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Being Muslim and French and Being French and Muslim

Hakim El Karoui leads Brunswick’s Paris office and is a Senior Fellow at Institute Montaigne. He discusses France's experience with secularism and ways to integrate Muslims into French society.

Interview with Hakim El Karoui November 30, 2021 //   14 minute read

Hakim El Karoui leads Brunswick’s Paris office and is a senior fellow at Institute Montaigne, where he authored the report, A French Islam is Possible. The former French government official writes frequently on the challenges of religious freedom in his own country. A practicing Muslim, he founded Young Mediterranean Leaders and Club 21 to integrate young Muslims into French society.

Hakim spoke with Lindsay Lloyd, the Bradford M. Freeman Director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Human Freedom Initiative, Chris Walsh, Senior Program Manager in the Human Freedom Initiative, and William McKenzie, Senior Editorial Advisor at the Bush Institute, about France’s experience with secularism. He also discussed ways to integrate Muslims into French society. And he explained why he thinks a new Muslim narrative would help younger Muslims understand the origins of their faith and build greater social cohesion.

How do you define religious freedom?

In general, religious freedom means being free to believe in and practice your religion. The definition is simple, but the issue is the context, and what can be seen as an obstacle or not.

In France, the definition has a specific meaning. France does not rank high in global rankings on religious freedom because of laïcité, which is the French concept for secularism. From a legal standpoint, laïcité is simple: It's the separation between all churches and the state. The state is neutral. It does not recognize any churches. 

But for many political actors, commentators, and intellectuals, laïcité is about four other things. First, laïcité is the inheritance of the battle between the state and the church going back to the Middle Ages. For many people, laïcité is a way for the state to counter the ambition of the church. Historically speaking, this involved religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Now, it involves Islam.

The second definition involves the organization of power between the state, the government, and the churches. And the third definition is tied to the Enlightenment. Laïcité is another word for atheism, which is seen as being free from religious control and thinking. And, last but not least, laïcité is a way to be Islamophobic.

These four views are not about the same thing, but all the actors back laïcité as a concept.

How does laïcité play out in French society? How does it impact daily life?

In practice, laïcité is quite complex. A 2003 law, for example, banned the wearing of veils and other religious symbols at school. In France, school is seen as the temple of the French Republic. And a large majority of French people don’t want competition between the “religion of the Republic’ and the Islamic religion. 

The way to understand the veil ban is to understand the conflict between the Republic as a religion and Islam as a religion. School is the republican temple, and many don’t want any competition of the republican rule inside the school.

The burka, which is the veil some Muslim women wear, was banned for two reasons. First, there is the security reason. It's impossible to know who is under the burka. And second, there is the cultural reason, which deals with the idea of equality between men and women. Legislators who supported the ban considered the wearing of the burka as discrimination against women.

In France, the definition has a specific meaning. France does not rank high in global rankings on religious freedom because of laïcité, which is the French concept for secularism. From a legal standpoint, laïcité is simple: It's the separation between all churches and the state. The state is neutral. It does not recognize any churches. 

Of course, the French debate around Islam is very hot. Many people contend that Islam is not compatible with France and republican values. 

I am a practicing Muslim, and I am trying to invent a way of being Muslim and French and of being French and Muslim. Laïcité is a very good way for Muslims to be part of the global citizenship. And it's also a very good way to protect Muslims from political activists opposed to Islam and against Islamist activists who would like you to be Muslim as they consider the way to be Muslim.

When you look at the current state of play in France, does one side or the other have the upper hand? Are the forces for laïcité stronger? Or are the forces for greater religious expression stronger?

Most people are for laïcité after terrorist attacks were perpetrated in the name of Allah in 2015. But some of them were just against Islam. 

The latest example is Eric Zemmour, a polemicist and journalist who is to the right of Marine Le Pen. He has said things about Muslims that would not have been possible before the terrorist attacks. The discrimination against Muslims now is very high, but hopefully it's only words. There has been no violence against Muslims.

Is it possible or desirable to keep religion out of the French public square?

Yes, it is desirable. This is about maintaining the freedom of religious believers. 

But Muslims have much to do to improve their situation. First, they have to recognize that they are not responsible for any terrorist attacks and the spreading of Islamism in France. But if they see themselves as victims, the rest of the French population will not understand them. They have to recognize that they are a part of Islam and must fight against Islamism. They are the only part of the society which can fight against Islamism because they can use religious arguments against Islamist activists.

It’s important to understand that Islamism is not about the first generation of immigrants. It's all about the second generation, and it's a question of identity. 

----dynamic----

The second generation of Islamists are no longer from the country of their parents, they are no longer French, and they are nowhere in terms of identity. They are looking for an identity, and a lot of Islamist activists offer a new identity that is based upon a very conservative interpretation of Islam and a global identity. 

You are no longer from Tunisia, Algeria, or Morocco. And you are not yet French because you refuse to be French, or you feel rejected by French society. So, who are you? You are Muslim. But you will not be a Muslim like your father. You will be Muslim with a different way of being Muslim; a way that is more conservative and more vocal.

I am a practicing Muslim, and I am trying to invent a way of being Muslim and French and of being French and Muslim.

The situation for French Muslims is very complex. Some French Muslims feel that French society is asking them to make their religion a private matter, while also asking them to condemn the terrorist attacks. They wonder whether people want them to show their religion or hide it. Being seen as a Muslim comes with a heavy burden in French society.

As a French Muslim, I believe we have to condemn and respond to this interpretation of Islam. The best way is to be a good French citizen. You can act as a French citizen and as a Muslim. 

Let me follow up about the second generation and their search for religious identity. How specifically is that impacting France's laïcité? 

We have to understand the French model of integration, because this is at the very heart of the French paradox. We are at once an open and closed society.

For example, the level of intermarriage is very high between French people and Muslims coming from the second generation in North Africa or a Sub-Saharan country. Women know that Islamic law and local tradition forbid a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim man. But around 20% to 25% of French Muslim women marry a non-Muslim man. At the same time, there is a very high level of discrimination against Muslims in France. 

There is one way of becoming French. It means having a certain way of practicing your religion and a certain way of considering yourself a French citizen. There is one path and, if you follow it, you can become French very quickly.

But if you don't follow this path, you will be rejected because you didn’t follow the path of French universalism and you did not embrace French heritage. When you are integrated, people don't see your difference. But when you are not integrated, they only see your difference.

This creates a lot of tension. 

The French military has received praise for how it has integrated Muslims into its ranks. What lessons could be learned from the military for the broader French society?

The French military is a good example of French society. Very few Muslims are at the very top of the French military hierarchy. But Muslims make up around 10% to 15% of the French infantry. We know that because of halal food being provided to soldiers.

The Army is very well organized, so it's natural to be Muslim. You have your own food. There is a procedure to ensure Muslim soldiers will not fight against other Muslims.

But we still are at the beginning of the process. That’s why there is no Muslim at the very top of the hierarchy. 

Eighteen years ago, I founded the 21st Century Club to show the rest of the society and the family of immigrants that it's possible to go up in France. I would have thought the integration of immigrants into the top rungs of French society would have been better by now. The numbers are rising, but they are still quite low.

Let me follow up on that. How is the struggle to integrate Muslims affecting the cohesion of the larger French society?

It's affecting cohesion in two ways. 

First, a number of people in prison have a Muslim background. They are not in prison for their religion. It's more of an immigration issue, largely stemming from Muslims with a North African or Sub-Saharan background. Their population in prison is very high compared with their stake in the global population. Around 8% to 9% of the French population is Muslim, but probably around half the population in prison is Muslim.

Second, many in the French middle class think that the future will be worse than the past, and it will be tougher for their children to succeed in life. They are looking for a scapegoat, and immigrants are the best scapegoats they can imagine. 

----dynamic----

This is true as well in the Western world, where there are debates in the middle class over globalization and automation. People are looking at others underneath them in society to reassure themselves about their future.

During a Wilson Center webinar this summer, you talked about Muslims needing to produce an alternative narrative. What do you mean by that? And what would that narrative look like? 

In the Muslim world as a whole, but specifically in the Western world, we need a Muslim narrative that is compatible with Western contemporary values. The only way to define this Muslim narrative is to go directly to the texts and to Muslim history, and to work with this those sacred texts and stories. 

The Salafi narrative talks about the very beginning of Islam. But we need historians and Muslim clerics to explain that the Salafi narrative is not the truth, that there are multiple interpretations. They need to provide the youngest generations another interpretation of the origins, another view of the history of the Prophet, and another interpretation of what being a good Muslim means.

In the Muslim world as a whole, but specifically in the Western world, we need a Muslim narrative that is compatible with Western contemporary values.

In Muslim countries, you have the tradition of your father, your uncle, and your cousin knowing about Islam. In France, young people in the second generation do not necessarily consider their fathers, their uncle, and their cousin as a good source to understand Islam. Their friends and social networks often provide that source, and those sources will provide them a very conservative interpretation of Islam that is based upon the idea of conflict with the Western world and Western values.

We need a market of ideas where people can get another interpretation. As Muslims, we need to provide another interpretation and engage people on social networks to spread that interpretation. And we have to convince the French government that if they want to block the Salafi threat, they have to help French Muslims produce and spread this kind of content.

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