On April 5, President Sarkozy’s center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), will launch a public debate on the place of religion (read: Islam) in France. The debate, which aims to explore how the practice of religions may be compatible with the rules of the secular republic and to address the “question” of Islam in France, has caused rifts within the party.
Adberrahmane Dahmane, Sarkozy’s diversity adviser, was sacked after openly criticizing the debate and calling on Muslim members of the UMP not to renew their party membership unless the debate was canceled.
This was very quickly followed by the action of Abdallah Zekri, head of the Grand Mosque of Paris and the French Council of the Muslim Faith, who tore up his membership card and urged all fellow Muslim UMP members to do the same.
Others in the party have argued that this move to the right is a ploy to gain populist appeal which will only lead to the stigmatization of France’s Muslims, as Sarkozy flounders in the polls behind Marine Le Pen, the charmingly deceptive new leader of the far right political party, the Front National.
In response to the criticisms, Sarkozy claims–with Zekri’s support–that the original purpose of the debate is misunderstood, and that it is really intended to protect French Muslims from “Islamic extremism.” Jean François Copé, the real object of Zekri and Dahmane’s anger and the man in charge of this debate, also claims that the debate will protect Muslims from practices emerging from “fundamentalism” which the Front National are using against them.
In an interview with the Guardian, Copé used several examples of what he considers to be “extreme behaviors led by fundamentalists who are using their religion for political ends,” such as street prayers, the niqab, women refusing to be treated by male doctors, and girls banned by their parents from mixed swimming sessions. His example of solutions to these extreme behaviors is the ban on the niqab, arguing that "if you meet a woman in a burqa, she can't reply to your smile. It's a denial of identity."
Fundamentalism exists in many forms, including Christian and Islamic fundamentalism, but these behaviors can also be indicators of factors other than the existence of violent extremism. When I see a group of people praying in the streets, I might not see the influence of fundamentalists but a group of people who need a place to pray because it has been notoriously hard for them to build a place of worship in their neighborhood. When I see a woman wearing a niqab, I might see a woman who is choosing to express her religion–and herself–through what she wears in the same way that a Sikh might wear a turban or a Jain monk might choose to wear unstitched white garments and bare feet. When I see women refusing to be treated by male doctors, I might see myself requesting to see a female doctor, as is my right as a woman seeking medical treatment. I do not see fundamentalism in these actions because I am not looking for fundamentalism, but rather because I am looking for the human.
While it might be true that the 1905 Laicite law needs to be reviewed to take account of the fact that Europe’s largest Muslim population is present in 21st-century France, the French political elite needs to make sure that this debate does not become, as Socialist Senator of Paris Bariza Khiari fears, a debate against Islam and against Muslim citizens of France. It needs to address the real threat of fundamentalism in France and that is the populist intolerance towards Muslims, Roma, and other minorities that has only increased under Sarkozy’s presidency.