The “Big Consultation of Muslims” in France: an unprecedented project initiated from the ground.

The initative of the French Government to reform French-Islam in the next few months, detailed in a previous article published online on Euro-Islam, has been highly criticised, especially by young Muslims who have denounced the interference of the executive in religious cases. At the same time, a project of a consultation of French Muslims, held by Marwan Muhammad, has been carried out, named “The Big Consultation of Muslims” [La Grande Consultation des Musulmans]. This, with its context, will be discussed below, followed by the results of the consultation. Finally, the reception and future issues related to the project will be described.

Context of emergence and presentation of the stakeholders

After many months of preparation, the consultation has been officially revealed with an article in the newspaper Le Monde on the 9thof May. The investigator of the project, or at least the signatory and the one who attracts the most media attention, is Marwan Muhammad. Born in France to an Egyptian father, the 39 year old former trader and diplomat is best known because of his involvement within the CCIF (the Collective Against Islamophobia in France) [Le Collectif Contre l’Islamophobie en France], as a spokesperson between 2010 and 2014 and as a CEO from 2016 to 2017. Due to his strong statements on social topics during his mandate, he enjoys a large audience amongst French Muslims, particularly young people on social media, even though he is considered a contested figure.

Interrogated on the genesis of the project, Marwan Muhammad announced three observations to explain it. First—and it is a recognised fact by most of the social scientists working on Islam in France—the relationship between the French government and French Muslims has been mainly based on a security approach, as the authorities have tried to exert control on Islam in France. Secondly, the major Muslim Federations in France have aligned their policies with their national chancellery (i.e. Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey): by doing so, they often appeared as disconnected from the needs of French Muslims. Thirdly and finally, Marwan Muhammad recognised the lack of viable alternatives undertaken by French Muslim citizens and urged them to get involved. In his article, published in Le Monde, Marwan Muhammad was quite critical of the French government, while he also recognised that Muslims were sometimes responsible because they do not take enough initiative.

More broadly, the reason given to justify the setting up of the consultation was that, in France, everybody’s opinions about Islam are listened to, except the opinions of those directly affected: French Muslims. In other words, Islam is a national debate, from which French Muslims are excluded. To remedy this, the consultation aimed to offer French Muslims the opportunity to express their personal views on social topics linked to their everyday life. The stated ambition of the consultation was to generate constructive discussions within the Muslim community, and to bring together all the tendencies present in French-Islam, from Sufis to Salafis, with a special focus on women and young people. Presented as the first initiative related to Islam in France conducted from the grassroots, one of the consultation’s ambitions was to underline the variety of French Muslims but also their added values and the richness of local initiatives.

It is then necessary to describe the concrete modalities of the consultation held online (through a digital platform), but also on the field. The consultation was available online and took place during the holy month of Ramadan 2018; the organisers, especially Marwan Muhammad, crossed the country to encourage people to express their opinions. Conducted independently from the Muslim Federations, the consultation enjoyed the support of some organisations and mosques, who opened their doors to explain the project and played the role of relays. Considering that the more people that give their opinion, the more legitimate the consultation will be, the organisers urged people to express their minds and disperse the short form (it only takes 5 minutes to complete it) around them, for instance by helping elderly people unable to use the internet to complete it.

French Muslims were invited to anonymously answer many questions—either open or closed-ended questions—related to their feelings about the organisations in charge of their representation, the image and representation of Islam in the media and many other social topics. The importance of mosques, the slaughter ritual, education and the fight against Islamophobia constituted other subjects explored in the survey; the end of the survey has been left blank to collect more personal remarks on issues not addressed or general feedback.

Main findings of the consultation and their interpretations

The main findings of the consultation (the restitution is available on this link) were revealed on the 30th of September in a conference at the Institute of the Arabic World in Paris. A scientific committee—composed of social scientists and statisticians—were mandated to process the analysis of the surveys. This analysis, with both qualitative and quantitative data, aimed to determine the main trends and themes evocated in the forms by the 27 000 people and 200 associations who took part in the vote.

The first significant trend was related to the media’s treatment of Islam in France, as almost 86% of the respondents to the questionnaire considered it as “not fair and balanced at all”. In the same vein, in the open questions, the respondents criticised the role of the media, who they accused of conveying a negative image of Islam and Muslims. More broadly, the report mentioned that the main concerns of the respondents were linked to political manners, especially to the possibilities (or obstacles) of their inclusion into French society, as the unfair political treatment and contemporary racism were also noted.

Another central point was that the organisations often presented as representative of French Muslims or French-Islam (in fact they are not supposed to do so), such as the French Council of Muslim Faith(CFCM), created in 2003 with the strong interference of state, were considered highly inefficient and were criticised by voters. If voters mentioned their wish to create an organisation to represent them, they clearly expressed that such an organisation has to be separated from the state and organised by Muslims themselves; while the report underlined that this vision is in faithful respect to the French principle of secularism. When the respondents were asked to mention the most famous and trustworthy organisations already active in France, Islamic humanitarian organisations were the first quoted (such as Barakacity, the Secours Islamique Franceor Syria Charity), just after the Collective Against Islamophobia in France. One could imagine that such an answer might be explained due to the visibility of these organisations online (they are omnipresent on social media) but also due to the young age of the voters. For respondents, being Muslim is far from being limited to worship (even though they feel concerned by this topic, ordinarily reserved to the previous generations before), as it also necessarily implies active involvement in citizen, social and humanitarian activities.

Local or day-to-day problems came next, such as social and humanitarian action, implementation of Islamic finance and practical questions relating to an ethical way of life. These priorities, also related to community issues, were interpreted as “corresponding to concrete needs of practitioners”.

Finally, and this point was both an objective of the consultation and a finding of it, the diversity of profiles within the “Muslim community” has been underlined: in terms of professions, social categories, ethnic origins, opinions, generations and claims. This diversity has been presented as a task for the organisers of the consultation, who mentioned that if the respondents might have divergences, they also share a common project.

How tenable and suitable is the consultation?

After the consultation, a new online platform has been created, baptised The Muslims[L.E.S. Musulmans], the determinant LES must be understood as a acronym: L for “release the energies”, E means mutual help and excellence, while the letter S refers to solidarity. The new website offered the possibility to work on different thematic workshops related to the consultation results. The statute of Imams, the question of the hajj, the role of mosques, and education will receive special attention. Considering the fact that the project has been conducted from the bottom up, the organisers want to use the success of the consultation to mobilise and get people involved: the slogan was that everyone can be useful, and everyone’s opinion has to be taken into account. Even though some famous personalities and Imams have joined the movement, the consultation claims it wishes to stay a tool for “ordinary Muslims”, with a special attention to the inclusion of women and young Muslims. As the website has centralised a lot of data, the organisers proposed to bring people together and to help them get in touch: the website will orient you to local associations more able to help you. At the same time, The Muslims movement wants to be totally independent from the public authorities, but such ambition does not exclude constructive work relationships.

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