Sam Westrop, project director for the Middle East Forum's Islamist Watch, interviewed Martha Lee, Islamist Watch research fellow, in an August 6 Middle East Forum webinar (video) regarding the French government's response to Islamism in the wake of deadly jihadi terror attacks.
Reeling from 264 deaths from Islamist terrorism since 2015, France has embarked on a far more wide-ranging response to the threat than any other Western country. Whereas successive American administrations have regarded jihadi violence as a policing matter, while ignoring or even accommodating lawful Islamist groups, French President Emmanuel Macron and most of the French political establishment understand "that Islamist terrorism can't be entirely separate from lawful Islamism."
(Westrop has distinguished between Islamism, "a 20th century political ideology that seeks to impose a theocratic ideal upon the world," and Islam, "an enormously diverse religion ... that includes a variety of sects and movements." The term lawful Islamism refers to Islamist networks "that may not ... directly advocate violence; but ... teach a similar theocratic worldview from which violence can, and does, emerge. They control charities, mosques, schools, community centers, activism and advocacy organizations, seminaries, PACs, inter alia.")
The French government has taken a number of measures to combat lawful Islamism, the most notable being the anti-separatism bill passed by the French National Assembly in July 2021. Although the bill does not specifically mention Islam or Muslims, its provisions were clearly drafted with concerns about Islamism in mind.
The bill has two key financing provisions: Religious organizations receiving foreign funding – as many mosques in France do – are required to publicly declare donations of more than 10,000 euros. Moreover, organizations that receive public funds now have to "sign a contract agreeing to respect the values of the Republic and to abstain from any action that would threaten the public order" said Lee, and risk forfeiture of the funds if they violate these terms.
This latter provision is not easy to enforce, as Islamist organizations have often given lip service to the ideals of the Republic while promoting extremism behind closed doors. However, Lee noted that such deception is more likely to be exposed when the public is highly sensitized to Islamist threats, as is the case in France. The French press has been diligent in exposing radical organizations that claim to be moderate so as to receive funds under false pretenses, though she acknowledged that major offenders are more likely to be exposed than smaller organizations.
Another provision of the law is designed to make it difficult for extremists to join the board of a mosque or modify mosque by-laws unless there is "authorization from a deliberative body." The bill also allows authorities to close places of worship for up to two months if they are found to be promoting hate, discrimination, or violence.
Macron has also taken steps to end a system whereby foreign countries send imams to France to serve the Muslim community there, though Lee cautioned that installing French-born imams in lieu of foreign imams doesn't ensure that they won't be susceptible to local Islamist influences. "The Muslim organization that is supposed to be responsible for training these imams" does not "seem very trustworthy," she added.
While Lee said there is little concern that Islamism will spread in the secular French education system (religious symbols, such as the hijab, are not allowed in public schools), many Muslim parents circumvent this secular environment by sending their children to private schools or choosing to homeschool them (which usually means enrolling them in some form of clandestine religious instruction). The French government has instituted "stronger requirements" for private schools and tightened the approval process for parents who wish to homeschool. In French higher education, as in America, Lee sees the main problem being "academics who deny Islamism" as an ideological force.
Since most of the terror attacks in France over the past year were committed by foreign nationals, the immigration issue has also been brought to the fore. Another new law stipulates that asylum seekers will be denied asylum if they have been found to have praised or promoted terrorism. France has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe, which has raised concerns that continuing immigration of Muslims will exceed the country's ability to "integrate them properly" and "lead to unrest."
Lee was skeptical that France's efforts to legally curtail Islamism will be emulated by other European countries because France has a "very particular relation to secularism ... [an] understanding that the public space should be protected in a certain way from religion." Other countries don't have this understanding of secularism and are "unlikely" to adopt such strong measures to regulate religious institutions.
Islamists and the progressive left have vocally condemned the French anti-Islamism campaign, both at home and abroad. Islamist and non-Islamist critics alike frequently misrepresent Macron's words, said Lee. While Macron has specifically taken care to distinguish between Islamism and Islam in his speeches, his foreign detractors often mistranslate his words to give the impression that the government is "going after Muslims, in general, rather than Islamism," and that "all French Muslims are threatened by these laws." The anti-Islamism campaign is portrayed as a "direct continuation of French colonial laws" and proof of "French hatred of Islam."
In conclusion, Lee said that "Islamism ... require[s] a firm response." While it's too early to tell how effective the anti-separatism bill will be in curtailing Islamism, she believes that targeting the financing of Islamist groups has considerable promise.
Marilyn Stern is communications coordinator at the Middle East Forum.