Over the past couple of weeks, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been doing everything possible to guarantee a second term in office ahead of the April 22 first round of the presidential elections. The killing of seven people by an Al Qaida-inspired gunman last month came as an unexpected gift for Sarkozy to increase his chances in the forthcoming elections. Having lagged behind in recent opinion polls, he won several percentage points following a range of measures against the Muslim community in France. In a show of strength, Sarkozy did not only target radical elements in the Muslim community but has also assumed his security mantle by making every Muslim a suspect until proven otherwise. Imams were deported, moderate Muslim preachers were denied access to the country, mosques were monitored and several schools were shut down.
The exploitation of Mohammad Merah's shooting in the southern city of Toulouse for election purposes has become a major source of irritation and anger among French Muslims and human rights activists around the world. But, in many other aspects, the response of the Sarkozy government to the incident reflected a deep-seated paranoia of the French elite about religion and its role in public life. Beyond going against the very notion of freedom and undermining the tenets of western democracy, which underlines tolerance and diversity, Sarkozy's policies exposed the eradicationist leanings of extreme secularists in French political and cultural circles.
Since its revolution, which was fought against clericalism, France has been preoccupied with its historical legacy and has, therefore, been firmly committed to the separation of the secular and the religious in the public domain. But, Sarkozy's response to Merah's case demonstrated that militant secularism does not simply mean the separation of religion and politics, but an anti-religious and anti-clerical belief, an ideology per se.
Hence, the simplest visible affirmation of faith by French Muslims has been regarded by hardcore secularists as a challenge to their determinedly secular state. The deportation of imams and the closure of schools is only one aspect of this type of secular extremism. Going against the fundamentals of the modern French republic, based on the 1789 Revolution's "liberty, equality and fraternity", did not discourage the translation of this ideology into policies, targeting free-born citizens in a seemingly liberal democracy.
To the mind of France's secular fundamentalists, Muslim individuals and groups who speak of Islam as a way of life are regarded as fundamentalists or fanatics who constitute a threat to French culture and social values. Images of militant groups and the violent actions of a minority of individuals are often taken as representative and proof of the inherent danger of mixing Islam, politics and social life. This stereotype is a major obstacle to the understanding of Islamic culture and has contributed to a tendency that reduces Islam to fundamentalism and fundamentalism to religious extremism.
This erroneous perception, it must be said, does not emanate only from misrepresentation or misinformation about Islam and Muslims, but also from the mind of secular fundamentalists, which is oriented in a way that tends to view the world in terms of two opposite extremes: traditions and modernity, religion and rationalism, Islam and progress. This sort of understanding tends to relegate religion to the stockpile of traditional beliefs, valuable in understanding the past but irrelevant to modern life.
The tendency to define religion as a system of belief restricted to personal life, rather than a way of life, has seriously hampered the western ability to understand the nature of Islam and many of its manifestations. Islam has generally been regarded in the West and particularly among French secular elites as a static, anti-modern and retrogressive phenomenon. This explains why France has rejected multiculturalism and required integration when its Muslim populations are implicated. Today, French Muslims are subject to a malicious war, targeting their religious and cultural values. It is a battle to define their very identity and soul. Many of them, like Muslims throughout the world, wish to live in a modern, but Islamic community. They are eager to enrich the political process and enjoy their rights for greater freedom and democracy. Ironically, the forces of secularism opt for greater authoritarianism rather than democratisation in order to impose their militant secularism.
Taking this path is extremely dangerous. French policy-makers must try to acquire better understanding of Islam, religion and culture, in order to win, rather than alienate, their Muslim citizens. More important, perhaps, they must respect the beliefs of the local Muslim community, which is French first and foremost. They may need to check through the constitution of the French Republic, which — among many things — guarantees all citizens the right to choose their religion and practice their faith. For a person to believe, and to follow his or her beliefs, does not mean that that person is fundamentalist or fanatic.
Dr Marwan Kabalan is the Dean of the Faculty of International Relations and Diplomacy at the University of Kalamoon, Syria.