also includes religious affairs, was working on building a "new model" for France's relations with Islam. He added that Salafism, the fundamentalist branch of Islam espoused by many jihadists, “has no place in France”.

His comments were welcomed by the conservative Les Républicains, France’s main opposition party, whose leaders have rounded on the government’s perceived security lapses as they gear up for primaries to designate a candidate in next year’s presidential election.

The prime minister's proposal tapped into a longstanding debate on foreign influence over Islamic institutions in France, a staunchly secular country that is home to Europe’s largest Muslim population and over 2,300 mosques, some of them financed by Saudi Arabia and other Gulf or North African countries.

The spate of terrorist attacks that has recently struck France, two thirds of them committed by homegrown jihadists, has heightened concern that many Muslim worshippers may be exposed to a dangerous brand of radical Islamism that is imported and financed from abroad.

‘Islam de France’

Pierre Conesa, a lecturer at Sciences-Po Paris and author of a report on counter-radicalisation, said all terrorists that claimed to act in the name of Islam belonged to the Salafist movement, which he described as “the most racist, sectarian, homophobic, anti-Semitic, misogynous and sectarian branch of Islam”. He said France had been guilty of allowing Salafism to thrive on its soil.

“You lay the groundwork for violent action when you allow this kind of anti-Republican ideology to spread on your territory, notably through Salafist imams who are paid by Saudi Arabia,” he told FRANCE 24 in the wake of Tuesday’s murder of a French priest by militants who claimed allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) group.

But calls to strengthen oversight of Muslim places of worship, through the establishment of an “Islam de France", tend to clash with France’s deeply entrenched secular rules, most notably a 1905 law that institutes a strict separation between church and state – and prohibits the use of state funds for the construction of places of worship.

That law was largely conceived with the Catholic Church in mind, by far the dominant faith at the time. But while French Catholicism had no shortage of places of worship, the rise of Islam in France has been accompanied by a chronic scarcity of funds and mosques, providing ample scope for foreign involvement in the construction and running of Muslim institutions.

French ambiguities

Earlier this month, a Senate committee published a wide-ranging report on Islam in France, in which it criticised the inherent ambiguity of the state’s policy towards Muslims, stating: “On the one hand there is the intent to organise Islam in France in order to have greater control; on the other hand it [Islam] cannot be touched because of the 1905 law. The equation is unsolvable.”

The report highlighted serious shortcomings in the training of imams in France, calling for a single training programme that is “adapted to the French context”. At present, France only counts two centres that are qualified to train imams. As a result, some 300 imams are hired from abroad, including many “whose French language skills are poor”.

The Senators called for regular surveys of France’s Muslim population, which is believed to number between 4 and 5 million. The aim, they said, was to acquire “a better understanding” of this population in a country where statistics based on religious, ethnic or racial criteria are banned.

The report also detailed foreign investment in French Muslim organisations, finding that Morocco had allocated 6 million euros and Algeria 2 million euros (excluding wages to imams sent by Algiers) in 2016, while Saudi Arabia had contributed 3.8 million euros since 2011. However, it noted that most of the funding came from France itself, notably through individual donations.

Ban on foreign financing ‘absurd’

While it investigated the extent of foreign involvement, the report did not call for a ban on foreign financing of French mosques, as advocated by Valls. One of its authors, Senator Nathalie Goulet, said such a ban would be “absurd and impossible”.

"[Valls's] comments are based on the assumption that radicalisation takes place inside mosques, which is not true," she told AFP news agency. Bernard Godard, a former interior ministry official in charge of relations with Muslim institutions, added that foreign funds tended to reach the larger mosques, those least likely to foster radicalism.

Experts have noted that it would be illegal for the French state to step in if foreign financing were interrupted. “The state cannot finance the construction of mosques because of the 1905 law, and worshippers cannot cover the expense alone,” Goulet told FRANCE 24 shortly after the report’s release. The solution, she said, “is not to ban foreign financing but to make it transparent and conditional".

According to the Senatorial committee, the best way to monitor foreign funds is to ensure they all transit through a dedicated foundation, known as the Fondation des oeuvres de l’Islam (Foundation for Islamic Works) – provided it functions correctly, which is currently not the case.

Ever since its inception in 2005, the foundation has been plagued by disputes between different Muslim groups, which disagree over its governance. Similar feuds have beset the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM), the main umbrella organisation of Muslim groups, sapping its legitimacy in the eyes of many Muslims. Both institutions' woes are indicative of the many hurdles to the establishment of an Islam de France.

The Senators’ report said the state’s ambiguity was again on display last year when it appointed a civil servant to breathe new life into the foundation, whereas it “is up to the [Muslim] community itself to deal with the problem”. Under France’s secular laws, Goulet added, “the state can supervise, help and accompany, but it must not take the initiative".

Date created : 2016-07-29

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