France’s government launched the Forum of Islam in France (FORIF) on 5 February to serve as the official interlocuter between the French state and its Muslim citizens.
The French Interior Ministry has explained that FORIF is intended to mark a “new stage in the dialogue between the public authorities and the Muslim faith”, replacing the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) and correcting some of the defects of CFCM, specifically by broadening the stakeholders involved, rather than having one centralised body. One-quarter of the representatives will be women, the heads of local Muslim associations will be involved, as well as independent personalities from within the community. It is hoped that this increased diversity will improve the dialogue between state and citizenry on key subjects like training imams who reject radicalism, tackling anti-Muslim crime, security for places of worship, and the transparency of funding for mosques and religious groups.
This last concern is one shared by other European governments, notable Austria, and the unspoken concern is the flow of funds from particularly Turkey and Qatar that has supported religious leaders associated with radical groups—such as the Muslim Brotherhood, the Turkish version Mili Gurus, and Tablighi Jamaat—and given these radicals an outsize influence among France’s Muslims.
The overall attempt is to foster a more enlightened and tolerant version of Islam to bolster community resilience against extremism, part of Paris’ reaction to the problems that were exposed by the Islamic State (ISIS), which exploited the vulnerability of France’s Muslim population to recruit operatives who assisted in terrorist outrages like the massacre at the Bataclan in November 2015. And the immediate trigger for this latest push by France to solve its Islamist extremist problem was the murder in October 2020 of Samuel Paty for having discussed the Charlie Hebdo controversy with students. Paty had done this in the most sensitive way possible, yet still became the victim of a vast online disinformation and incitement campaign that led to him being beheaded in the street by someone who was entirely unrelated to the school.
The founding of FORIF builds on France’s “Charter of Principles”, which laid out a new framework for a National Council of Imams (NCI). The Charter and the NCI it birthed will train and license imams who adhere to the values of the French Republic—liberty, equality, fraternity, and above all the French version of secularism, laïcité. The Charter works to prevent the instrumentalization of religion for political purposes and also spells out the regulations against external interference in the community and its religious leadership.
There has been some criticism of the Charter and FORIF as being too paternalistic, and France’s treatment of religion would in a number of countries—notably the United States—be unconstitutional. But in the French context, far from being too heavy-handed, the state has so far taken an unusually hands-off approach to Islam in comparison with other faiths. As Haoues Seniguer, a lecturer in political science at Sciences Po Lyon, recently explained at EER, the Islamic sector has been, for a number of historical reasons, “deeply unregulated”.
France is belatedly harmonizing its approach to Islam with the other great religions in the country. There is much work to be done, and as Haoues told EER, FORIF is the “umpteenth attempt” to forge a workable compact between the French state and its Muslim citizens. The criticism about its representativeness is unavoidable given the size and variety of France’s Muslim population. Nonetheless, it is a worthy effort to provide an environment where French Muslims can practice and construct their faith in harmony with their country, while having freedom from negative outside influences and a minority of determined radicals.