Separatism: Bringing Islam and France's Muslims to heel

Separatism: Bringing Islam and France's Muslims to heel
Comment: In France, lawmakers are dreaming of giving carte blanche to the intelligence police, allowing them to say who is 'too Muslim' to be French, writes Raphaël Kempf.
8 min read
26 Nov, 2020
Many of the senators' proposals reinforce the powers of France's intelligence services [Getty]
Is it possible to maintain an authoritarian discourse on the "values of the Republic," demanding absolute respect for them by one and all, while paying little heed to those values oneself?

That was the dilemma facing French senator Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio (the Republicans party) and former mayor of Saint-Gratien in the Val-d'Oise region. In 2011, she refused permission for the Franco-Muslim Association of Saint-Gratien to use a meeting room for a few hours on several days during Ramadhan. Brought before the administrative courts, Eustache-Brinio was deemed to have committed "a serious and clearly illegal violation of the right to freedom of assembly and worship," according to ruling no. 352106 by the Council of State on 26 August 2011.

The senator vs. the 1905 law

Administrative jurisprudence in fact considers the freedoms of assembly and worship as fundamental freedoms. Freedom of worship is enshrined in the first article of the 1905 law on the separation of Church and state. In other words, when a local official breaches the freedom of worship, she or he is violating the 1905 law and thus the famous "values of the Republic". It is, to say the least, surprising, coming from an elected official who defends "secularism" tooth and nail.

Jacqueline Eustache-Brinio headed a Senate enquiry commission into "the response of the public authorities to the development of Islamist radicalisation and ways of combatting it." The commission was set up in November 2019 after the knife attack at the Paris police headquarters on 3 October 2019 by one of its own personnel.

For several months, she tracked the slightest signs of Muslims' religious presence in all spheres of society - school, education, sport, places of worship. The final report issued on 7 July 2020 may have taken care to state that Islam and the Muslims, and the peaceful pursuit of their faith, were not targeted, but the subtext of the report gave the impression that any visible manifestation of Islam displeased the senators.

French law does not in fact prohibit affirmations of faith in public, as long as they do not disturb public order

They wrote: "This religious renewal [of Islam] is for some people accompanied by a desire for affirmation of their faith in the public space, at work, at school, and for recognition by institutions and public services, which conflicts with the laws of the Republic and with secularism."

This is an astonishing statement. The law does not in fact prohibit affirmations of faith in public, as long as they do not disturb public order. The suggestion that laws of the Republic were being flouted is equally troubling: no specific legal regulation can be shown to have been flouted by these visible manifestations of Islam.

The report - and indeed a number of public statements - is replete with empty references to "laws, rules or values of the Republic," with the oft-repeated claim that Muslims would be in contravention if they rejected equality of the sexes, demanded halal dishes in the canteen or put themselves forward on electoral lists (the report denounces "intrusion on electoral lists," although contesting elections is a democratic act as well as a demonstration of integration). Such references are devoid of any substance, because no legal text is ever cited as being actually violated by one kind of behaviour or another.

Read more: An unpopular Macron invokes the anti-Muslim playbook

The Senate enquiry commission initially referred only to "Islamist radicalisation," but ended up adopting the term "separatism," probably under the influence of the president of the Republic. In his speech at Mulhouse on 18 February 2020, Emmanuel Macron in fact expressed his feeling that "there are some parts of the Republic which want to separate from the rest," denouncing "the desire to stop respecting the law … in the name of a religion."

So it was in light of this "Islamist separatism" that the Senate commission was to continue its hearings and its work, arriving at the conclusion that "the development of an '
Islamist separatism' in the territories of the Republic has gathered pace in the last 20 years."

Defending the Arab dictatorships

The senators thus believed they were countering the "Salafi revolution of the 1990s" as well as an "Islamisation of French society." They even seemed to lament the fact that the "Islamists" have not been repressed in France as they were in the Arab countries. "While the Arab countries engaged in a campaign of repression against the Islamists, be it by the regime of Ben Ali in Tunisia or the army in Algeria, by contrast France and Britain, for example, chose to welcome the Islamists on their soil."

It is astounding that these sticklers for the "values of the Republic" should be envious of the repression of the Islamists in Algeria or Tunisia: the violation of human rights - values of the Republic if ever there were - committed during this repression has been widely documented.

Next the report tries to make a typology of a "militant Islam" prospering in an "Islamist ecosystem" whose emergence has been facilitated by Islam's wealth in France: "Capable of raising the necessary capital for these [mosque] constructions, Islam is, contrary to the general impression, a 'rich' religion, with profitable 'commercial activities' such as the hajj, the repatriation of the deceased, and the halal system."

The analysis of Islam advanced by the senators ends up as an amalgam of received ideas on Muslims

In the end, reading the report leaves the impression that there is a necessary but implicit link between apparently unexceptional Islamic activities - eating halal food, building mosques, etc. - and movements from the radical Tablighi Jamaat and jihadists, through to Salafists, the Muslim Brotherhood the Turkish Millî Görüs.

So the analysis of Islam advanced by the senators ends up as an amalgam of received ideas on Muslims sprinkled with academic and political reflections on supposedly militant movements, leaving the bizarre feeling that there is a unity between these diverse elements. The conclusion therefore comes naturally for the senators: it is a question of combatting in every nook and cranny of society any manifestation of Islam which might lead to what is considered a form of radicalisation.

Counter-terrorism... and deception on public transport

The senators present 44 proposals which might appear in the draft law against Islamist separatism promised by the government for the coming months. It is not worth going through them in detail here, but it should be noted that some of these proposals reinforce the powers of the intelligence services and an extension of the logic of suspicion, while putting blind faith in the intelligence police.

This movement is not new. In 2015, the socialist politician Gilles Savary put forward a bill whose aim was to combat terrorism and fraud on public transport at the same time. The proposal became the law of 22 March 2016 on preventing and combatting anti-social behaviour, breaches of public security and acts of terrorism on public transport.

It created an unprecedented system for vetting people applying for certain specific jobs in the transport sector, such as metro or train drivers. Anyone seeking such a post would now be the subject of an administrative investigation led by the Interior Ministry's National Administrative Security Investigation Service (SNEAS), whose powers were unfortunately expanded.

The SNEAS now carries out an investigation of the job-seeker in conditions of complete secrecy, and simply provides a conclusion, positive or negative, on his or her  recruitment as a metro driver, while the candidate is left in the dark as to the reasons for the police considering them dangerous and thus unsuitable. So the Paris transport authority and the national railways refuse to take on a candidate who has been given the thumbs-down by the police.

What is deeply shocking about such a system is that it gives executive power to police suspicions which are neither substantiated nor challenged, although at the moment the administrative jurisdictions seem to be disputing this mechanism

The religious police

The senatorial report of 2020 proposes to broaden the scope of these administrative "security" investigations to include recruitment for jobs deemed sensitive, such as teachers, organisers and educators (proposal no. 17) but also to extend the authority of the SNEAS to cover people organising reception centres for minors (proposal No. 30).

It is a question of combatting in every nook and cranny of society any manifestation of Islam which might lead to what is considered a form of radicalisation

If these proposals are written into law, the SNEAS police will be empowered to scrutinise their files in minute detail and to investigate every teacher in the land, but also all the organisers and anybody connected to minors, which could end up meaning millions of people. But above all, decisions turning down a person on the grounds of risk, of inappropriate behaviour, or of radicalism would not be based on any explicit reasoning. All it would take for an individual to be barred from working in a school or a holiday camp would be for the SNEAS to give the thumbs-down, for unknown reasons.

So the senators are dreaming of giving arbitrary powers, a carte blanche, to the intelligence police, allowing them to say who is too Muslim, or nearly radicalised, or who spends too much time in such-and-such a mosque, or whose clothes are not "Republican" enough, so that the people targeted by this moral police - this religious police - should be excluded from their profession and therefore, often, from society.

In the name of Republican values and the fight against separatism, the senators have pulled out all the stops to propose measures which wholly contradict the fundamentals of the Republic, and which would instead have the effect of helping to divide society.

This article was originally published by our partners at Orient XXI

Raphaël Kempf is a criminal defense lawyer in Paris, focusing on human rights and freedoms. 

Follow him on Twitter: @raphkempf

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.