Haoues Seniguer, a lecturer in political science at Sciences Po Lyon and a researcher at le laboratoire within Triangle UMR 5206 in Lyon
The Forum for the Islam of France (FORIF) was officially launched on Saturday, 5 February 2022, in the presence of the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Darmanin. The FORIF took over from the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) created in 2003. The latter had been moribund for several years, due to internal quarrels linked to a competition between national executives, against a background of rivalries and competition between leaders from Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey.
The State has a difficult task. Indeed, as a secular state by virtue of the Law of Separation of the Churches and the State (1905), the public authorities, through their representatives, are bound by a strict duty of neutrality and a balance, which is always fragile, between respect for the religious freedom of individuals and the organisational autonomy of religions, and the preservation of a framework for ongoing dialogue with their real or supposed representatives, precisely in order to guarantee this freedom, public order, and civil peace. The Ministry of the Interior and Religious Affairs constantly reminds us of this in the statements of its ministers and in official documents. It emphasises that secularism (laïcité), which effectively obliges the State not to recognise any religion, does not mean that it thereby ceases to have any relationship with religions, whatever they may be. However, it must be acknowledged that this balance and neutrality have never been observed to the letter in the case of Islam, for good and bad reasons.
The Islamic field in France is deeply deregulated, for historical and sociological reasons. A minority of Muslims in France has acted violently against civilians in various attacks and assassinations since the mid-1990s. While the French State is not responsible for this deregulation, it is accountable for the interference it can show and the tensions it can create and fuel, for example by merging it with the problem of security and public order, to the point where it can doubt, and make people doubt in an exacerbated way, the legality of Islam. The French-Algerian Islamologist Mohammed Arkoun (1928-2010) has perfectly summarised the somewhat singular situation of the Muslim religion in the world in general and in France in particular: “Islam is theologically Protestant and politically Catholic”. What does he mean by this?
“Islam is Protestant in the sense that every Muslim is allowed to read the Koranic texts and to propose an understanding and interpretation of the texts, but it does not have the power to impose it politically,” Arkoun notes, pointing out that this is even more true among Sunnis than among Shiites. On the other hand, Arkoun adds, it is politically Catholic because power comes from the top down; it never comes from below. “Whether it is the caliph, the Ottoman sultan, an emir (who is enthroned somewhere in the Arab-Muslim world) or the President of the Republic, with a single party, power is definitely vertical. Power does not derive its legitimacy from popular sovereignty.”
The State therefore also intervenes because there is no single, legitimate, grassroots structure to embody or represent Islam in France. Faced with the CFCM’s failures and its chronic stalemate, the State, through the voice of the President of the Republic and his Minister of the Interior, wished to “renew the modalities of dialogue” with the Muslim faith. How did it do this? By organising national dialogue forums in 2016 and 2017 first, and then territorial meetings of the Islam of France in 2018, 2019 and 2021, in prefectures. At the end of these numerous efforts, involving Muslim associative actors on the ground, at local and departmental level, FORIF was initiated and launched to respond to a more decentralized approach and closer to the realities of an Islam of territories. The 2022 session of FORIF has set four priority themes: the functioning and management of chaplaincies; the professionalisation and recruitment of imams; anti-Muslim acts and the security of places of worship; and the application of the law to ensure respect for the principles of the Republic.
It is a multilateral approach that the State wishes to inaugurate and develop, by closely associating prefects and local Muslim actors. By taking into account territorial specificities and the needs of Muslims, without necessarily, as in the past, going through a national body like the CFCM which, as indicated above, has shown its limitations.
Will this mark the beginning of a new relationship between the State and grassroots Muslims, one of greater trust? We will have to wait and see.
 INTERVIEW – A great thinker dissects the relationship between the West and Islam Mohammad Arkoun: The Muslim world and the West convey completely distorted images of the Other “There is not a clash between civilizations, but between imaginations,” says the French historian of Algerian origin – L’Orient-Le Jour (lorientlejour.com) Accessed on 16 February 2022