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Saturday, November 2, 2013

A posture of victimhood by Gilles Kepel

Being Muslim in France means having to navigate through a complex terrain informed by an aggressive secularism, sponsored by the state, a hostile to Islam public opinion (as the recent successes of Marine Lepen in the opinion polls suggest) and a sectarian Muslim communal life. The following text by Giles Kepel that appeared in Le Monde on 01.11.2013, provides an interesting take on the transformations taking place within French Islam but also reflects aspects of the official discourse on the relationship between Islam and the French state. The translation is my own.

On 15 October, for the first time in the history of the Republic, an incumbent Prime Minister visited the Great Mosque of Paris , on the occasion of Eid al-Adha, the great feast of the Islamic calendar. In a brief statement, Jean-Marc Ayrault spoke to millions of our fellow believers in what he called "a great religion of France" to extend his wishes. He reminded them of "the government's determination to safeguard respect for freedom of conscience and freedom of worship, which are among the foundations of our nation (...) in accordance with the laws of the Republic, secularism and convictions of others" .
These words become meaningful  in the context of  the controversy over the place of Islam in our country being  in full swing in France. While, on the one hand, people  warn of the tribulations of our national identity facing forces that want to dissolve it in the name of a vindictive concept of Islam exacerbated by Salafism and intensified by  jihad, on the other, we build up aphorisms against the "Islamophobia" that French elites are guilty of spreading, a post-modern avatar for anti-Semitism that nowadays targets primarily Muslims.
This discussion is based on false premises. Ideology replaces the rational observation of the reality of today's France. Forcing such arguments, constitutes a means of building positions of power either in the intellectual or the religious field, in order to mobilize political support on the basis of identity particularly at the forthcoming elections. And this politics of identity, which assign to our citizens a sense of belonging that is  fixed on the basis of faith, constitutes the very negation of the secular pact, one of the foundations of the values that inspire the Republic. Because they want us confined to one side or the other of a "clash of civilizations" promoted as a fault line of our nation, at the expense of its social fissures.
There is no denying that our concern for civility phenomena emerged recently. On the one hand, the Merah case of March 2012 reminded us that Jihad-inspired terrorism always had the capacity to attract followers, especially in the suburbs. And over there, the precepts of Salafist radical purism based on a rupture with the values of the political culture of secular France, straitjacket individuals in distress facing the curse of unemployment and the growing hold of dealers. On the other hand, assaults against persons, including women who cover their hair as  prescribed by the various movements of Islamic revival without violating the law, or the desecration of mosques have taken place. When offences or crimes are committed, the law must be applied to locate and punish the perpetrators - the Prime Minister solemnly reiterated by going to the Great Mosque of Paris on the occasion of Eid el- Kebir. And when students of a Jewish school or military are killed in the name of jihad, the perpetrators must be prosecuted and convicted.

A new generation

The gravity of these facts can not provide an excuse to divide our society into two camps with distinct identities, each of which is draped in the clothes of the victim and banishes the other in the camp of the culprits. The all-round denunciation of "Islamophobia" is also, in the context of the current debate, a resource of victimhood used by some political and religious actors to forge a community under their leadership and exercise hegemony over its members under a mobilizing slogan. The events' of Argenteuil or of Trappes this summer, were kind of a "coup" within French Islam, led by the same people who incessantly denounce Islamophobia, who managed to delay for one day the start date of Ramadan originally set by the French Council for the Muslim Faith - thus precipitating the collapse of the body established by former President Nicolas Sarkozy, and promoting through the conflict an alternative leadership for Islam in France.
Our compatriots,  Muslims or not, deserve better than these debates that want to take them hostage to particularistic causes. And this is what the remarkable and recent phenomenon of the high level of participation in political life after the 2005 riots of a new generation of young immigrant whose families came predominantly Muslim countries of the Mediterranean south shows. These are the thousands of elected municipal or regional officials, hundreds of candidates in the last legislative elections of June 2012, which, by taking full advantage of their rights as citizens, are transforming the identity of the communities in which Islam is expressed in France. Ten thousand voices, including many young people who voted for the first time, that Senator Samia Ghali welcomed to her citizenship project  in the second round of the Socialist primary in Marseille, constitute a much more important phenomenon for the future of our society than the cries of the minor preachers of identity and phobia.

Gilles Kepel (political scientist and professor at Sciences Po)
originally published at

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