What makes “Muslim representatives” representative? Public policy attempts to build Muslim representation in France

Fatima Khemilat, Sciences Po Aix

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

The question of Muslim representation in France has been a recurrent issue in the French political debate since the late 1980s. Already present during the first “headscarf controversy”, both the media and the political class raised the question of who can and should speak on behalf of Muslims. It was then that the first attempt was made to organize the representation of Muslims in France. Until then, the Great Mosque of Paris had been the obvious institution public authorities turned to with questions regarding the Muslim community. However, the proliferation of Muslim associations led the State to widen the spectrum of potential representatives of Islam.

Pierre Joxe, then a member of the Socialist Party government, launched the first attempt to organize Islam in France (notwithstanding previous institutions in colonized territories) when he founded the Conseil de Réflexion sur l’Islam de France (CORIF). The relative return to power of the right wing during the “Cohabitation” (coalition government of 1993-1995) somewhat interrupted this initiative, as the Great Mosque of Paris took center stage again in the relations between Islam and the State. It took a few more years and another coalition government, this time in favor of the left wing, under Jacques Chirac’s presidency, for the process to be taken up. In the late 90s Jean-Pierre Chevènement started the “Ishtichara”, an extensive consultation of French Muslims. This resulted in the creation of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (CFCM) in 2003 under the leadership of Nicolas Sarkozy, then Minister of the Interior.

However, the establishment of the CFCM, under intense criticism since its founding, did not put to rest the controversies related to the organization of Islam in France. Some of its critics question its effectiveness or lack of funding, while others highlight the tensions that exist between the Federations of the CFCM, each of them connected, loosely, to a different foreign country. In the face of the CFCM’s dysfunctions, in part due to its funding mechanism, another organization was resuscitated during François Hollande’s presidency. The Fondation des Oeuvres de l’Islam was created in 2005 when Dominique de Villepin was the Prime Minister and renamed for the occasion to Fondation de l’Islam de France (FIF). Hollande chose to appoint at its head the aforementioned Jean-Pierre Chevènement, historical figure in the organization of Islam. This choice to name a non-Muslim as leader of the FIF raised protests and was the opportunity to (re)interrogate the legitimacy of the State in picking the representatives of Islam in France.

A survey conducted in 2016 by the Think Tank “Institut Montaigne” concluded that two-thirds of French Muslims were unaware of the very existence of the CFCM, supposed to represent them. The author of this survey, Hakim El Karoui, is a member of the Fondation de l’Islam de France and one of Emmanuel Macron’s close advisors in the elaboration of a new public policy on Islam in France which was announced in January 2018. Topics such as the fundings of places of worship, the training of imams and the influence of countries of origin are, unsurprisingly, at the heart of this new initiative. Like his predecessors, Emmanuel Macron seemingly wants to act quick, since the upcoming reform is scheduled for this year. He will be surrounded in his efforts by Gérald Darmanin, current Minister of Public Accounts, who has argued for “a French Islam”, as well as Gilles Kepel, an Arabist expert several governments have turned to for advice, who many Muslims consider openly hostile to the consideration of issues which matter to them such as Islamophobia.

These top-down initiatives intended to build a representation for French Muslims are perceived by many Muslim associations as unwanted interferences in matters of worship and as attempts to control and infantilize Muslims inherited from colonial institutions. Among the Muslim leaders who share this feeling, Marwan Muhammad, the charismatic former spokesman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), decided in May 2018 to launch an online consultation of Muslims initiated by civil society. To carry it out, he called for the support of former president of the CFCM Anouar Kbibech but was denied. Thus, it was on his own and without institutional support that he published on May 9th an article in Le Monde, in which he exposed his approach as follows:
“The successive Ministers of the Interior each chose their spokespeople for Islam by royal decree, dismissing entirely the principle of secularism, and Muslims have had to resign to it. […] The authorities have appointed representatives from Algeria, Morocco and Turkey at the head of the institutions, and Muslims, who are annoyed, weary and disillusioned, have come to give up on expecting anything from them anymore.”

The lack of legitimacy of the CFCM finds its source in the “choice” of the voting system by the public authorities. Unlike in Belgium or Austria, members of the Council are not elected by direct suffrage but by an obscure voting system linked to the number of square meters per place of worship. This decision stems from the need to make the results of the election “predictable” to guarantee the monopoly of the Federations, themselves close to the emigration countries of the first generation of Muslim immigrants. The Great Mosque of Paris has links with Algeria, the Rassemblement des Musulmans de France (RMF) and the Unions des Mosquées de France (UMF) are close to Morocco, and the former Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), now renamed Musulmans de France, is known for its connections with the Muslim Brotherhood (see Margot Dazey’s essay in this collection).

The choice of the president of the CFCM was made from the very beginning, according to Dounia Bouzar, one of the only women of the institution at the time; she spoke up against the colonial implications of his selection from the top:

Sarkozy spoke to me about Boubakeur (the current chairman of the Great Mosque of Paris) as the leader of my troops. He was telling me: ‘Follow the leader of your troops.’ It was a sort of Concordat, remixed with a hint of the good old colonial management, kind of like: ‘we get the Arabs to speak to the Arabs.’

Dounia Bouzar interrogates, in her own words, the supposed target audience of the “representatives” of Islam. Margot Dazey’s essay in this collection illustrates the way religion is expected to function as a social mediator. The representatives of Islam are expected to speak to the Muslim community, with the purpose to maintain order and preach the values of the Republic. In this context, Islam is understood and presented by the actors themselves as a factor of social cohesion. The Muslim representatives would be presented this way to the Muslim community, especially to encourage order and “preach the good word”, Republican moreover. The Muslim religious fact is then understood and presented by the actors themselves, as a factor of social cohesion.

But does it also work the other way around? Do Islamic religious institutions formulate specific demands, and do they lobby in the interest of the Muslim community? On paper, this level of representation is part of the CFCM’s mission, which, according to its statutes, is “to defend the dignity and interests of the Muslim religion in France by all legal means.”

However, it would be a mistake to believe that the relationship between the government and the Muslim religious authorities is a bilateral one with no other parties involved. This would imply that their relations take place behind closed doors, which is only true in part, as most of the attempts to organize Islam in France are made in plain sight.

Islamic representation in France is frequently put on the political agenda, especially after terrorist incidents. Rather than bringing the Muslim community’s needs and grievances before the public authorities, it seems to serve the purpose of representing and promoting a certain vision of Islam deemed acceptable by authorities, as well as reassuring the general French population. Following a terrorist attack, many public declarations are made regarding the organization of Islam, which unavoidably establishes a connection between Muslim representation and terrorism.

The decree dated June 25th, 2018 is consistent with this understanding of the current context. In it, regional authorities are tasked with organizing by September 15th, 2018, the “territorial conferences of Islam in France.” Gérard Collomb, Minister of the Interior, states that he “wish[es], in these times when our society is faced with radical Islamist movements that challenge the values of our Republic, and even call for the perpetration of terrorist attacks on our territory, to amplify the voices of the vast majority of Muslims in France.” Representative positions must be understood as authorizations to speak in the name of all Muslims. What is being requested here is for some voices to be heard louder than others. The officials of the state are the ones who get to decide whose voices should be heard.

It is up to the regional authorities to “identify who should be invited to participate,” or, in other words, to select their partners for dialogue. This selection must consider the necessity to “represent the whole diversity of French Muslims” by including “diverse, younger voices and more women” and “successful people from the civil society, whether in the economic, cultural or artistic fields.” Indeed, the Board of Directors of the CFCM, which is composed of over 200 members, doesn’t include a single woman. In the past two years however, the Council founded three informal institutions for dialogue with women, young people, and converts. They are only advisory bodies with no decision-making power or legal existence, but they illustrate the consideration given to external injunctions to include Muslim women in the representative structures.

What is framed as openness promoted by the French public authorities towards “Muslim civil society” is nevertheless immediately conditioned: to be allowed participation in the process, Muslim stakeholders have to pledge allegiance by acknowledging the “primacy of the laws and values of the Republic.” The idea of including women and young people in the official representation of Islam in France, who were until then absent from the representation of Muslims in France, is increasingly admitted. However, representation of the multiplicity of Muslims in France, including of the most rigorist branches (e.g. salafism, tabligh, etc.), is not being envisioned.

Thus, the institutions of French Islam were not designed to be representative of the actual Muslim population and reflect its diversity in terms of race, gender, age, occupation, origin or sect. Rather they are intended to promote a “good Islam” in a normative, prescriptive sense. The members of the CFCM themselves understand this, which is why its statutes mention that its purpose is “the representations of Muslim places of worship to the public authorities,” and not the representation of Muslim individuals. During an interview with Dalil Boubakeur, I asked him if he believed himself to be representative of Muslims in France, to which he replied: “I am representative of tomorrow’s Muslims.”

The question of representation has long divided the field of social science at a time when it is still difficult to clarify what the role of a representative is. In The Concept of Representation, Hannah F. Pitkin highlights four types of political representation, drawing distinction between what she calls “substantive representation” and “symbolic” or “descriptive” representation. Substantive representation amounts to representing the interests of certain parts of the population without considering the representative’s own personal attitudes. This is what Pitkin calls “acting for”. Descriptive representation, on the other hand, is to give a voice to those who voted for the representative. Thus, the representative must be and act like them. This is also known as “mirror” representation or “standing for” in which the different institutions of representation should represent society in its entire diversity (e.g. gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, occupation, etc.).

Once applied to Islam in French society, the questions that arise are: What type of representation do Muslim representatives carry out? Is their role to embody Muslims’ sociological diversity or various specific interests instead? Based on research findings, none of the two main types of representation are performed by Muslim institutions, beginning with the CFCM. This is likely the main reason the CFCM lacks legitimacy and popularity within its Muslim constituency (see Institut Montaigne, 2016).

Descriptive representation

The semi-structured interviews we conducted with the leaders of various Muslim associations in France enabled us to highlight a number of shared recurring characteristics. Namely, they were born abroad in North Africa, Turkey or Sub-Saharan Africa; they emigrated to France in order to pursue their university careers; they hold postgraduate degrees in scientific subjects; they now hold prestigious positions in their respective fields and they are all over 50 years old. Moreover, the leaders also share that they do not have any university-level theological training, with their religious education being based on what was included in their regular school curriculum. However, several of them pursued more advanced religious education later in a self-taught or informal manner.

It is more difficult to establish a portrait of the ordinary Muslim in France. In contrast with essentialist stereotypes, Muslims present a great diversity, and it is challenging to account for this in France because ethnic statistics are forbidden by law. Thus, large-scale census figures are unavailable for the purpose of identifying the main characteristics of Muslims in France. Nevertheless, some studies can provide insight into the dominant trends. For instance, the survey conducted by Claude Dargent or “Trajectoires et origines” (TeO survey) reveals: a slight overrepresentation of men in the Muslim community, a young population (under 40), three-fourths of whom work in the tertiary sector or elsewhere, with low level qualifications or in areas of low value. The representation of Muslims in France thus suffers from the same biases as the representation of other segments of the population, namely, over-representation of men, with above-average cultural and economic capital, and with dominant status in the spectrum of social positions. However, the striking fact is that whilst most Muslims in France were born in French territory, all the leaders of the Muslim French federations were not, which may raise questions about cultural differences or even indicate a gap between the socialization of Muslim representatives and that of most French Muslims.

Substantive representation

We could say that the interests of the Muslim community are poorly represented. First of all, because of the lack of representation of Muslim religious diversity (e.g. tabligh, Salafism). In addition, our qualitative surveys allow us to identify the existence of a certain number of Muslim issues or causes, understood as issues that would concern Muslims more than the rest of the population. These causes include mainly Islamophobia and foreign policy issues, such as the situation in Palestine or Syria. Yet, representatives of the Muslim faith, in an attempt to please French public authorities, speak very little about these sensitive issues. Marwan Mohammed (CCIF), on the other hand, chose Islamophobia as his battle ground and was thus able to make a name for himself by tackling this vexed issue. However, not many people answered the online consultation he launched (approximatively 30, 000). Does this mean that this type of large-scale survey does not unite Muslims (for structural or logistical reasons, for example) or that French Muslims simply do not wish to be represented?

If the latter is true, it might be the sign of a “politics of refusal” (Hall), materialized here by an “empty chair” strategy. The absence of institutions that entitle representatives “to speak legitimately on their behalf” allows many people to express their own opinions about Islam without being specialists or Muslims themselves. In this context, Muslims themselves are the ones spoken for but few or none of them are in fact the ones speaking, which can lead to frustration and foster feelings of political alienation.

If the future of Muslims’ representation in France will likely include more women and more young people, the question of who is representative of Muslims today, however, remains unresolved.