Irfan Thakar and Omar Ahamad feel misunderstood as Muslims in France. They are members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Saint-Prix, a northern suburb of Paris. As the imam, the 30-year-old Thakar regularly leads the prayer at the Moubarak mosque, which features a green-and-white carpet and large windows that let in lots of light.
“I am French,” Thakar told DW while sitting in a room adjacent to the prayer room and sipping a glass of multivitamin juice. “And, yet, I have to explain that over and over again to non-Muslims,” he said. “Many people think that Islam is incompatible with France — but that’s not true.”
Ahamad, sitting in an armchair next to him, nodded his approval. “We are being treated as if we belonged to a different nation, a different race,” he said. “That’s also due to the fact that the media only speak of Islam when there has been another terror attack.”
They mention the speech President Emmanuel Macron gave in the suburb of Les Mureaux, just 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Saint-Prix, in early October. “Macron talked about ‘Islamist separatism’ and said that Islam was in crisis,” Thakar said. “How can he say something like that? That’s highly stigmatizing.”
The alienation Thakar and Ahamad have felt will likely increase should a series of new measures proposed by France’s government pass.
Surveilling French mosques
The proposed measures follow three recent terror attacks in France in which assailants killed a total of four people and severely injured two people in and around Paris and the southern city of Nice. The government has increased surveillance of about 50 Muslim associations and 75 mosques. France also intends to expel more than 200 non-citizens suspected of having been radicalized.
A bill that will be put before the Cabinet on Wednesday would increase surveillance of all mosques in France, as well as their financing, with the government also aiming to add more oversight to the training of imams. The draft law would also limit homeschooling, create new rules against online hate campaigns and permit imprisonment for intimidating public servants on religious grounds. The bill could reach Parliament in early 2020 and come into force a few months later.
Thakar and Ahamad are not opposed to surveillance of mosques and imams suspected of engaging in extremism. “It’s in our interest to do something against these radical fanatics that have nothing to do with our vision of Islam,” Ahamad said. “We also need to protect our own families against them.”
Asif Arif, a lawyer who is also a member of the Ahmadiyya community and the author of the book Etre Musulman en France (Being Muslim in France), said the new measures missed the target. “Terrorists no longer get radicalized in mosques,” he said. “That all happens online and while they are in contact with international networks.”
Arif said the measures would only further stigmatize Muslims in France. “The government has double standards,” he said. “It bans the Collective Against Islamophobia, which fights against the discrimination of Muslims. But it doesn’t disband the far-right group Generation Identitaire, which clearly carries our illegal actions such as doing police controls amongst migrants on the border to Italy two years ago.”
“What’s more, we already have sufficient laws to fight terrorism and one of the world’s strictest anti-terror legislation,” Arif said. “Instead of coming up with new laws further restricting our freedoms the government should apply the existing ones.”
Government ‘not Islamophobic’
The government denies that the religion itself is being targeted. “We are not Islamophobic,” a spokesman for Elysee Palace told DW during a recent press briefing. “We are only trying to enforce the values of our republic.” He said some mosques were spreading hate speech online, and cited the Grand Mosque of Pantin in a northeastern suburb of Paris. That mosque had put out a video condemning the history teacher Samuel Paty because he had shown a caricature of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in class. In October, an 18-year-old Chechnyan Muslim from Russia killed Paty.
The spokesman said the government was monitoring Generation Identitaire. “We will never let the enemies of the Republic thrive in France,” he said.
But Francois Burgat doesn’t believe that the government is neutral when it comes to religion. He is a political scientist at the Institute of Research and Study on the Arab and Muslim Worlds in the southern city of Marseilles. “Macron has entered a new phase,” Burgat told DW, referring to the policies sought by the president. “He takes the necessary measures to please the right and the far-right, as he needs their vote in the presidential elections in 2022.”
Burgat said Macron should finally accept that the country has its share of responsibility when it comes to radicalization. “Muslims often get discriminated against on the job market and feel sidelined in our country,” he said. “That incites them to get radicalized. Recognizing that will help us fight at least the radicalization happening on our own soil.”
Macron’s wide net
Farhad Khosrokhavar, a sociologist at the School of Advanced Social Sciences in Paris, said the measures were foremost aimed at appeasing the public. Recent polls show that more than 90% of respondents think that the risk of new terror attacks in France is high or very high.
“The government is cracking down on groups that have nothing to do with radicalization,” Khosrokhavar told DW. “And Macron now opposes Salafists, which in France often belong to the peaceful pietistic branch. All this is highly stigmatizing.”
Khosrokhavar said France’s interpretation of secularism was part of the problem because of its strict rules, such as a far-reaching ban on headscarves worn by Muslim women at school and in public workplaces. “That vision is anti-Muslim, which contributes to people getting radicalized,” he said.
“It can’t be a coincidence that, between 2000 and 2017, there were 23 terror attacks in France compared to 10 in Great Britain and only five in Germany,” Khosrokhavar said.
The lawyer Arif said he hoped the situation would improve — and he has concrete suggestions to help make that happen. “The government should finally bring in Muslims instead of only declaring them the scapegoats,” he said. “We are not the problem: We are part of the solution”.
Arif called for a three-months “cool down” after terror attacks. “The government shouldn’t be allowed to pass any new terror-related laws during that period,” he said, “so as to prevent hasty reactions that would only limit our freedoms even more.”