France and Turkey at odds on 'French Islam'

France and Turkey at odds on 'French Islam'

“Islamist separatism is incompatible with the indivisibility of the republic and the necessary unity of the nation,” French President Emmanuelle Macron said in a Feb. 18 speech, explaining his strategy to combat political Islam.

While one part of Macron’s strategy aims to combat violence in impoverished, crime-ridden neighborhoods, the rest is directed at nonviolent Islamist groups, which largely operate within the boundaries of the law but are criticized for an interpretation of Islam that pushes members of local Muslim communities to detach themselves from mainstream society.

"In the republic, we cannot accept that we refuse to shake hands with a woman because she is a woman. In the republic, we cannot accept that someone refuses to be treated or educated by someone because she is a woman,” said Macron.

Migrant communities are expected not just to respect the law but to respect and adapt to the norms of society, while the “civil and religious leaders” of these communities are expected to encourage their members to act in such a fashion.

Macron believes this is not the case in France due to “foreign influence.” That’s why he announced an end to a program that allowed foreign countries to send imams and teachers.

Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco and Turkey send teachers to France to provide foreign-language and culture classes that are not subjected to scrutiny from French authorities. This part of the program, which has reached 80,000 students a year, will end this September.

In addition, France will gradually stop welcoming “detached imams” – who number around 300 (150 of whom are from Turkey) – from these countries.

The program will be replaced with bilateral agreements, which France has concluded with Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia – but not yet Turkey.

Macron’s statement and electoral timing

Macron made his comments ahead of France’s municipal elections, and according to some international news outlets, the message was intended to elicit support from right-wing voters.

But if we are to put aside the electoral timing of the statement, let’s not forget that France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim community (estimated at around 6 million, or 8 percent of the population) and the issue of living in harmony is not going to go away.

The important point is to what degree France’s approach to the issue is healthy and whether the strategy will pave the way to the desired outcome.

At 2,000, France has the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria. As far as I know, there are a handful of Turkish-origin, French citizens among them. The crime levels among Turkish communities in France are lower than those of other migrant communities.

Now that the Maghreb countries will stop sending teachers and imams, will this help get rid of the causes of their frustrations?

Do the youngsters from African countries radicalize because of the preaching of imams or because of the same frustrations that push “native” French youth toward right-wing extremists, as argued by Professor Ayhan Kara? His research reveals that Muslims’ anger does not stem from their religious difference but from exactly the same reasons that anger other youngsters, such as economic difficulties, unemployment, the feeling of marginalization and the like.

It is obviously unacceptable for teachers and imams to teach and preach in a way that would fuel France’s fear of “separatism.” One hopes that France can provide clear evidence to that effect when it comes to teachers and imams sent from Turkey.

The difficulty arises from the challenge of defining what amounts to “separatism.” For Macron, for instance, “a man unwilling to shake the hand of a woman” is separatism. Even Muslims can agree or disagree with that conviction. At the end of the day, religion is a highly sensitive issue and there could be additional complexities when it becomes a matter of a bilateral agreement between countries.
It might be easier for France to impose an agreement on its former colonies, but it is still noteworthy that it has not reached an agreement with Turkey, the only secular country which is benefiting from the program Macron wants to end.

Then again, maybe we should not be so surprised to see that there have been problems given that Turkey’s Religious Affairs authority, the Diyanet, has become one of the most controversial institutions in the country over the past few years. The Diyanet’s approach toward women, as well as its head’s statements, have also irked and sparked reaction from the secular segments in Turkey. Turkey and France might find it hard to reach an agreement on such a sensitive topic. But finding a common ground could be easier if Macron avoided instrumentalizing anti-Turkey sentiment for his personal political gain – and if Turkey were to avoid interpreting the strategy as an effort to assimilate Muslims.