Muslims in France between independence and integration

Immigration reasons:

By the end of French colonization of African countries during the sixties, the direct exploitation of natural and human resources terminated preparing for the launch of a new exploitation era of these resources marked by different means and forms. This new era included the importation of a cheap labor hand, such as happened in North Africa, which encountered tempting and enticing offers to immigration.

Problems and obstacles:

The predominant common characteristics of those immigrants were their obvious lack of educational specialization, their little awareness of politics, and the low level of cultural and religious background. Due to all of these features, the first generation had to bear the burdens of putting France’s economy on the right track, especially in the area of building bridges, roads and tunnels. So, they were left the lowest in rank in the hierarchy of jobs. They worked in cleaning, maintenance and guarding. Likewise, those people had to handle the strains and exertions of constructing France.

Similarly, that generation went through real hardships in the beginning of their residence in France. Each immigrant had to live alone apart from his family and relatives; a fact that involved countless complications at both the psychological and the social levels.

The situation remained the same until the French government passed the “Family Gathering” law that allowed immigrants’ family members to move in with them. This law was the outcome of pressing demands from the part of humanistic and trade union organizations protesting against the miserable conditions those laborers are living in. However, the suffering of those people did not stop with the promulgation of this law. In fact, it took another form; that is squeezing them in crowded and isolated compounds where the minimum living conditions are absent. But what aggravated their problem most was the hesitation that prevailed amongst them. They could not decide whether to go back home or to hatefully stay in the country of immigration. Nevertheless, demanding circumstances obliged most of them to abstain from departing and to finally settle away from home.

That generation in particular had to experience most of the economic crises ramifications that hit the Western European countries during the seventies. The hardest was the oil crisis in 1973 – 1974 that made laborers who lacked experience and scientific competences – the class of workers that is capable of facing and surviving crises – atop the list of unemployment and social marginalization.

Well, all of these circumstances coincided with the racist right wing taking over. It made from immigrants the target of its media and political campaigns, and adopted a provocative and xenophobic discourse that mainly attacked Arab Muslims.

Under the same conditions, the second and third immigrant generations grew; and although they were of a greater benefit to France than their fathers, they inherited the distress that was inflicted upon them. They were hunted by the feeling of being second-class citizens due to personal and subjective factors. By the same token, many cases of intentional discrimination of the Arab – Muslim community were registered at the educational level. The youth of this community were encouraged to spend little time on specialization studies. The aim was to curb the tendency of having skilled and competent graduates in important fields of specialties for fear of them becoming able to play an effective and influential role in the movement of society at all levels.

However, what aggravated the problem most was the adoption of the successive French governments of several discriminative procedures against Muslim citizens, especially concerning the headscarf or the Islamic veil. And the fact that the cornerstone of the western secular system is based upon granting individuals the personal freedom at the social level did not hinder such escalation.

The current French law tackling the wearing of veils - in effect since the 1989 - is limited to schools. The evident purpose behind raising such noise around the issue aims in fact at paving the way for the promulgation of a new and broader law prohibiting the Islamic veil absolutely. Actually, the current effective law authorizes schools to prevent students from putting on religious symbols “whether an Islamic veil, a Jewish Kippa, or a Christian cross.” The explanation they provide for such stipulations is that religious symbols “represent a way to exercise pressure, to publicize, to provoke, or to exhort to converting into a certain religion”. Later on, this question was focused on once again and gained much of people’s interest, where you could find people splitting between anti or pro prohibition of the Islamic veil. The French President supported a draft project providing for the prohibition of headscarves in schools, considering such act as an aggressive symbol that reflects extremism. This project was then passed and now it is an effective law.

In this context, two points must be taken into account:

First: Theoretically speaking, this law covers all religions. But, in real practice, we find that these procedures are not imposed but on girls wearing veils while wearing kippoth or crosses is not that much noticed.

Second: Muslim women who wear veils do not aim at applying pressures, making certain publicity, provoking, or inciting against other religions. They simply do so in adherence to a religious rule dictating on women to cover their heads with veils.

The codification of the relationship: the goals and purposes

However, things had to be regulated. In order to keep the situation under control, French governmental officials concluded an agreement with the Islamic community leaders in France to form the first association representing the community. This achievement was the fruit of several years of efforts aiming at setting the framework of the relationship between Muslims in France and the government in Paris. The September 11 attacks that targeted the United States of America came to increase the necessity of establishing real and clear communication between the French authorities and the country’s Muslims. In doing this, the French government aimed to realize two main objectives:

First: working towards encouraging the emergence of a French liberal pattern of Islam.

Second: working towards putting an end to the hostility that many French people treat Muslims with, by making Islam known. The Interior French Minister at that time , Nicolas Sarkozy, expressed this opinion by saying: “what we should be afraid of is the straying Islam, the Islam of caves, the clandestine Islam and not the Islam practiced in mosques in broad daylight.”

To reinforce those two steps, French authorities decided to start from the base. The French Prime Minister commissioned Professor Daniel René with the mission of training the Imams of France. The most important thing, according to Jean-Pierre Raffarin, is that Imams become knowledgeable and aware of the reality of the French society.

But imparting such knowledge and awareness to Imams, and guaranteeing the contribution of the French Muslim youth in their future cannot take place, according to Raffarin, but through the establishment of the “Islamic Shari’a College” that enables us through high levels of education to carry out a dialogue between civilizations. Then, the French Muslim youth will certainly have a significant role in the future of Islam as a whole.

In this respect, Islam entered a historical phase in France with the convening of the Founding General assembly of the Islamic Council in France. With this meeting, Islam acquired legitimacy and legality. This achievement was the result of the efforts of four French Interior Ministers, from right -wing and left-wing parties alike.

After the founding of this Council, the new French Prime Minister called for the prevalence of the voice of moderation. He called for openness to the society, the state and the other religions existing in France and hoped such openness would play a role in the educational of Muslim youth, especially the youth of the big cities and that people would stop confusing between terrorists on the one hand and the people of the doctrine on the other hand.

Mutual fears and worries

However, all the achievements that have been realized up till now did not take off those feelings of mutual fears and worries between Muslims and some French political movements. This was clearly evident after the huge success of those who were described as fundamentalists in the elections of an Islamic Council that represents Muslims in a Catholic France. The Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, spoke about this particular paradox saying his country won’t allow the new elected council to turn into what he called the rebellious Islam. Well, he meant Islam in itself because they have a negative picture of Islam in their minds and they really think it is founded on a basis of violence and terrorism against others. Therefore, Islamic laws, according to him, will take effect in no place in France for they are not the laws of the French Republic. This policy contradicts actually with the slogans of “freedom, justice, and equality” young expatriates had read about. As a matter of fact, this issue left those expatriates with a feeling of rancor and resentment against the society. So, they tried to find new ways to express themselves. Some of them, due to the fragility of religious immunity and the weakness of religious awareness, fell in wrongful behavioral and moral deviations, such as drug addiction, violence, and crimes. Some political movements took advantage of such reactions and worked on exaggerating the issue. They spoke about the fears and risks threatening the identity and security of France, and did not hesitate to blame foreigners for the crises of the society. In fact, marginalization was not confined to youth categories; nay, it covered cadres and educated Arab Muslim elites. It reached what is known as the “brain drain” or the “intellectual scientific competences,” including some political émigrés. Those highly skilled people were really exploited, especially in the health sector. Furthermore, a significant slice of foreign college students who did not have scholarships suffer from pretty bad conditions. They had to undertake hard and tiring jobs inappropriate to their scientific qualifications. Nonetheless, the members of Arab Muslim community did not succumb to this situation of isolation and marginalization. They tried to integrate in the society and relied on themselves to build their life. They worked hard and exerted all their strains and finally proved to be very competent on the ground. Hence, we see that they erected many commercial and professional businesses and institutions such as exportation and importation companies, investment firms, printing and publishing houses, libraries, internet, media, building contractors, architecture, and so on and so forth…

Islamic institutions

It is hard to identify the number of these private institutions because the system in France does not allow any censing work based on racial or religious basis. But these institutions are numerous in the areas highly inhabited by Arabs and Muslims such as Paris, Lyon, and Marseille. In addition, there are real endeavors to solve some of the problems that Muslims are encountering in the West. Some important figures of Islamic activity in France are devoting themselves to study such solutions in both their jurisprudential dimension and their practical one. They are working via known institutions such as the European Council for Research and Edicts, and the Center of Research and Studies related to the European College of Human Sciences in Paris supervised by Doctor Abdel Majid Al-Najjar. Until those projects take actual form on the ground, there are numerous individual initiatives undertaken by Muslim Business men, company owners, Arab investors, and economic researchers living in France. These figures are working on formulating an Islamic economic approach and helping the Muslim community members to overcome this policy of marginalization and isolation.

Among contributing institutions: France encompasses some one thousand mosques, each can provide room for around 40 persons. However, 8 of them include more than one thousand Muslims. According to the UNESCO, educated people account for 15% of the whole Arab and Muslim community in France and this is the highest ratio in the west in after the United States of America. Foreign university students in France were estimated at 139943 students during the year 1995 – 1996 pursuing studies in different specialties. The Arab community, especially the Lebanese one, plays a very significant role in activating Arab economic movement in France, the trade exchange movement, and the French–Arab economic relations. They work through the office of economic, commercial and legal consultation services, and through the investment of Arab capitals coming from the Gulf originally. A good example on this is the Islamic Trade Fair held by the Union of Islamic organizations in France.