Islamism in Europe: The French and Austrian Approach

The end of 2020 was marked by serious terror attacks, initiated by Islamists in France and Austria.

As one consequence, the French President – who already earlier announced a new pro-active way to challenge the dangers of Islamism and radicalization in his country – and the Austrian Chancellor are trying to find new approaches concerning this extremist challenge.

After the Charlie Hebdo massacre in 2015 and the Nice attack in 2016, the murder of a teacher is the latest attack by a Muslim extremist in France. It came two weeks after Macron’s controversial speech in which he defined Islam as “a religion in crisis around the world today.”

France, which ruled many Muslim regions in Africa and the Levant, such as Algeria and Mali, as a colonial power in the 19th and 20th centuries, is home to the largest Muslim minority in Western Europe: six million people, nine percent of the population.

In his October 2 speech, Macron outlined a legislative proposal to combat “Islamist separatism”, prohibiting home schooling for all children aged 3 and over and preventing foreign-trained imams from running French mosques. The aim, according to the president, is “to build an Islam in France that is compatible with the Enlightenment”.

French secularism, welcomed by both the progressive left and the anti-Islamic right, essentially bans religious symbols from public institutions. France bans Muslim women from wearing headscarves in schools, and face coverings are not allowed in public.

In France there are ongoing debates about “Islamic fundamentalism” and “Muslim terrorists”, and anti-Islamic views also find some support.

The constitution defines the state as secular, but there are no limits to this secularism.

Given the challenges of migration and multiculturalism, this rigid secularism has also met with criticism in France. The sociologist of religion Jean Baubérot, for example, calls instead for a »more pluralistic secularism« that tolerates various religious symbols in public institutions.

Indeed, France has allowed many exceptions for Catholics. The government makes large sums of money available for private Catholic schools, which educate around a quarter of all students, and six of the eleven official holidays in France are Catholic holidays.

All too often the „laïcité“ expresses itself in an unwillingness to comply with the religiously based demands of the Muslims. In 2015, a Muslim legal organization sued a city council in the French region of Burgundy for refusing to offer an alternative to pork in public school canteens. The court forced the city to give in. But not because the school violated religious freedom, but because the menu violated children’s rights.

France’s fundamental commitment to equality under the law also prevents meaningful societal debate on racial discrimination. In censuses, for example, information about ethnic origin is not even collected. Although France’s largest minority consists mainly of non-white Muslim immigrants from its former colonies in Africa and their descendants, Macron made little reference to the legacy of French colonialism in his speech.

Apart from that, there is also a grain of truth in Macron’s speech. Yet the “crisis” that Islam faces lies in the historical and political failures of the Muslim world, not religion itself.

However, extremists in Western countries where Muslims are a minority occasionally take it upon themselves to punish those who they believe are mocking the Prophet Muhammad. This caused controversy over cartoons and films around the world. Occasionally, in France and elsewhere, it led to an unacceptable response: murder.

Such murders, whether committed by the state or by individuals, are tragic. But portraying it as a purely religious problem ignores the socio-economic and political origins of Islamic blasphemy laws and the anti-democratic cultural consequences of authoritarianism in many Muslim countries. It also overlooks the difficult reality that social alienation is a fundamental factor in the radicalization of some young Muslims in the West.

Macron’s speech indicated that the French president wants to focus on more inclusiveness in the future. “I want France to become a country where we can teach the thoughts of Averreos and Ibn Khaldun,” the president claimed, referring to two important Muslim thinkers of the 12th and 14th centuries. He envisions a country “that excels in the study of Muslim civilizations”.

The plural in “civilizations” is meaningful. He recognizes that Islam is not monolithic. Neither is French secularism. Both are complex systems with different interpretations.

President Emmanuel Macron this month confirmed a breakthrough in negotiations for a binding charter of values ​​for Muslim preachers in France. He received representatives of the French Council for Muslim Cults (Conseil français du culte musulman, CFCM) in the Elysée to get the last reluctant associations to sign the document. With this, he wants to clear the way for the establishment of an Imam Council, which from now on will approve and review imams in France.

The topic has been a bone of contention for years, because many Muslim associations did not want to expressly commit themselves to respecting the free-democratic legal order, especially in relation to women and non-Muslims. In Mulhouse last February, Macron announced that “political Islam” had no place in France. “The French state cannot train or control the imams. But we can ask the CFCM to train and admit those who preach in the name of Islam in France, ”said the President.

In this way, a “cultural police” is created. From now on, attempts to undermine the legal system should be discovered and punished more quickly, Macron formulated as a goal. The strict separation of church and state in France means that, unlike in Germany for example, the government cannot itself train the imams.

While the principle of a self-governing Imam Council met with approval, the nine associations of the CFCM got into a heated argument over the text of the „Charter of Values“. Intensive negotiations took place for six weeks, at times the project seemed to be on the verge of collapse. In protest against the “Islamist ideology” of several representatives, the rector of the great mosque in Paris, Chems-Eddine Hafiz, left the negotiations in scandal at the end of December.

“I cannot work with people who show no respect for the republic,” wrote the rector in a fire letter. After the murder of the history teacher Samuel Paty by an Islamist, he campaigned for the separation of religion and politics. In his condemnation of the crime, he added that Muslim children also need to learn to deal with cartoons about their religion. He has received threats since then and is under police protection.

The dispute in the negotiations was sparked by the question of whether the charter should specifically mention the currents that pursue a political instrumentalization of Islam. In the original version, it was planned to expressly highlight Salafism, the Muslim Brotherhood and Wahhabism as “incompatible” with the French Republic. As the “Journal de Dimanche” wrote, this formulation is said to have been retained in the final version. A subordinate clause also refers to “nationalist currents” that are controlled by foreign powers. Representatives from four associations had initially protested against this.

In addition, there were upheavals in the question of how to deal with French Muslims who renounce their religion. So far, apostasy has been criminalized by many preachers. One of the opponents of freedom of belief was the influential “Islamic Confederation Milli Görus”, which depends on Turkey. The debate about whether women should be given equal rights as men in the Charter is said to have been particularly heated. At the request of the Minister of the Interior, it should be explicitly mentioned that certificates of virginity are not a religious obligation. The charter should also state that forced marriages are not compatible with French Islam. The interior minister personally held the last negotiations over the weekend.

According to information in the “Journal de Dimanche“, The charter contains the following passage: “The signatories undertake not to criminalize the renunciation of Islam”. Accordingly, they also undertake “not to call for physical or psychological violence against those who renounce their religion”. According to the newspaper, the text also states that “the equality between men and women is inviolable”.

It goes on to say that “certain cultural practices do not emerge from Islam”. This means virginity certificates and genital circumcisions. The charter also states that “allegations of state racism as well as other victim attitudes are defamatory”. CFCM chairman Mohammed Moussaoui announced on Monday that the charter emphasized “the compatibility of the Muslim faith with the values ​​of the republic and secularism”.

In Austria, the situation is quite different. Unlike in France, the government did not show an interest in a public debate, instead – after there terror attack of November 1 – it wants to prove itself as the key holder of Christian and Western values, strong and non-negotiable. The coalition, formed by the Christian Democratic ÖVP and the Greens, has decided on a first anti-terror package. It already passed the first parliament debate, where it will be on display for six weeks for assessment by interest groups and experts. A second legislative package has been announced for 2021. It is intended to incorporate the findings of a commission charged with investigating failures by the authorities in connection with the attack.

It is obvious that there were omissions, because the perpetrator was well known. He had already been convicted as a supporter of the terrorist organization “Islamic State” (IS) and was on parole on November 2nd when he committed the crime. He was also noticed because he had tried to buy ammunition in Slovakia in the summer and because Islamists from Germany and Switzerland who were being monitored had contact with him. Nevertheless, he was able to prepare his attack unmolested.

In the future, according to the will of the Vienna government, probation officers, deradicalisation institutions, the protection of the constitution and the judiciary are to be more closely linked, for example with several prescribed conferences on each individual case. Stricter requirements such as an electronic ankle cuff can be issued by the courts. A list of threats is intended to register people who have been detained for a terrorist offense. Similar to a police clearance certificate, the list should be able to be viewed prior to employment in security-related professions. Also, whoever stands on it is not allowed to purchase weapons.

A new criminal offense is “religiously motivated extremist association”. This includes those, who “continue to illegally try to replace the essential elements of the democratic constitutional order of the republic with an exclusively religiously based social and state order” and either undermine the state legal order or try to enforce a religious legal order. There is a risk of up to two years in prison here.

This is intended to enable the ban on “political Islam” announced by the ÖVP in particular. Justice Minister Alma Zadic (Greens) said later at the presentation of the project that the draft law was “in conformity with fundamental rights, but effective”. A formulation has been found that corresponds to the constitutional framework and the “requirement of certainty”. Apparently she was alluding to the fact that the law does not specifically refer to Islam. The ÖVP announcements had sounded more specific.

At the same time, she and Interior Minister Karl Nehammer (also ÖVP) assured that the laws were not directed against religion or their community, but against “anti-democrats” from whom religious communities had to be protected. The officially recognized Islamic Faith Community in Austria (IGGÖ) complained that it was not involved, not even informed, but had learned details from the press conference of the three ministers. IGGÖ President Ümit Vural found that the new offense against religiously motivated extremism was unconstitutional, especially since Minister Raab had explicitly referred it to so-called political Islam. “We strictly reject ethical justice – even through the back door.”

In this context, an imams directory also belongs, which is to be kept in the future – but not by a government agency, but by the IGGÖ. Raab said: “We just want to know which imams are preaching in Austria. Even foreign ones, if they only preach briefly.”

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