The Toulouse killings revived the debate on Islam in Europe
On 19 March, France woke up to the dreadful news that someone had killed three children (aged 3, 6 and 10 years old) and a teacher in a Jewish school in Toulouse. It soon appeared that the killer used the same weapon and method as in three previous murders that targeted French muslim soldiers in Montauban. The murderer was rapidly identified as Mohamad Merah, a French citizen with Algerian origins who claimed to be linked to Al-Qaeda.
During the 32-hour siege in his apartment before he was killed, Merah justified his acts by his desire to avenge Palestinian children killed by Israel and to punish the French army for getting involved in Libya and Afghanistan. Merah was a French citizen and was not perceived as an Islamist by people who knew him, despite having travelled twice to Afghanistan and Pakistan to receive training from the Taliban. These events forced the issues of Islam and Islamism in Europe onto the agenda of the ongoing presidential campaign in France, and triggered intense debate across Europe. They revived certain extreme-right movements, like in Denmark, where 300 people observed one minute’s silence in memory of Merah’s victims and protested against “the Islamification of Europe”. How should European governments go about separating Islam from Islamism?
Why Islam is so specific
Islam is a specific case because, unlike the Catholic Church, it has no central authority to which the whole Muslim world needs to obey. Hence there are numerous and diverse interpretations of the Quran. The most challenging task in distinguishing Islam from Islamism consists in adopting a framework which allows Muslims to exercise their religion and have the same rights as other confessions, whilst at the same time preventing the spread of fundamentalist interpretations of Islam. However, European countries have very different ways of dealing with the integration of Muslims. France and the UK best epitomize the two main integration models. France only recognises individuals, not communities, and considers that immigrants ought to speak French and abide by French values in order to be properly integrated in the “République”. The UK on the other hand is much more liberal, and leaves newcomers to live within their communities and by their own norms. This is a highly sensitive debate everywhere in Europe, as it forces traditionally secular states to meddle with religion.
European countries should adopt and enforce a specific interpretation of Islam
The Moroccan approach to Islam can teach Europe useful lessons. In Morocco, Islam is practiced in a tolerant and moderate way and at the same time is tightly controlled by the state. King Mohammad VI controls how Islam is interpreted, which avoids the development of radical branches of Islam. The problem is that the Moroccan state holds Islam as the official state religion. This notion doesn’t fit well with Western secular democracies. Nonetheless, it would not violate the principle of secularism to provide representative Muslim organisations with the exclusive authority to authorise imams to teach and preach Islam. This should provide a legal basis to prohibit radical imams from spreading hatred and violence in the name of religion. The state would remain secular and continue to treat all religions equally, whilst preventing the spread of ideas which are against the fundamental values of European countries: the right to live, equality of genders, freedom, etc. This is even more important as radical interpretations of Islam make extreme-right arguments and demands sound rational to some. There lies the real danger, as Islamophobia destroys the social links between Europeans of all confessions.
Furthermore, since European societies have very different approaches to integration, the EU should not legislate in this field. The main problem with the Moroccan approach to Islam is that it involves an important level of control on society, freedom of expression and often freedom itself. This will inevitably end up being contradictory to the fundamental laws of certain countries. This is precisely why the British are struggling to expel Islamist priest Abu Qatada from the UK as there is no legal basis to convict him, given the country’s absolute respect for freedom of expression. France, on the contrary, has the legal basis to expel anyone suspected of being an Islamist. EU ,member states need to act and find ways to adopt an official broad interpretation of Islam. What is at stake is the social link between European citizens. This is absolutely crucial: Europe knows too well how religion can be a terrible factor of division.