France’s choice of a non-Muslim to head French Islam foundation ruffles feathers
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The appointment of French politician Jean-Pierre Chevènement to head the newly formed Foundation for Islam in France, which aims to improve relations between the state and the Muslim community, has sparked controversy in many French circles.
Chevènement, a former French interior minister, was chosen to head the Foundation for Islam in France Monday following a meeting between current Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Muslim community leaders in Paris.
Announcing the decision Monday, Cazeneuve said the aim of the discussions was to forge “an Islam anchored in the values of the French Republic”.
But the choice of Chevènement, a 77-year-old career politician whose past posts include defence as well as interior minister, was greeted with skepticism by many activists and community leaders.
“It’s a joke,” civil rights activist Yasser Louati, whose work focuses on issues of Islamophobia and national security, told FRANCE 24. “We keep treating Muslims as if they are foreign people who need to be disciplined.”
The problem with this foundation and similar ones that came before it, Louati argued, is that it was established by the government. For such an organisation to succeed, it needs a bottom-up, and not a top-down approach, he said. The community should have been asked about how they wanted the initiative to be structured and who they wanted to head it. As it stands, “it is bound to fail,” he said.
Louati was also critical about Chevènement’s appointment. “It is like me appointing Ronald Reagan to head up African-American affairs,” he said.
Not without credibility
Ghaleb Bencheikh, an author and expert on Islam, who will sit on the organisation’s board, told FRANCE 24 that while a Muslim president for the foundation would have been “ideal”, Chevènement is an acceptable choice in the short-term, when the main aim is to get the project up and running.
Bencheikh said there is no obvious consensus option from within the community at the time being, and that Chevènement will serve a transitional role.
Chevènenement is not without credibility within the community, Bencheikh added. He was a disciple of noted French Arabist Jacques Berque, he has travelled extensively in the Arab world, he was president of the France-Algeria Association and he resigned from his position as minister of defence in protest at his nation’s involvement in the first Gulf War.
But Chevènement has already ruffled feathers by saying that Muslims should be “discreet” and try to blend in. He also said that there were 135 nationalities in a racially diverse suburb of Paris, but one has almost disappeared, referring to French nationals.
The implication that the French nationals living in Saint-Denis, many of them of North African origin, are somehow not French prompted officials in the northern Parisian suburb to write to President Hollande, asking him to renounce Chevènement's appointment.
Heightened tensions with the Islamic community
Bencheikh said that in the aftermath of the recent terror attacks in the country, something needed to be done. France was faced with a choice over what kind of Islam it wanted: a tolerant, open Islam or the Islam of violence and jihad. Bencheikh believes the foundation will help promote the former.
Tensions with the Islamic community were heightened this summer when nearly 30 towns in France banned the full-body burkini swimsuit. Some mayors linked the ban to the July 14 truck attack in Nice, which was claimed by the Islamic State group, in which 86 people were killed, and other attacks carried out by Islamic extremists.
On Tuesday the human rights office of the United Nations called the burkini ban “a grave and illegal breach of fundamental freedoms”, and a “stupid reaction” to the recent attacks.
The UN wants French officials to lift the bans “immediately,” said Robert Colville, spokesman for the UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
France’s top administrative court suspended the ban in one Riviera town on Friday, but the mayors of several other towns said they would ignore the decision.
Islam is the second-largest religion in France, after Catholicism, and France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. The French government does not ask about religion on the census, but estimates put the community at between five to 10 percent of the population.