France Must Not Continue To Marginalise Its Muslim Community

The Friday 13th attacks in Paris killed 130, and was the deadliest terrorist attack to hit Paris since the end of World War II. But it could have been much worse. Had the terrorists succeeded in smuggling bombs or guns into the Stade de France and caused a stampede at the France-Germany football match where French President Francois Hollande was present, the outcome could have been even grimmer. The current high threat alert across Europe represents a fourth crisis on top of the three interlocking crises that the European Union has been grappling with in the past few years – the euro crisis (since 2008); the immigrant influx from the Middle East and North Africa (one million refugees are expected for 2015); and the EU’s geopolitical stand-off with Russia over Ukraine.

Flashback to Sept 13, 2001, after the twin towers collapsed in New York: Le Monde’s front-page editorial (nous sommes tous Americains) pithily summed up the sympathy and identification that French citizens felt for America. France supported Washington’s invoking of Nato’s Article 5 (mutual defence clause), and the United States-led military operation in Afghanistan to flush out Al-Qaeda’s territorial base.

But French backing did not extend to supporting Washington in toppling Saddam Hussein and invading Iraq in 2003. Paris’ 2003 decision to delimit military aims to attacking Al-Qaeda’s resource bases, rather than redraw the political map of the Middle East, was a prudent one. Paris escaped the major terrorist attacks that targeted the European supporters of the Iraq invasion – Madrid in 2004, and London in 2005.

Fast forward to November 2015: Paris is confronted with a crisis of similar proportions to the one then US President George W. Bush faced in 2001. Should France prosecute a limited war against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) to deny its territorial bases in Iraq and Syria? Or should it go further and ally with the US and Russia to redraw the larger map in the Middle East? Unlike the US, however, France is geographically close to the Muslim world, has a deep colonial history and strong ties in Muslim North Africa and the Middle East, and houses a sizeable Muslim minority.


In the past week, Mr Hollande has vowed “merciless” attacks against ISIS. France has asked and received support for military cooperation from EU member states. Mr Hollande has met US President Barack Obama and will meet Russian President Vladimir Putin tomorrow, and has asked the United Nations to condemn ISIS. French jets have worked with Russian forces to pound Raqqa, ISIS’ would-be capital in Syria.


Over the longer term, the heightened state of alert in Europe is likely to see Paris recovering some of its lost leadership in the EU, especially on military security, immigration, border security and diplomatic matters.

The UN’s Climate Change Conference in Paris, to be held from Nov 30 to Dec 11, will be the largest international gathering of ministers and leaders from around the world in Paris in years. This promises to be a nightmare for the French and security services of all the international delegations.

Whatever France chooses to do in its foreign policy, it will have to weigh the consequences of its decisions on its own domestic audience and social cohesion. French people of Islamic faith or Middle Eastern origins are a large and fast-growing minority. Estimated at between 7 and 10 per cent of the total French population, French Muslims far outnumber the older confessional minorities of Jewish or non-Catholic Christian faiths combined, and represent in absolute numbers the largest group of European Muslims in a single EU member state. French Muslims follow events in their countries of origin in the Middle East (mainly) closely, and as historian Jonathan Laurence and political scientist Justin Vaisse argue, they are a growing factor in France’s Middle East policy. Remember that at least five of the Nov 13 attackers were French citizens (and more than 1,400 French nationals are estimated to have joined ISIS).

As difficult as circumstances are, this is perhaps an opportune time to reassess Western policies towards the Middle East, from which a majority of continental Europe’s Muslim population originate. The failure of the international community to resolve the Palestinian crisis is a genuine point of contention among many Muslims worldwide, and there needs to be an honest discussion about this. Other foreign policy decisions, including military strikes against Muslim countries and the continued support for regimes that deny their citizens basic freedoms in the Middle East, must be reconsidered. In fact, to do justice to the victims of the Paris attacks, the Muslim populace in the West and all of Europe’s citizens, there is no better time to engage in these difficult but necessary discussions. We need to move beyond the “they hate us for our freedoms” narrative dominant in the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January this year.


Some commentators have suggested that Islam itself is the source of the complications, and have called for a “reformation” of the faith to suit it to modern times. Others have repeatedly asked Muslims to denounce terrorism and proclaim loyalties to the state. This is unfortunately part of the problem. In perpetuating such discourses, one is already promoting the idea that Muslims are the “other” in Western societies. In asking Muslims not to abide by some of the beliefs that they hold dear, for example, the infallibility of the Quran, what is being asked of Muslims is for them to abandon their very identities. And when the community is perpetually being hectored to “condemn” terrorism, it is as if they are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

Not only can these calls lead to a further sense of alienation or a siege mentality among Europeans of Muslim faith, but they also betray the liberal Western/French values of liberty and equality. No doubt, French secularism is often more muscular than others (for example, the ban on headscarves), but this does not in any way mean that any religious group should be prevented from choosing their lifestyles, as long as they do not violate the laws of the land. How Europeans react to these attacks will be defining for themselves. Will the EU states react to the intolerance of a few radicalised maniacs, with more intolerance of their own, closing off borders to foreigners, or circumscribing the free movement of people, goods and services between themselves? Can Europe remain true to its own history and proclaimed values, by embracing the largely peaceful Muslim population with warmth and genuine tolerance?


An often-neglected aspect in analyses on terrorism is the role of the ulama, or Islamic religious scholars. Traditionally, Muslim communities have always held their ulama in high regard. They have a pivotal role to play in the prevention of extremist ideologies being spread among young, disenchanted Muslims, by propagating the true version of Islam. Western states would do well to consider empowering the ulama; by this, it does not mean that they need to formally co-opt the ulama, which in actuality could be counter-productive. Perhaps a better approach would be to let the ulama be truly independent; the ulama must be allowed to interact with mainstream intellectuals and policymakers, to debate and openly present dissenting views against the state (and against extremist ideologies like those of ISIS), so that they gain credibility among their constituents. This will also demonstrate to disenfranchised Muslims that if they are frustrated, there are legitimate non-violent ways to express their sentiments, instead of resorting to acts of terror and murder.

Whether one likes it or not, the reality is that Muslims and Islam are here to stay in Europe. It is neither practically feasible, nor morally defensible, to entertain thoughts of a Europe or West without Islam and Muslims. It is best to concentrate efforts on making Muslims identify themselves as full and equal citizens of their countries, rather than as marginalised immigrants or unwelcome foreigners.

  • The first writer, Reuben Wong, is Jean Monnet¬†Professor in European Integration and Foreign Policy at the National University of Singapore. The second writer, Walid Jumblatt Abdullah, is a PhD candidate in political science, NUS-King’s College London joint degree programme.





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