France unveils reforms to tackle Muslim radicalisation
France set out a package of reforms on Wednesday aimed at better integrating Muslims and preventing radicalisation in the wake of the recent jihadist attacks in Paris.
It outlined plans to set up a "dialogue forum", tapping leading associations, intellectuals and other notable figures from the Muslim community for regular talks with the government.
Much of the focus will be on the training of Muslim preachers, trying to "encourage the emergence of a generation of imams fully engaged in the Republic", an interior ministry source said.
Radicalisation in prisons is also central to the reform efforts.
Two of the three Paris attackers are thought to have been radicalised in prison, where a chronic shortage of Muslim chaplains – there are only 180 nationwide – has often ceded spiritual guidance to extremists.
France's strict secularity laws make it illegal to count people by their religion or ethnicity, but a report on prisons by an opposition MP last year estimated that 60 percent of the prison population (roughly 40,000 people) were Muslim.
Prison chaplains "will only be recruited if they have obtained the new training diploma in the fundamental principles of the Republic," Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said.
The government is aware that it is treading on sensitive ground and is keen to avoid charges it is seeking to dictate religious practices, which would itself be a breach of the country's strict separation of church and state.
"It is not the state's job to reorganise the religion from within or to decide who are the nice Muslims," said another interior ministry official.
But it wants imams to take a new civic responsibility diploma, to be offered at a dozen universities by the end of the year, to imbue them with the values of a country that prides itself on liberty, equality and fraternity.
"Certain imams lack knowledge of the language and the law," the ministry official said.
It is a difficult balancing act for the government, and previous attempts to open a dialogue with Muslims have stumbled in the past.
The French Council of the Muslim Religion, set up in 2003, has been widely criticised for failing to represent the full diversity of France's 4 to 5 million Muslims.
A short-lived Islamic Foundation set up in 2005 was also considered a failure, but has been revived under the new reforms with the aim of providing training, research and cultural expertise.
The government also wants a closer eye on education, ensuring religious schools follow the national curriculum.
The reforms have been under preparation for a long while, but the January 7-9 attacks in Paris in which 17 people died, have added a sense of urgency.
The government says they are partly designed to protect Muslims. January saw 176 acts of aggression against Muslims – more than the whole of 2014.
To that end, it is providing cash to improve protection at Muslim places of worship, including video surveillance.
"It is crucial the Republic protects all its children and especially mosques from anti-Muslim acts," said Cazeneuve.
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