Emmanuel Macron’s War on Islamism Is Europe’s Future
The French president’s recent speech is a sign that moderate leaders are waking up to the threat posed by political Islam.
“We must never accept that the laws of religion can be superior to those of the Republic.”
With these words, delivered in a landmark speech in the eastern city of Mulhouse on Feb. 18, French President Emmanuel Macron launched his government’s strategy against political Islam. “Islamist separatism is incompatible with freedom and equality,” he stated, “incompatible with the indivisibility of the Republic and the necessary unity of the nation.”
The Mulhouse speech, and its harsh language, came as no surprise to anybody who has followed the French debate on Islamism over the last few years. Terms such as “Islamist separatism,” “communitarianism,” and “Islamist supremacism”—which in previous years constituted the vocabulary almost exclusively of the National Front (now National Rally, Marine Le Pen’s far-right party)—have become ubiquitous.
The term “fréro-salafiste” has also become mainstream. It covers the two Islamist trends critics accuse of promoting separatism in the country: the Muslim Brotherhood (Fréres musulmans in French), with its moderate façade but divisive agenda, and the Salafists, with their firm rejection of French society.
“We are talking,” Macron said in another speech last April, “about a secession that is sometimes insidiously installed because the Republic has deserted or has not kept its promises. We are talking about people who, in the name of a religion, are pursuing a political project, that of a political Islam that wants to secede from our Republic.”
The trigger for France’s heightened concerns about Islamism has unquestionably been terrorism. Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January 2015, in fact, the country has been in an almost constant state of alert. It has experienced massive attacks, like the November 2015 Paris attacks and the July 2016 Nice truck ramming, and an almost monthly slew of low-intensity acts of violence often perpetrated by individuals linked to or simply inspired by the Islamic State. It is also the European country with the dubious honor of having contributed the largest contingent of foreign fighters in Syria—some 2,000.
The assessment among many experts inside and outside the government is that the “lost territories of the Republic,” as areas where government control is weak and where crime and Islamism thrive have come to be referred to in some quarters, were the perfect breeding grounds for this phenomenon. Two recent books by Hugo Micheron and Bernard Rougier, which have received huge coverage, have clearly shown that while marginalization, crime, and unemployment were important factors in causing France’s radicalization wave, even more crucial was the separatist environment created by the so-called fréro-salafistes. In substance, they argue, nonviolent Islamists provide a conducive ecosystem that aids the recruitment efforts of jihadi groups—a position, to be sure, that is not universally accepted.
But France’s concerns about Islamism go well beyond terrorism. Critics argue that nonviolent Islamist groups, while largely operating within the boundaries of the law, propagate an interpretation of Islam that drives a wedge between Muslims and non-Muslims, contributing to polarization and harming integration. Europeans are concerned about the growing sway of Islamist groups that seek to push members of local Muslim communities to detach from mainstream society—mostly through preaching but also through various forms of social pressure, intimidation and, occasionally, violence— and resort to alternative legal, educational, and social systems.
“In the Republic,” Macron said in Mulhouse, “we cannot accept that we refuse to shake hands with a woman because she is a woman. In the Republic, we cannot accept that someone refuses to be treated or educated by someone because she is a woman. In the Republic, one cannot accept school dropouts for religious or belief reasons. In the Republic, one cannot require certificates of virginity to marry.”
That Macron, a staunch foe of populism but, at the same time, a good reader of his nation’s collective psyche, would highlight the negative impact of Islamism on French society is also indicative of a trend that can be observed throughout Europe. The debate on nonviolent Islamism has often taken a back seat to that on the violent manifestations of the ideology.
For obvious reasons, terrorist attacks get all the attention from policymakers, security services, and the media. The activities of nonviolent Islamists, on the other hand, tend to be ignored: They are mostly legal, rarely flare up in dramatic incidents, and often bring (sometimes justified, sometimes not) charges of racism and Islamophobia to those who highlight them.
Yet now, throughout Europe, the debate over Islamism is taking place with increasing openness and nuance. A 2018 report by the security services of North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany’s most populous state, encapsulated these new debates by arguing that “in the long run, the threat posed by legalistic Islamism to the liberal democratic system is greater than that of jihadism … They aspire to an Islamist order, but are prepared to allow certain democratic elements within that framework. For this reason, their extremism is often barely recognizable at first glance.”
These concerns are not new, but what is noteworthy is that they are no longer expressed almost exclusively by those on the right of the political spectrum but, much more frequently than in the past, by politicians and commentators of all political persuasions—not to mention security services.
No European country has adopted an even remotely cohesive approach to challenge Islamism, a task rendered particularly complex by the fact that most activities of nonviolent Islamists fall within the bounds of the law. Various countries have adopted measures aimed at tackling certain aspects: banning foreign funding (as Austria did) or limiting it (as the Netherlands is discussing); training imams (as Germany does) and deporting radical ones (Italy does this more than any other country); and cutting public funding to organizations connected to Islamist networks for religious, social, pro-integration, anti-Islamophobia, or radicalization prevention activities (as Sweden recently did for a Muslim Brotherhood youth group that did not “fulfill the democracy requirement” necessary to receive aid).
While indicative of a trend, these measures hardly represent a comprehensive approach. Even Macron’s strategy covers only a few aspects. It aims to end the system of teaching of languages from the pupils’ countries of origins in school and the phenomenon of “detached imams” sent from abroad, replacing them with clerical leaders trained in France. It also calls for more stringent scrutiny over the funding of places of worship. (Macron’s speech was not coincidentally delivered in Mulhouse, the site of a mega-mosque whose Qatari funding has been the source of a national controversy.)
The implementation of some measures will also be problematic, particularly in a country that makes the separation of religion and state (the concept of laïcité) one of its cornerstones. But even if they were enacted, they hardly constitute a multipronged, generational, socio-cultural grand strategy that many believe is necessary to counter Islamism, whether in France or elsewhere.
Despite the feebleness of the measures Macron announced, his speech is important because it shows where the conversation in Europe is headed. While each European country’s debate has its own dynamics and degree of intensity, there are continentwide commonalities.
The debate in all countries features the vocal and problematic presence of two extremes: foaming-at-the-mouth anti-Islamist (and, often, anti-Islam) activists on the right and willfully blind leftists who tend to dismiss any accusation against Islamists as preposterous fabrications motivated by Islamophobia.
Macron exemplifies the rise of a middle-of-the-road approach—a combination of concern and healthy skepticism of Islamism that does not degenerate into paranoia or conflate Islamist ideology with Islam.
Lorenzo Vidino is the director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University. He is the author of The Closed Circle: Joining and Leaving the Muslim Brotherhood in the West and a member of the Advisory Board of the Austrian government’s Observatory on Political Islam.