As the second largest religious persuasion in France, Islam consists of approximately 7% or between 5 and 6 million Muslims living in the country of which a minimum 2 million are French citizens. These numbers are based on estimation because French law does not permit a population census to be undertaken on the basis of distinctions in faith or race. This is in line with the principle of equality in the French republic. Conversely, certain public institutions are sanctioned to collect information based on social trends or demographics as well as other related matters as long as it is sanctioned by the National Council of Statistical Information working hand in hand with the National Commission for Computer-stocked data and Freedom.
The Muslim population in France comprises citizens and immigrants from different parts of the world though most of them have originated from the Middle East, Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria while the rest are converts. Despite this diversity, roughly 50% are practicing Islam, whereas the rest do not participate actively in the tenets of Islam.
Islam’s origin in France dates as far back as the 9th century during the Muslims’ control of various towns in southern France. This was the first time that Islam was introduced to France briefly as the locals made a successful push to reclaim their territory, and routed the Muslims in 975 resulting in their expulsion. Some of the Muslim converts were held captive, deported to Northern France and settled there permanently, but in the 16th century, the Muslims regained control of Nice, and the Ottoman Empire converted it into a naval base, and this helped spread Islam among the local population. Later on, in the 17th century, the formerly Muslim community was expelled from Spain and up to 50,000 of them settled in France for fear of persecution by the rulers because of their North African origins and previous subscription to the Islamic faith.
Moving on to the 20th century, Muslim immigrants’ numbers increased with the onset of the industrial revolution and a resultant demand for labour. The need for France to compete in the world markets by developing its domestic industries was prevalent and with the beginning of World War I, it became apparent that there was a labour shortage due to the conscription of French citizens. As such, France started to bring citizens of its North African colonies, namely, Algeria and Morocco. By 1922, as a result of their contribution to the war especially in the conquest of Fort Douaumont and at the battle of Verdun; the French constructed the Great Mosque of Paris in recognition of the contribution of its Muslim soldiers.
By the end of World War II, the population of Muslim immigrants stood at 132,000 and counting. The reasons for such a steady increase in immigration from French colonies and other parts of the world have been attributed to social, political and economic factors. The Muslim population is currently concentrated in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais, Rhône-Alpes, Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Ile-de-France.
Today, most of the Muslim community lives under conditions that can be described as inferior in comparison to the rest of the French populace. Education institutions and the local media continue to portray followers of the Islamic faith as hostile people ready to engage in terrorism while promoting violence. Opposition from Zionists and some unfortunate incidents sanctioned by a few Arab immigrants have not helped their cause either. In some quarters, there have been extremist calls for the expulsion of all Muslim immigrants. This open Islamophobic approach has failed to come to fruition because of the presence of many second generation immigrants, who are now French citizens by birth, have been passed giving the option to request citizenship on attaining adulthood.
Islamic leaders have called for the repeal of such laws which are solely discriminatory on the grounds of religion and race. The French Government has since repealed these oppressive laws and acknowledged the religion of Islam granting it equal status with other faiths like Judaism and Christianity. Consequently, Muslims have been granted the exception of differentiation between religion and state which has been enforced since 1905 and receive recognition for religious holidays, tax exemption for religious Islamic organizations, provision of remuneration for religious staff in secular institutions, as well as, subsidies for private religious educational institutions.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith was created by the French Government in 2002 to establish a formal representation of French Muslims in contradiction to the French ‘laïcité’; the law which “does not recognize, pay, or subsidize any [form of] worship” while at the same time “guarantees the free exercise of religious worship”. As a result of the leeway gained through dialogue with the authorities, this has given birth to the creation of two main organizations under the umbrella of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, namely, Union of Islamic Organizations of France and the Federation of the French Muslims. Due to these efforts, the integration of Muslims into the French society is relatively successful compared to other countries within continental Europe.
Challenges still exist in the field of employment with Muslims gaining fewer chances of securing jobs despite retaining the same level of qualifications and experience. There are also incidents of the desecration of graves, as well as, vandalism and profanities towards the Islamic faith, and Mosques have not been spared either. This has not been made any better by incidents such as the terrorist attack on the United States on September 11th 2001. Prior to this, events like the 2005 riots further dampened the perception of Muslims even though it was caused by general boredom, idleness and poor living conditions in the areas that immigrants live in. Young Muslims have been subjected to harassment in identity checks and the fact that there is a concentration of Muslims in crime-infested areas only makes things worse. Representatives of the Muslim community and its leaders are regularly placed under police surveillance. It is not uncommon for employers to request security agencies to carry out background checks on Muslim employees to make sure that they are not part of one terrorist network or the other. Issues of immigration have also been addressed more so in a biased manner towards the Muslim population.
On the educational front, there has been a spirited debate on the Hijab, a traditional cum religious garb worn by Muslim women that covers their faces, and thus conceals their identity. This according to Islam is a necessary means of showing chastity in public, and a woman’s identity can only be revealed to family members indoors. The state schools adhere to the separation of religion and state, therefore the use of the Hijab has met much resistance, and this has been extended to medical services and the civil service. The opposing views have caused tension and the French Government has intervened to the effect that it interferes with the laws regarding state and religion. This has lead to the expulsion of a number of girls though court rulings have reversed up to half of the decisions that have been made by the educational institutions concerned. Over the years, laws have been relaxed to restrict the ban to public buildings.
On a more positive note, Islamic schools have been openly marked by the establishment of Éducation et Savoir in Paris 5 years ago, and offering classes in Islam and the Arab language. Despite the challenges it faces in funding, it has received continues to receive donations from associations and private donors. Efforts are also being put in place to provide training for teaching staff and Imams who are few to find in France. Negotiations with the French Government have led to the development of a curriculum for Imams in French universities.
So far, the political landscape in France does not boast any Islamic party though there has been growing numbers of Muslim candidates in national elections. There are some who have been appointed into senior positions in the French Government. In the future, it is likely that with a change in perception towards Islam, there will be a number of elected Muslim politicians in France.
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