After the Paris attacks, France and the Muslim community must meet new challenges
Paris – On Sunday November 15, two days after the murderous rampage at the Bataclan theater and the attacks in the 10th and 11th arrondissements here, Cardinal André Vingt Trois, Archbishop of Paris, presided over a late afternoon mass at the cathedral Notre-Dame, the famous sanctuary where the French meet in times of war or affliction.
He delivered a well-received sermon calling for tolerance and dialogue. The church was full and this ceremony was certainly a positive signal for the French Catholic community. However, several observers noted that Muslims were not able to organize the same kind of celebration and that the unease caused by the attacks on the offices of Charlie Hebdo last January was not dissipated by the unanimous condemnation of the events of November 13.
France is home to the largest Muslim community in Europe, around 5 million people. This means that this country is at the forefront of a great cultural and religious debate that will spare neither other European countries nor America. However, the legacy of a long history of religious conflict has left its mark and it seems that France and its citizens will have to change their habits in very significant ways to be able to face this new challenge.
Until the Second World War, the French Catholic Church, despite its power and influence, found it difficult to adapt to a political system which categorically refused any collaboration with priests and bishops considered hostile to the Republic and as reactionaries. After World War II, the situation changed dramatically. A large Christian Democratic movement shared government with other left and right parties and state grants were allowed to go to the country’s many Catholic schools. This reconciliation between Church and State, based on a common respect, seems to put an end to a crisis that had begun in 1789, at the beginning of the French Revolution.
The unforeseen growth of a Muslim population over the past 50 years has tested relations between the government and different religious communities, an issue that is beginning to surface in political debates in the United States as well.
Compared to Catholics, Protestants and Jews, Muslims suffer from serious handicaps in their relations with the state. Their religion has no real credible organization. France has attempted to create a national association of Muslims but the organization has limited influence and is split into various streams related to foreign interests. Moreover, its clerical system lacks the organization of most other denominations and denominations. The imams who speak in the mosques here are very often self-proclaimed and lack a thorough education in religious matters. This quasi-absence of central organization combined with a dramatic lack of money has very negative consequences. Foreign Muslim countries such as Morocco, Algeria or Turkey pay imams and finance the construction of mosques in an attempt to control emigrants from their own country.
This state of affairs is deeply discouraging for young people who want to practice their faith and improve their knowledge of the Koran. They are well aware that they will not receive the same message if they attend a mosque run by the Salafists, ultra-conservatives within Sunni Islam subsidized by Saudi extremists, as they would if of a more moderate Moroccan imam. In the second case, the imam probably only speaks Arabic, a language that educated young French people do not understand.
It is therefore not surprising that many young people connect instead to sites sponsored by the Islamic State, managed by French speakers and using violent videos with stunning efficiency. Most are simply content to watch these programs and communicate with other believers. A small minority goes further and, convinced by extensive propaganda, flies to Turkey and crosses the border into Syria. This was the case of the militants who killed 130 women and men on 13 November.
On November 21, Les Gracques, a center-left think tank, organized a debate in Paris on these topics. A young Muslim scholar, Hakim el Karoui, insisted that the Muslim community must organize itself, deepen its doctrine and stop being dependent on foreign powers or Saudi benefactors who constantly confuse politics and religion. The other participants agreed on the need to greatly improve the level of education of imams who should be able to speak French and be educated in French institutions instead of being directly imported from North Africa.
There was also general agreement that the political establishment could not enforce the strict rules of separation between religion and state as before. France’s “secular laws” were adopted at the beginning of the 20th century in response to a largely Catholic questioning of the legitimacy of the Third Republic. These laws, and the culture of “secularism” they have helped to create, guarantee a resolutely secular public square. But secularism has only partial answers to non-radical Muslims’ experience of alienation, let alone to the challenges Muslims face as a religious community in a modern, pluralistic society. It is obvious that the full integration of the huge Muslim minority implies government funding of their religious institution so that they can be on the same level as their Catholic or Jewish compatriots, who have built their organizations and their presence in the culture over several centuries.
There remains the main question that religious experts keep asking themselves: why are so many young people, not all from Muslim families, dissatisfied with Western societies and eager to find a new ideal with fanatics who can be murderers? The explanation is neither economic nor social. Many militants come from wealthy families and are not so different from the young women and men who died at the Bataclan.
In a televised debate, sociologist Michel Wievorka said that some of them, at least, were looking for new meaning in their lives, in a world that decidedly lacked any spiritual authority. It is certainly a failure of French Muslims to have never been able to support a charismatic preacher capable of proposing a version of their religion in conformity with the democratic values of the Western world. For the moment at least, there is no Muslim Martin Luther King in France.
The same questions arise within the Catholic Church. Some travelers to Syria, around 20% according to security agencies, had a Catholic upbringing and yet shifted to Muslim fundamentalism, which they discovered online. It is likely that many others will be fascinated without making the fateful decision to go further. It seems somehow that the destinies of the two main religions in France are closely linked. They must make a great effort to listen to the younger generations, help them face a difficult life in an unforgiving society that values money more than anything, and provide them with the ideals that are so lacking today.
Europeans and Americans must carefully monitor the decisions made by French religious authorities because they must be aware that sooner or later they will face the same dilemmas in their own country.
[Antoine de Tarlé is a French journalist and a regular contributor to the Jesuit monthly Etudes.]