PARIS — After three major terrorist attacks in the last year and a half, public outrage has forced the French government to respond. But one particular proposal has generated significant controversy: the shutdown of certain mosques and the foreign funding behind them.
Late last month — weeks after the Nice attack — Prime Minister Manuel Valls called for an outright ban on the foreign funding of mosques in France “for a period to be determined.” Days later, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve announced that, in fact, more concrete measures had already been taken: Since December 2015, he said, 20 Salafist mosques were shut down altogether.
“There is no place in France for those who call for and incite hatred in prayer halls or in mosques,” Cazeneuve said, speaking to reporters after a meeting with Muslim leaders. For many French Muslims, however, the issue is the implicit association in his words — namely, that mosques are where terrorists radicalize.
“It gives the idea that mosques have something to do with terrorism,” Marwan Muhammad, the director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, said in an interview. “It’s a way of problematizing Muslims once again.”
There are about 2,500 Muslim “houses of prayer” in France, not all of which are officially classified as mosques. According to France 24, only about 120 of these are associated with radical Salafism, a strict variation of Sunni Islam.
Despite the immense publicity the question of foreign-funded mosques has drawn throughout the summer, especially from supporters of the far-right National Front party, many question whether the practice is actually as common as is frequently presented — especially in a country that has had an established infrastructure to combat money laundering and terrorist financing since 1990.
According to a committee report released last month by the country’s Parliament, the lion’s share of the funding behind new French mosques comes from individual donations in France — not from foreign governments. The report’s findings indicated that the bulk of the foreign funding that did arrive came from Morocco and Algeria, which have sent 6 million euros and 2 million euros, respectively, this year.
But the report’s main finding highlighted what its authors considered the structural nature of the problem.
In staunchly secular France, mosques — like churches, synagogues and any other houses of worship — are not legally entitled to receive any state funding. As a result, the only way to fund new mosques is through private donations from individuals and charitable organizations, a framework that encourages foreign capital in the first place, the report said.
“On the one hand, there is the intent to organize Islam in France in order to have greater control,” the report concluded. “On the other hand, [Islam] cannot be touched because of the 1905 law. The equation is unsolvable.”
The 1905 law, passed after a political crisis known as the Dreyfus Affair, officially guaranteed the separation of church and state in France.
Regardless, the report recommended that the government establish a dedicated foundation that could monitor the transmission of foreign funds to French mosques. As legislator Nathalie Goulet, one of the report’s authors, told France 24, the idea is “not to ban foreign financing but to make it transparent and conditional.”
The government listened, announcing the Foundation for Islamic Works, which, in theory, will do precisely that, in addition to overseeing the training of foreign-born imams. But then it made another announcement: The foundation will be run by a non-Muslim, former interior minister Jean-Pierre Chevènement, 77.
This, for Muhammad, represents a “double insult” to French Muslims.
“The first is that they chose someone who doesn’t represent anything to the Muslim community — it’s like they’re confiscating Muslim opinion,” he said.
“It’s also saying that of the 4 million Muslims in France, none of them is capable of holding this position. Among all this wealth of people, not one of them — man or woman — is capable.”
Four million is a conservative estimate for the number of Muslims in France, which officially keeps no statistics on race, ethnicity or religion. Others put the figure closer to 5 million for what is one of Europe’s largest Muslim communities, if not its largest.