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Can Macron tame Islam’s terrorist fringe?

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PRESIDENT Emmanuel Macron has announced practical steps towards the grail of immigration politics, a French Islam which could be a model for Europe. The words were barely out of his mouth before, by an evil coincidence, a young Islamist proved the need by decapitating a school teacher on the street in a town near Paris.

France has reached a crossroads in its relations with murderous extremists who use religion as a weapon in their war of attrition with the liberal society which gave them refuge. Macron wants an Islamic Enlightenment modelled after the 18th century Voltairean enlightenment that transformed French thought.

Hard though it may be to credit, Europe’s leaders apparently gave no thought in the mid-20th century to the consequences of bringing immigrant labour in large numbers from Turkey and North Africa to power their postwar economic boom.

The Germans called their Turks ‘guest workers’ and assumed they’d go home when no longer needed. What the French call ‘les trentes glorieuses’, the years of rapid expansion after 1945, would have been less productive without the North African immigrants who kept the factories humming.

No one foresaw that mixing races, religions and cultures would lead to terrorism until the inescapable proof that integration had failed gave rise to the fresh ideology of multiculturalism – which rejectionists then exploited as a path to Islamic separatism in Europe.

Once it began, immigration became an unstoppable force and no one went home voluntarily. By the time the EU expanded its borders to include the former Soviet satellites, Western European politicians were wiser. They restricted for several years the right of their new fellow citizens to come and work in the rich West.

The introduction of Islam into countries with no Islamic traditions and very different attitudes to human rights, especially those of women, has been a lot more problematic than governments envisaged. Multiculturalism holds, counter-intuitively, that people have the right to come to Europe without embracing its liberal values.

David Cameron, Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy all pronounced multiculturalism a failure several years ago after repeated Islamist terrorist attacks, but did nothing about it. That was before the tide of Syrian war refugees and economic migrants from other Muslim countries rolled into Europe in 2014-15.

The solution, liberals thought, would be to create an enlightened Islam which would renounce such un-European practices as forced marriage, honour killings, female genital excision and polygamy, all of which go on, hidden from the public by a rarely breached political and media conspiracy of omerta.

Refounding a religion that dates back to the 7th century and has more than two billion followers worldwide sounds like an impossible goal. The Christian churches also struggle with the challenges of modernity. Islam is not monolithic, however. It is practised differently in different countries and the Koran exists in different versions. Some of what radicals claim to be part of their religion is convention rather than law.

Macron is tackling Islam’s place in European society with a new law aimed at separating the extremists from the majority of the Muslim population and making Islam and its culture closer to mainstream France. He means to refine multiculturalism in the direction of reconciliation.

It’s a recognition that immigration is a permanent feature of Europe’s future and that inclusion is inevitable but also that Islam must conform with its hosts who in turn must respect Islamic identity.

The necessity for this was demonstrated when an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant Islamist decapitated teacher Samuel Paty in public because he had shown the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of Muhammad to his class while discussing freedom of speech.

These atrocities keep occurring. France, with its population of almost seven million Muslims, has been the EU country hardest hit by Islamic terrorism with hundreds of dead from attacks in Paris and Nice, and many smaller attacks including the murder by the Chechen boy, who was himself shot dead by police.

Paty’s killing in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine gruesomely recalled the Marquez novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold. He taught the offending class on October 4 and there was a growing ferment on the part of local Islamists on social media and complaints to the school and police in the days before he died on October 16. He was obviously in danger and people want to know why the authorities did not protect him.

The terrible truth about terrorist attacks wherever they happen is that they are quickly forgotten. People are outraged about Paty now but in the normal way of things, he’ll be out of mind in a week and there will be inevitably be other attacks if Islamists are allowed to continue abusing the tolerance Islam has been shown in Europe.

There are some 800 no-go zones in France where the police do not venture except in force, mostly in the immigrant housing estates, or banlieues, around Paris and other cities. Macron’s proposals depend on the State’s authority penetrating these suburbs run by gangs. He has yet to say how he will accomplish it without force.

For the moment, the plan, intended to become law early next year, is centred on gaining control of the country’s 2,500 mosques and on education to prevent Islamists working behind seemingly harmless fronts to radicalise children and teenagers.

All 50,000 home-schooled children of whatever religion must be in state education from the age of three by next September. Officials will be allowed to dissolve bogus local associations which act as a screen for Islamist activity.

France wants to rid itself of the 1,800 foreign imams funded by Muslim countries who preach in Arabic and of whom only two per cent have theological qualifications. They will be replaced over four years by French imams accredited by the French Council for the Islamic Religion which has gained Macron’s trust. In the meantime, all imams must sign a charter of respect for French values within four months.

In return Arabic will be offered as an option in schools and an Institute of Islamic Studies will become part of the university system – a quid pro quo to promote the integration of Islamic culture. Whether it works or not depends on taming the banlieues.

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Donald Forbes
Donald Forbes is a retired Anglo-Scottish journalist now living in France who during a 40-year career worked in eastern Europe before and after communism.

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