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Controversial forum proposed by the government to reform ‘Islam’

The French government on Saturday stepped up efforts to reshape Islam in France and rid it of extremism. There was a new body made up of clergy and laymen – and women – to help guide the largest Muslim community in Europe.

Few would disagree that France has endured past Islamic extremist attacks. This is because hundreds of its citizens have fought with jihadists in Syria in the past and thousands of its troops are now fighting extremists in Africa. The efforts are also seen as a political ploy to lure right-wing voters to President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party before the April election.

France’s Interior Ministry will introduce the new organization, called the Forum of Islam in France, on Saturday. Supporters argue it would keep France – and its five million Muslims – safe and free from foreign influence. They also say it would ensure that Muslim practices in France adhere to France’s cherished value of secularism. Critics, including many Muslims who consider their religion to be part of their French identity, say the government’s latest initiative is just another step in a system that holds the whole community responsible for attacks committed by a few and serves as another barrier in their public lives.

Among its members will be imams, civil society leaders, prominent intellectuals, and business leaders. There will be a minimum of a quarter of its members who are women, according to French media reports. It replaces the French Council of Muslim Faith, a group set up in 2003 by former President Nicolas Sarkozy when he was interior minister. Government and religious leaders interacted through the Council. Macron’s government is dissolving it this month because it no longer served the Muslim community and French society in the wake of recent attacks that killed hundreds.

‘We want to launch a revolution by putting an end to (foreign influence) on Islam,’ Darmanin said in a recent interview with Le Parisien daily. In his project, Macron envisions measures like training imams in France instead of bringing them in from Turkey, Morocco or Algeria – a plan which many in the Muslim community approve of. ‘Islam is not a religion of foreigners in France, but a French religion that does not depend on foreign funds or foreign authorities’, he added.

The project has divided Muslims. At the Grand Mosque of Paris, some believers welcomed the idea cautiously. Others worry it goes too far in attempting to control their faith, or that the government has singled out Islamic institutions while it would not dare to suggest such changes at Christian institutions. Islamists in France have long complained of stigmatism in daily life, from police targeting them for ID checks to discrimination at job interviews. As soon as extremist violence occurs, whether it comes from foreign attackers or French youth, the country’s own Muslims are put under suspicion and pressure to denounce it.

The Islamic religion is the second largest religion in France and there are multiple strains within it, ranging from moderate Salafi to outright radical. The French parliament passed a law last year to strengthen oversight of mosques, schools, and sports clubs. In its press release, the French government said it was necessary to protect France from radical Islamists and promote respect for secularism and women’s rights. In parts of the Muslim world, the law has been used to shut down mosques and community groups.


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