Enforcing the French law against “Islamic Separatism”: Consequences on religious freedom

The law aimed at safeguarding French “republican principles” and fighting “Islamic separatism” was approved by the French National Assembly on July 23, 2021, after months of debates about its limitation of freedom of association and expression and its discrimination against Islam. [1]

Based on the bill’s articles, public authorities will fund only Muslim organizations that have signed a contract of “republican commitment” (Article 6) – at the time of this writing, the final text of the adopted law was not available online (See the project of law submitted for consideration by the National Assembly on July 1). Additionally, the grounds for dissolving organizations (Article 8) have been extended to include conflict or contradictions with the “Republican principles”. This may directly affect the construction of mosques and give more discretion to local authorities to close local Muslim associations.

Some other highly controversial articles, however, were not approved in the final version. One of those articles was the almost complete restriction to wear headscarves in public spaces, voted by the French Senate on March 30, 2021 (Article 1). Some other provisions included prohibiting parents accompanying their children on school trips from wearing the veil and banning the burkini in public swimming pools. These limitations triggered protests on social media under the hashtag #PasToucheAMonHijab (#HandsOffMyHijab), which went viral even beyond French borders – with the support of Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first American woman to wear hijab in the Olympics, among others. The protesters saw these additional restrictions as yet another attempt to control women’s bodies, following the 2004 prohibition of wearing of hijabs in state schools and the banning of the full-face veil in public places in 2010. Some asked whether the French national motto “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité” (“Liberty, Equality, Fraternity”) still apply to Muslim women. In the final vote in the National Assembly these discriminatory provisions were removed.

Nonetheless, the first applications of the law have started to show their effect on religious freedom. In the Loire region, the imam of the Saint-Chamond Grand Mosque, Mmadi Ahamada, was dismissed on July 23 for delivering a sermon on Eid al-Adha (19-23 July) considered “contrary to the values of the Republic”. He referred in his sermon to the Quranic verses of the surah Ahzab pertaining to the wives of Prophet Muhammad, which state: “O wives of the Prophet, […] settle in your homes and do not display yourselves as women did in the days of ‘pre-Islamic’ ignorance”. After a video of his sermon was shared online, the Minister of the Interior, Gérald Moussa Darmanin, asked the Loire Governor’s Office to dismiss him and to ensure that his residence permit will not be renewed. Darmanin described the imam’s statements as “unacceptable”, “against gender equality” and against the “values of the Republic”, although the imam said that the verses had been taken out of context.

Similarly, in the province of Hauts-de-Seine, Imam Mahdi Bouzid was terminated by the interior minister’s order, because he criticized the style of some Muslim women during a sermon on June 4 2021 at the Gennevilliers Mosque. He allegedly criticized some women for “lacking modesty” and “being dressed by the demon”, particularly “those who share makeup lessons or outfits that highlight the shapes of their bodies on social media”. On June 13, Darmanin asked the governor to intervene, and to suspend the mosque’s activities if a similar sermon happened. Imam Mehdi has filed a complaint against the Minister of Interior for abuse of power, after stating on social media that his sermon was “addressed to Muslim women, not women in general”, and that he was “talking about free choice in religious practice”. Darmanin, in turn, confirmed on his Twitter account that the two imams had been dismissed upon his request. Some human rights advocates have criticized the Minister for targeting imams and for asking the governors to dismiss them, as it looks as if “imams are appointed by governors in France”.

The controversy

The debate over the new bill has generated significant critique regarding the respect of basic human rights and freedoms, especially concerning the Muslim community in France. The far-left leader Jean-Luc Mélenchon (president of La France Insoumise group), for example, called the bill “anti-Muslim” and “anti-Republican”.

On March 29 2021, before the Senate’s debate on the bill, Amnesty International (AI) issued a public statement to express concern about the bill’s lack of respect of basic rights and freedoms. AI specifically questioned the vague concept of “republican commitment” advanced by the law, which could lead to abuse of freedoms of expression and association.

Amnesty International offered suggestions to avoid religious discrimination such as the allocation of public funds to organizations “in a non-discriminatory manner” and the commitment to fair treatment for the groups and individuals who do nor share the government’s positions on religion. AI also underlined that “the dissolution of an organization is one of the most severe restrictions of the right to freedom of association and should only be imposed as a last resort, where there is clear and present danger resulting from a flagrant violation of the law” and that any such dissolution should be ordered by a court (rather than an administrative authority).

Finally, Amnesty International argued that while the government’s justification for the bill focused on tackling “radical Islam”, it failed to define the notions of “radical Islam” or “separatism”, as well as to provide information or data to justify its specific focus on those phenomena. In this regard, AI recalled that to conform to the principle of non-discrimination, the French authorities should refrain from adopting measures that could e directly or indirectly undermine the legal protection due to any “religion or belief, ethnic origin, nationality or migration status”.

Macron’s “anti-separatist” bill is seen by many as as an attempt to appeal to right-wing voters ahead of the 2022 presidential election – which analysts consider will likely come down to a run-off duel with the far-right Marine Le Pen. Taking this into account, more cases of sanctions against religious practices, sheltered by the new law, are to be foreseen in the coming months.

By Ada Mullol

[1] See previous Euro-Islam articles on the French law against “Islamist separatism”: “French Law on “Republican Values” and Global Security Law: How they converge toward a criminalization of Islam”, “Made in France Imams and International Backlash to Macron’s bill on Islamic Separatism”, “Fighting Separatism to build an ‘Enlightened Islam’: The controversial project of French President Emmanuel Macron”.

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