French Muslim authorities as social troubleshooters

Margot Dazey, University of Cambridge

This introduction is part of POMEPS Studies 32, The Politics of Islam in Europe and North America. Download the full PDF here.

Anthropologists of secularism and sociologists of Islam have concerned themselves with the paradoxical governance of religion in secular states. Grounded in binaries of improper versus proper versions of Islam, state efforts of architecting domestic forms of Islam in Western Europe consist in discouraging “extremist” practices and encouraging “moderate” ones through a range of security pressures and political prescriptions (Agrama 2012, Fernando 2014, Laurence 2012, see also Aguilar, Khemilat and Talpin in this collection). This essay uses a case study of a French Muslim organization to analyze the ways normative expectations of a “civil Islam” (Peter 2006, Sèze 2016) both constrain and enable the political agency of actors claiming authority within French Muslim communities. It argues that while governmental demands incentivize Muslim authorities to adopt dominant scripts about a moderate and peaceable Islam, this process works both ways as Muslim authorities also draw on their own textual traditions to justify the civic role of religion in the public sphere. Revivalist Islamic actors, in particular, are well-equipped to posit the social appeasement functions that religion can serve in public life. In short, the promotion of a “civil Islam” in France can be, at times and quite paradoxically, the product of a converging agenda between state authorities and certain conservative Muslim actors.

This essay builds on an in-depth case study of the Union des organisations islamiques de France (Union of Islamic Organizations of France, UOIF)—a prominent Muslim umbrella organization in the French Islamic landscape, founded in 1983 and drawing its ideological and organizational inspiration from the Muslim Brotherhood. It focuses on two significant episodes which took place in the mid-2000s and illustrated how the right-wing government then in office and UOIF activists coincidentally concurred in using religion as a tool for social and political quieting. Importantly, these episodes laid out the ambivalent roles of community brokers and social troubleshooters endorsed by some representative Muslim organizations in the context of the institutionalization of Islam into government-initiated Islamic councils.

The hostage crisis, summer 2004

The first episode that encapsulated these convergences in encouraging the peacekeeping role of Muslim authorities occurred when two French journalists were taken hostage in Iraq during the summer of 2004. In response to the captors’ demands to repeal the newly-passed law banning the wearing of headscarves in French public schools (March 2004), the reaction of the UOIF was threefold.

Firstly, UOIF leaders vigorously opposed the abduction, with the president of the organization Lhaj Thami Breze arguing that “today all Muslims are being taken hostage” and that “the abductors are enemies of Islam”,[1] while participating in a solidary march in Paris. In the aftermath of a joint meeting with other Muslim representatives at the Ministry of the Interior, UOIF member Fatiha Ajbli eloquently declared that she was ready to volunteer to replace the journalists taken hostages. In her own words: “I am afraid that my headscarf could become associated with these people. I don’t want my headscarf to be stained with blood.”[2] These various public interventions served a common purpose, staging UOIF leaders as reliable and obliging spokespersons of the Muslim populations in France.

Secondly, UOIF general secretary, Fouad Alaoui, suggested “out of a sense of responsibility” that a Muslim delegation should be sent to Baghdad to help secure the release of the journalists.[3] His proposition was met with enthusiasm by state authorities, and three representatives of the principal Muslim organizations in France were sent to Iraq with the mission of contradicting the religious arguments advanced by the abductors. Upon his return, Fouad Alaoui commented on his meeting with Iraqi Sunni authorities and underscored how the religious nature of his delegation had been politically expedient in the negotiations:

We were struck by the fact that all our interlocutors stressed that they were expecting our visit. They told us expressly that our initiative was likely to succeed, because we were Muslims of France and the abductors claimed that they were advancing the protection of French Muslims in their claims.[4]

Thirdly, UOIF leaders turned the regular Friday prayer at the organization’s headquarters in La Courneuve into a “national prayer” for the release of the hostages (Bowen 2007: 145). In his sermon, UOIF preacher Mokhtar Jaballah sought to balance the hesitant mobilization of his organization against the law banning headscarves in public schools with a declared concern for national cohesion. To this end, he expounded on a Quranic verse concerning ethnic and national differences in order to call for mutual respect and understanding, while ranking the hostages’ right to life above the veiled students’ right to religious expression.[5] This religious repertoire of action further epitomized the ways in which UOIF leaders couched their role of political mediators in Islamic terms.

Overall, the French government applauded the sense of civic responsibility displayed by UOIF representatives. The Minister of Education interpreted the reactions of UOIF leaders as a conciliatory move towards the acceptance of the banning of headscarves in public schools: “The UOIF had, until now, pursued a legal rationale to circumvent the law on the headscarf. In the aftermath of this weekend, the organization has embraced a republican rationale.”[6] Meanwhile, the steps undertaken by the organization to solve the crisis strengthened its credibility as a reliable partner in the eyes of the Minister of Interior,[7] while enhancing its legitimacy in the broader public sphere.[8] To summarize, the self-positioning of UOIF leaders as responsible representatives of the national “Muslim community”, taking seriously their role of religious mediators towards hostile extremist groups, won them some political credit—at least temporarily.

Suburb riots, autumn 2005

A second episode illustrating the coincidental promotion of “civil Islam” by government and revivalist actors was played out during the urban riots of 2005. The riots, which particularly affected marginalized urban territories in France (referred to as the banlieues in public conversations), followed the deaths of two French youths fleeing the police in the Parisian suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois. As these events occurred, the UOIF leadership issued a “fatwa concerning the troubles affecting France.” With the objective of condemning the destruction of goods and violent actions, the fatwa—that is, an Islamic legal opinion—read as follows:

Every Muslim living in France, whether citizen or guest, has the right to demand the scrupulous respect of his being, dignity and belief, as well as to act for greater equality and social justice. But this action must never take place against the Islamic teaching and the law which regulates common life.[9]

UOIF scholars hence deployed an Islamic grammar to condemn the rioters’ actions, drawing on their revivalist tradition which promotes Islam as a mode of social governance and code for moral citizenship (Caeiro 2006). A few days before the fatwa was issued, UOIF leaders had already sent a regional delegate to Clichy—a gesture that the secretary general of the organization defended along the following lines:

We cannot exclude religion from the social field. It can be a factor of appeasement. If all the laws and rules don’t achieve to control men [cadrer les hommes], religion can play its role more fully.[10]

This quotation illustrates the role of social control that the UOIF leadership willingly endorsed during the riots. In a similar way to the hostage crisis described above, UOIF leaders justified their political intervention in terms of an “ethic of responsibility”; they felt a duty to enlighten Muslim believers about the right course of action. In his introductory remarks to the Annual meeting of France’s Muslims, which took place a few months after the riots, UOIF president Lhaj Thami Breze further advocated the appeasing role that religion could play in the political life of the country:

[The waves of violence in the banlieues] have revealed a deep and multifaceted discontent which cannot justify violent action or the damage to property. In the light of this tragic event, a cooling off period is urgently needed. All actors concerned with peace and social cohesion have sought to contribute to a return to tranquillity. Religion, with its own approach and efforts, has answered the call through the directives and interventions of the organizations’ leaders. Shouldering its responsibility fully, the UOIF has endeavoured, through its fatwa, to engage those who identified themselves as Muslims among the youth participating in these events.[11]

With little impact on the ground, since rioters were driven by socio-economic motivations rather than religious concerns, the fatwa was well received by right-wing politicians who hailed the UOIF’s positive intervention in public affairs, suspending their usual suspicions on the organization. For instance, the spokesperson of the main right-wing political party in France stated in the weekly press conference of her party that it was “normal” that the UOIF “uses a fatwa to call youth for a calm down” in the banlieues.[12] Their reaction illustrates the ambivalent interpretation of laïcité by French political elites, sometimes excluding religion as an unacceptable dimension of public life and sometimes invoking its supposed potential for pacification and social control (Galembert, 2016, p. 76). The entire political sequence came to exemplify how the social interventionism of religious actors could be encouraged by secular authorities and UOIF leaders simultaneously.

Expedient community brokers?

The hostage crisis and the urban riots took place in the context of the government-led institutionalization of Islam into the Conseil français du culte musulman (the French Council of the Muslim Faith), in which the UOIF was coopted by successive Ministers of Interior in the late 1990s and 2000s (Laurence 2012). This Council reflects the promotion of religion as a form of social regulation and the summoning of UOIF to contribute to this process (Zeghal 2005). It also elucidates expectations held by some French politicians that Muslim organizations should serve as channels for conflict resolution and social control with regards to Muslim populations of North African origins.

As outlined in this essay, both episodes of the hostage crisis and the riots hence offered opportunities for UOIF leaders to present themselves as “social troubleshooters” engaged in mediation work between unruly members of the Muslim community (both outside the national territory, in the case of the Iraq delegation, and inside, in the case of the suburb riots) and the broader non-Muslim society. In light of the process of institutionalization just mentioned, this self-positioning has to be understood within the long-term strategy of the respectability embraced by the organization in order to assuage suspicions about its Islamist filiation and establish its political legitimacy in the French public sphere.

Enmeshed in what can resemble at times client-patron relationships between Muslim authorities and politicians (Geisser 2006), this strategy was not implemented without criticisms. Numerous actors active in the French Muslim landscape accused UOIF leaders of becoming “emissaries of the state” in the case of the delegation to Baghdad[13] and “police officers of French Islam” in the case of the anti-riot fatwa.[14] In the two instances, UOIF leaders were presented by their Muslim detractors as anticipating the state’s demands and serving the government’s interests.[15] Most of these detractors, nonetheless, shared with UOIF activists a revivalist understanding of Islam and engaged with them in dynamics of co-operation and competition (Parvez 2017). Ultimately, in ways similar to those explored by Khalil in this collection, these intra-community criticisms underscored the delicate issue of Islamic authority-building in minority contexts, whether from top-down mechanisms or bottom-up processes.

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Caeiro, Alexandre. 2006. “An Anti-Riot Fatwa.” ISIM Newsletter, no. 17: 32–33.

Fernando, Mayanthi. 2014. The Republic Unsettled: Muslim French and the Contradictions of Secularism. Duke University Press.

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[1] Lhaj Thami Breze quoted in Le Figaro, 30 August 2004 “Ces ravisseurs sont des ennemis de l’islam”.

[2] Fatiha Ajbli quoted in La Croix, 31 August 2004 “Les enlèvements en Irak”.

[3] Interview with Fouad Alaoui, La Courneuve, 2016.

[4] Fouad Alaoui quoted in Le Monde, 3 September 2004 “La visite du CFCM à Bagdad a été bien accueillie”.

[5] Le Monde, 4 September 2004 “’Prière nationale’ musulmane à La Courneuve pour concilier solidarité et revendication du voile”.

[6] François Fillon quoted in Le Point, 2 September 2004, “Le nouveau visage de l’islam de France”.

[7] Le Monde, 4 September 2004, “Avec la crise des otages et la rentrée, le Conseil français du culte musulman a assis sa légitimité”.

[8] Bruno Etienne quoted in La Croix, 1 September 2004.

[9] The fatwa was issued on the 6th November 2005 by Dar al Fatwa, a Fatwa council attached to the UOIF and created in 1988.

[10] Fouad Alaoui quoted in Le Monde, 2 November 2005 “Quand les ‘frères’ musulmans tentent de ramener le calme”.

[11] Lhaj Thami Breze quoted in La Lettre de l’UOIF no. 1, July/August/September 2006, p. 4.

[12] Valérie Pécresse quoted in L’Obs, 8 November 2005, “Les événements du lundi 7 novembre”.

[13] Interview with Fouad Alaoui, La Courneuve, 2016.

[14] See the editorial piece “La ‘fatwa’ hallucinante de l’UOIF” published on the Muslim website, www.oumma.com, 7 November 2005.

[15] Interview with D., Paris, 2016.