France has the largest number of Muslims in the Western world, primarily because of emigration from its former North African colonies, which goes back to the beginning of the last century.
Estimates of the number of Muslims in France range from 4.5 million (the official figure) to 6 million. One-eighth of the overall French population between 18 and 50 years of age consider themselves Muslims. The majority belong to the Sunni denomination.
In 2012, the Interior Ministry estimated the number of mosques at around 2,500 but a report by the Senate in 2016 put that figure at approximately 3,000. As for the number of imams, nobody really knows. In Sunni Islam, anyone can volunteer to lead prayers.
However, the country is short of imams so it imports them from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia — the home countries of the main Muslim immigrant communities — Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
France thus welcomes imams whose credentials are vetted by foreign governments. In private French security officials acknowledge that security considerations lie behind this policy but Algeria’s and Morocco’s “expertise” in this matter is subject to caution if only because they are not democracies. Nor do their political agendas necessarily coincide with French interests.
What is more, the presence of such imams reinforces the communalism of certain Muslims in France and opens them to international manipulation.
It is important to point out that key statistics are estimates, no more. A law dating to 1872 prohibits the census from distinguishing between citizens on grounds of race or religion. The media are free to publish what they want.
Thus, L’Express ran an article a year ago stating that Morocco was “a factory of French imams” and said that three-quarters of the imams practising in France are foreigners.
Articles in other publications suggest Turkey’s consulates keep a close eye on 250 mosques and the estimated 250 imams seconded from Turkey. The exact number of mosques is not known since many are improvised in large housing complexes.
The state does not pay imams nor does it know how many are practising and can only guess the number of mosques. Surely, there must be a better way of managing Islam in France other than by such lack of accountability that sits uncomfortably with recent acts of terrorism and the official policy of encouraging integration of the diverse groups within French borders.
Squaring the circle has proved impossible. France’s rigid version of state secularism and the 1905 law that mandates the separation of church and state present serious obstacles. The secularism concept forbids French authorities from using public funds to build mosques.
Any suggested change to the 1905 law provokes vocal opposition from certain people, notably intellectuals, while others argue that financial accountability of the mosques must, for obvious reasons of security, be better controlled.
Money must be found to build new mosques, the state must know where it comes from and the appointment of imams must be transparent. Why has the state failed to help set up schools where imams can be trained in accordance with the laws that govern France?
Proposals along these lines have been made by Hakim el-Karoui, a former banker, in a report titled “The Islamist Factory,” not a very felicitous form of words. They are controversial not least among some of the bodies that “represent” Muslims, such as the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
Karoui suggested strict supervision of external and informal funds collected in mosques, creating an independent fund to train imams and taxing halal businesses. The aim of keeping state and religion separate while encouraging the integration of French Muslims into French society is in the interest of all French people, irrespective of their religion.
Reconciling those who wish to create an Islam of France and those who want to retain control over existing institutions is a tough call. Algeria and Morocco are traditional rivals. The Federation of French Muslims is chaperoned by Morocco and the Muslim World League; the Grand Mosque in Paris is controlled by Algeria; the Union of Islamic Organisations in France is influenced by the Muslim Brotherhood. Newcomers such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia see proselytising as a form of soft diplomacy.
By asking those countries and Tunisia to send imams — the need is particularly high during Ramadan — France is walking into an ideological trap that only encourages the spread of political Islam.
Other Muslim organisations criticise Karoui’s ideas as being akin to the “colonial administration of Islam” but that suggests they owe allegiance to their country of origin in North Africa rather than France.
It bears saying that among French men and women of North African origin, many — a majority maybe — have no liking or respect for these organisations. They may deplore the Islamophobic nature of some debates in the media but practise their religion in private and are well integrated socially and economically.
Francis Ghiles is an associate fellow at the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs.
This article was originally published in The Arab Weekly.