Khaled Saad Zaghloul
French President Emmanuel Macron, in the presence of Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, received on Monday, January 18 at Elysee Palace representatives of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), which was established in 1999 and was renewed in 2003 by the Ministry of Interior to become the main interlocutor for the French authorities in the name of about 20 million Muslims in France, half of whom are French or have French citizenship.
Macron was displeased with the eternal political disputes between Algeria and Morocco over the leadership of Muslims in France, which lasted for decades. The French president had previously met with CFCM members in November 2020 and asked them to present guidelines for the formation of a national council of imams responsible for issuing credentials to Muslim clerics in France and withdrawing them when necessary to fight political Islamism and the ideology of the Brotherhood. A charter of republican values, which the nine federations that make up the council are to abide by, provides that the charter included an affirmation of recognition of the values of the republic, specifies that Islam in France is a religion and not a political movement, and stipulates an end to interference or affiliation with foreign countries. The escalation of political disputes between CFCM President Mohammed Moussaoui, of Moroccan origins, and Chems-Eddine Hafiz, the rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris, of Algerian origins, prevented the realization of this charter. Rather, among these nine unions that represent a large portion of France’s Muslims, there are three unions that do not adopt a “republican vision”, according to Elysee Palace.
The election of Moussaoui (55), a mathematics professor of Moroccan origins, in mid-January 2020 to head the CFCM was a shock to the Algerians, who have a large Muslim community in France of more than 6 million people and who have been the leaders for decades, especially since he was the only candidate in the elections after the withdrawal of Hafiz, who was elected rector of the Grand Mosque of Paris after the surprising resignation of Dalil Boubakeur due to health conditions after he had been at the helm of the mosque for more than a quarter of a century and had been his deputy for about 20 years. He also won votes close to the Brotherhood and the Turks.
The French were surprised by the eruption of the dispute between the representatives of the Moroccan and Algerian communities in the CFCM, which had repeatedly plagued its previous elections. Representatives of the Grand Mosque in Paris close to the Algerian government threatened to withdraw from the CFCM if the Algerian candidate was not appointed as its president. This was rejected by the current close to Morocco that considers the Algerian candidate a supporter of the Polisario front, which is hostile to the territorial integrity of the Kingdom of Morocco, as he worked as a lawyer for the separatist front, forcing him to withdraw from the election and leaving Moussaoui as the only candidate. Moussaoui was elected for two years by winning 60 votes from the 89 members of the board of directors. Moussaoui also holds the presidency of the Union of French Mosques (UMF), which is a component of the CFCM.
The CFCM faces fierce criticism from the Muslims of France due to its lack of adequate representation and the failure to achieve results worthy of the size of the largest Muslim community in Europe, where Islam represents the second official religion after Catholicism and before Judaism. However, the differences between the Islamic federations and centers that make up the CFCM continued until Hafiz returned as a member based on instructions from the French Ministry of Interior, but he quickly withdrew and resigned from the council, claiming that he saw that those in charge of it were Brotherhood members and saturated with dangerous separatist tendencies. He contented himself with his work at the Grand Mosque of Paris, which was a gift from the French government in 1926 as a reward for the Muslim warriors in its ranks during the First World War. Algeria took over its affairs until today, while late King of Egypt Fouad I gifted the pulpit of the mosque, which continues to decorate the great prayer hall.
The Algerians see in the Moroccan presidency a trend towards bringing the CFCM to a dead end, with the aim of limiting the powers of the Algerian presidency after the end of the term of outgoing President Moussaoui, given that the decision was to formally assume the presidency of the CFCM for the next session by agreement between the various Islamic organizations that form the Council, while Moroccans see that they are more entitled to the presidency according to the framework of change and democracy.
It is noteworthy that Hafiz was born in Algeria in 1954. Before immigrating to France, he participated in establishing the Union of Young Algerian Lawyers. Today, in addition to his duties as the new rector of the Grand Mosque in Paris, he holds the position of CFCM vice president since 2008. For decades, he has been the lawyer of the Grand Mosque in Paris, and he pleaded several times in mosque cases against parties he considered insulting in one way or another to Islam and Muslims in France, including a complaint filed in 2006 against the French weekly Charlie Hebdo after it published cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him). The French judiciary did not rule in favor of the Grand Mosque in Paris because French laws do not criminalize contempt of religion.
In fact, the tragedy of Muslims in France is that most of the Islamic federations remain close to their mother countries, particularly Morocco, Algeria, and Turkey, and thus depend on the context of political understandings and differences between those countries. Some Brotherhood groups and groups close to the Brotherhood control these religious institutions, and the current CFCM has not delivered tangible results for either the Muslims of France or for the French state. Rather, the competition and rivalry between Morocco and Algeria have flared up within this entity by virtue of the fact that they finance it and take over some mosques, where Moussaoui also holds the presidency of the UMF, while the Algerians accuse him of being close to the Brotherhood. Meanwhile, Moroccans accuse Hafiz of having been in contact with the Brotherhood for nearly a quarter of a century, and the last meeting he had with them was last Friday, according to what they said.
French are confused
The French were confused about how to manage the affairs of the Muslims of France in order to disperse Muslims and their quarrels, as they are like their Arab leaders. Since the 1980s, France has undertaken several initiatives to unify the ranks of Muslims under one administration to serve as the religion’s main representative to the state and to take care of Muslim affairs. At the request of former Socialist President Francois Mitterrand and then-Interior Minister Pierre Joxe, an advisory council (CORIF) was established that included 15 members from among the directors of the major mosques and prominent Muslim figures. However, his successor, former President Jacques Chirac, abandoned it, and his Minister of Interior, Charles Pasqua, ordered the abolition of this advisory council in 1995 and relied entirely on a representative council in the Islamic Institute of the Paris Mosque to establish the so-called “Islam of France”. The next minister, Jean-Louis Debre, did not like this, as he preferred to summon ten multi-visionary personalities, and after the left’s return to power, Minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement held several consultations that resulted in the era of Minister Nicolas Sarkozy establishing an official structure, which is known today as the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). In December 2016, the Ministry of Interior announced that the CFCM had officially started its work. However, according to the 1905 Law for the Separation of Religion and Politics, only projects of a general social and cultural character were assigned to it with the exclusion of essential cultural issues, but after the assumption of an outstanding Muslim figure beloved by the French and Muslims, Dr. Ghaleb Bencheikh, who holds a doctorate in physics and a doctorate in philosophy, as the head of the institution, the Islam of France has poured considerable intellectual strength and weight and has recently received support from the head of state in the amount of €10 million to continue his intellectual and cultural activities.
However, every new interior minister is still trying to change the designations or some of those in charge of the CFCM, but Islam remains lost in the disorientation of those in charge of it in France. That is why President Marcon wants to end the differences and liquidate souls in order to waive the hatred and political ambitions and take care of the interests of Islam and the state, as France fears the domination of the Brotherhood. This prompted the French government, with the president’s urging, to enact a law to deter these extremist political ideologies that produced the terrorism that has struck France since 1986.
Those of the extremist Islamic trend have invested the legal cover of individual freedoms and the values of the republic and democracy to turn against it and try to expand their influence over many regions that have become isolated from state authority and law, which is what the French officials and authorities now realize. This prompted President Macron to entrust the Senate with the task of preparing an analysis of the reality of Islamist extremism in the country, which Senator Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio did to the fullest. A report was issued that ended with recommendations and warnings for state agencies to address this threat coming from extremism based on Islam and its attempts to change the nature of life and society in France. However, the report of the parliamentary committee does not seem to provide a practical diagnosis of the situation nor an approach in formulating effective remedies for outlawing practices. Rather, it was merely results that transcended reality and events. Therefore, the enactment of the law on combating separatism and Islamist political currents was required, and this requires that these legal measures be supported by a strong Islamic council that is able to formulate Islam according to French secularism, or as they say in France, Islam with French sauce.
Separatism a headache for Macron
The new strategy announced by President Macron against “Islamic isolationism” seeks to establish a “parallel system” that confirms the rules of the French republican system, its values, and the liberal lifestyle in society. This strategy appears to be the basis of the context of his campaign for the 2022 elections to pull the rug out from under the feet of his strongest political opponents, on top of them Marine Le Pen, who is the leader of the far-right movement.
In fact, Macron’s strategy comes to hit several birds with one stone, as he fights the current of political Islamism and dries up the sources of its funding from foreign countries. It also responds to the challenges that the state faces regarding the integration of groups of immigrants and even groups of French citizens who predominate their religious or sectarian affiliations at the expense of citizenship.
It seems that the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty by a Chechen Islamist militant contributed to the acceleration of the French authorities’ campaign against militants, as hundreds of them were deported and dozens of headquarters, associations and mosques that constitute a space for the activities of these extremists were closed.
Analysts in France compare the step taken by the president now with what the late Socialist President Francois Mitterrand did thirty years ago in his tough approach against political Islamist groups, headed by the Algerian Islamic Salvation Front, which was spreading terror in the hearts of the French with a series of political bombings and assassinations in the squares of Paris at the beginning of what is known as the black decade in Algeria. This came unlike other western countries such as Britain, the United States and Germany, which opened the way to receive thousands of Muslim refugees fleeing the persecution of the authorities in Algeria, Tunisia and Egypt.
As for the power struggle between Morocco and Algeria, it is still a headache for France, as the country seeks to have a representative council of the Muslims of France capable of managing the affairs of Muslims according to the president’s new plan based on the renunciation of violence and separatist tendencies. But Macron surprised the leaders of the Muslims of France when he gathered them last November and demanded they abandon their differences that are the basis of these separatist tendencies.
Macron’s patience has run out, so he asked his interior minister to intervene to bring about the emergence of a “charter of principles” for Islam in France and asked him to reach an agreement between CFCM leaders regarding it, so that the council would end the internal disputes. He wants the Islamic Charter to be in harmony with the values of the French Republic, including the principle of equality between men and women, the refusal to employ Islam for political ends and non-interference by foreign countries in the affairs of the community. The Minister of Interior, upon the president’s instructions, received the CFCM leaders at the ministry’s Beauvau Palace and presented the charter to the council’s federations for approval before submitting it to Macron.
The minister was able to return Hafiz to the council after refusing his resignation, because he knows the size and weight of the Grand Mosque in Paris, while the CFCM leaders announced that they had reached an agreement on a charter of principles for Islam in France that specifically affirms gender equality and harmony of the Islamic faith with the republic. Darmanin hailed this “very important step forward.”
Attempts by the Ministry of Interior to remove mines from under the feet of those in charge of Islam in France were not the first and they will not be the last. But in Macron’s time, it seems that it will witness the end of the differences or freeze them. An hour of truth has come, as the minister told them, “You must choose clearly between French Islam or Salafi Islam.” Either you are with the republic, or you are not with the republic.”
It seems that the CFCM has turned the page of internal disputes after announcing that it had reached a “charter of principles” on Islam in France, in preparation for reorganizing the religion as the French government aspires. The charter stipulates in particular the “principle of equality between men and women” and the “compatibility” of Islamic law with the values of the republic, and it stresses “the rejection of the employment of Islam for political ends” and the necessity of “non-interference” by foreign countries in the affairs of the community, according to Moussaoui stated.
On Sunday, the CFCM formally adopted the charter of principles as a basis for reorganizing the affairs of the religion in France. President Macron was very pleased and welcomed the Muslim officials in the country and their affirmation of the principles of the republic, especially “secularism” and “equality between men and women”, and he welcomed the refusal to “employ Islam for political purposes” as part of a campaign against religious extremism. It is expected that a national council of imams will also be formed, which will give up the help of imams from abroad within four years.
A statement issued by the CFCM stated that the charter, whose content has not been published, specifically states that “the principle of equality before the law for every citizen, especially a Muslims in France, to live life within the framework of the republican laws that guarantee the country’s unity and cohesion.” It also refers to the hostilities that target Muslims in France and are attributed to “an extremist minority that should not be considered the French state or people.” The approval of this charter opens the door to the formation of a national council of imams, which will be charged with informing the imams of mosques in France.
In this context, the charter condemned the “interference” of foreign countries in the practice of Islam, something that the French state wants to punish as well and included in the draft law among the items to take note of foreign donations in excess of €10,000.
For his part, Macron said that he decided to put an end to the presence of 300 foreign imams in France, which he called “delegates” from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria. He ordered their deportation or the termination of their mission.
Macron stressed his pressure on Muslim representatives in France to join hands because France needs their efforts while they are reconciling so that they can purify the country of extremist ideology that leads to terrorism. After the attacks on teacher Samuel Paty in mid-October and on Nice Cathedral two weeks later, this chaos cannot continue. Islam must be reformulated to restore in France the religion of forgiveness, love and openness to the other.
Can Macron end the eternal Arab political disputes over Islamic institutions in France?