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France Cracks Down on Islamic Radicalism, to Ban Foreign-Funded Imams

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French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has announced that France will no longer accept new “detached imams” from foreign countries starting on January 1, 2024.

The announcement follows President Emmanuel Macron’s 2020 decision to end the presence of around 300 imams sent by countries such as Algeria, Turkey, and Morocco, and promote the training of imams within France.

In a letter sent to concerned countries, Darmamin emphasized that after April 1, 2024, imams already in France under this status will no longer be able to maintain their presence. The existing imams will be required to transition to a different status, and a unique framework will be established from April 1, 2024, allowing religious associations to independently recruit and directly employ imams.

The new policy is largely directed at around 300 or so imams from overseas, drawn primarily from Algeria, Turkey, and Morocco. The announcement of the new policy was sent to Turkey and Algeria.

While those residing in France will be subject to possible deportation, those who wish to remain in the country may do so if they switch to being paid by a French Muslim association, rather than receiving money associations overseas.

The changes were first unveiled by President Emmanuel Macron in 2020 and were aimed at around 300 imams who preach in France but are paid by nations including Algeria, Morocco, and Turkey. Macron said at the time he wanted to end “foreign influences” on Islam in France and the growing threat of “Islamist separatism”.

An exception will also be made for the so-called ‘imams of Ramadan,’ a group of around 300 imams who travel to France each year specifically for the Islamic holy month.

The policy stems from promises made by French President Emmanuel Macron in 2020, when he announced a series of measures designed to combat radical Islamist extremism, including—among other proposals—ending foreign funding of mosques.

Macron hit out at “Islamist separatism” during a speech in February 2020, stating that France must uphold its republican values above all others.

He said, “In the Republic, we cannot accept that someone refuses to shake a woman’s hand because she is a woman; in the Republic, we cannot accept that someone refuses to be treated or educated by a woman; in the Republic, one cannot accept dropping out of school; in the Republic, one cannot demand certificates of virginity to marry.

Declaring “political Islam has no place” in France, Macron added that “Islamist separatism is incompatible with freedom and equality, incompatible with the indivisibility of the Republic and the necessary unity of the nation.”

In 2020, a classified document by the General Directorate for Internal Security (DGSI) was leaked to French media which revealed that as many as 150 neighbourhoods across France were “held” by those expressing radical Islamic beliefs.

In 2022, the French government introduced the “Forum de l’Islam de France (Forif)” to replace the Conseil français du culte musulman (CFCM) with the goal of redefining the dialogue with the Muslim community, Analdolu Agency reported.

Launched in 2022, Forif has had its own problems, as few Muslims view it as truly representative of the Muslim community since its participants are all state appointees.

The announcement by Darmamin has sparked controversy and criticism. Critics argued that the decision to halt the appointment of foreign imams perpetuates a perception of Islamophobia, especially in light of France’s history of controversial policies, such as the ban on wearing hijab in public spaces. 

France has been facing strict scrutiny in recent years for its restrictive measures targeting aspects of Islamic practice. Macron and his government have also had difficulties getting various Islamic groups to agree to a charter of principles for Islam in France, as several groups expressed their concerns—and proposed amendments to it—in 2021.

The concept of political Islam was one of the main points of dispute as the Muslim groups involved refused to recognise the term, claiming that the definitions of political Islam were too vague and that could result in banning valid religious practices if political Islam was banned in France under the proposed definition.

“The concept of ‘political Islam’ stipulated in the article restricts the rights of Muslims or Muslim organisations to access social or political debate since they may be accused of ‘political Islam’ and prevented from exercising their democratic rights. It can also expose them to discrimination and criminalise their opinions,” the groups said at the time. This reflects the tensions involved in trying to separate out Islamic religious faith and Islamist organisations in the the context of a formally secular state.

The government has also worked to shut down radical mosques as part of its crackdown on Islamist radicalism. In response, some mosques have simply refused to close. In 2021, it was revealed that a radical Salafist mosque in the Consolat area of northern Marseille had been given repeated closure orders by the government but had resisted over a five-year period, simply ignoring the instructions being issued.

Attempts have also been made to deport foreign radical imams such as Hassan Iquioussen, who was supposed to be removed from France and sent to Morocco (though he had initially fled to Belgium). He was subsequently arrested and sent back to Morocco.

Iquioussen had been on the ‘S File’ terror watchlist and had been accused by Interior Minister Darmanin of inciting hatred and discrimination.

The radical hate preacher later attempted to sue Darmanin for defamation but a Paris court ruled that it had no jurisdiction to examine the complaint and dropped the case. Although born in France, Iquioussen had not opted to take French nationality. Since, at the time, he was an adult and not considered a French national, he could be deported.

The case of Iquioussen shows the French state getting into difficulty when it makes partial compromises on its historical commitments to both free speech and secularism.

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