Lawmakers debate bill to rout out radical Islam in France

International

FILE – In this Sept. 25, 2020 file photo, police and forensic investigate an attack that wounded two people near the former offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Paris, France. French lawmakers tackle a bill on Monday to dig up radical Islam by its roots in the country, beliefs that authorities maintain are creeping into public services, associations, some schools and online with the goal of undermining national values. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, File)

PARIS (AP) — French lawmakers debated a bill on Monday they hope will uproot radical Islam in the country, beliefs that authorities maintain are creeping into public services, associations, some schools and online with the goal of undermining national values.

The bill is broad and controversial, with around 1,700 proposed amendments, and it guarantees heated debate for the next two weeks in the lower house.

Opening the debate, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, the bill’s sponsor, said the aim is to stop “an Islamist hostile takeover targeting Muslims.” He stressed that “we are not fighting against a religion,” although some Muslims in France have voiced concern that it adds a new layer of stigmatization for them. Other religions, from Buddhists to Roman Catholics, have complained they also could suffer fallout from the text.

The bill reflects a priority for President Emmanuel Macron, who in an October speech painted a dark picture of what he dubbed “separatism,” a perverse version of Islam, France’s No. 2 religion, quietly making inroads and creating a “counter society.”

Darmanin echoed the president in his opening remarks to lawmakers, saying “Our country is suffering from a sickness of separatism, first and foremost an Islamist separatism that is like gangrene infecting our national unity.”

Darmanin, a right-leaning member of Macron’s centrist party, took up his mission to propose a law with zeal, writing a short book to be released in the next few days, “Manifesto for Secularism” — a fundamental value of France that the bill he sponsored is meant to protect.

Multiple attacks in France by Islamist extremists provide a backdrop for the bill, even if recent violence was committed by outsiders.

The text applies to all religions, but some Muslims say the legislation once again points the finger at Islam.

Other critics say the bill covers ground already addressed in current laws while far-right leader Marine Le Pen says the bill doesn’t go far enough or even name the enemy: radical Islam.

The proposed law is one aspect of the French president’s bid to do what his predecessors tried and failed to do: create a made-to-measure “Islam of France.” Separately, the official conduit to the government, the French Council of the Muslim Faith, or CFCM, was pushed to create a “charter of principles for Islam of France,” completed last month after much wrangling among Muslim federations.

Muslim leaders were keeping a low profile as debate opened.

In ways small and large, the bill seeks oversight in the functioning of associations and mosques, including foreign financing, and aims to plug up entry points for Islamist ideology in the lives of Muslims.

Mohammed Moussaoui, head of the CFCM, said at a parliamentary commission hearing in January that the new oversight of associations in the bill is “useful, necessary to fight those who want to instrumentalize associations” to counter French values. However, he expressed concern that officials could “use this tool to bother associations, the good students” following the rules.

The head of the Foundation of Islam, a secular organization representing a progressive Islam, called the proposed law “unjust but necessary.”

While Muslims are not mentioned in the text, it singles out “but one religion, but one category of the citizenry,” Ghaleb Bencheikh said in a phone interview. It is necessary because “French society, the French nation is traumatized by attacks and the reality of radical Islam.” While radicals are a minority, “it’s minorities that make up history,” Bencheikh added.

Among the 51 articles, the bill aims to ensure that public service employees respect neutrality and secularism, while protecting them against threats or violence.

In a bid to protect children from indoctrination and to do away with underground schools, the text requires all children from age 3 to attend a regular school. Around 50,000 children were home-schooled in 2020, according to French media. But the number of “clandestine schools” where children are reportedly indoctrinated in radical ideology is unknown.

Among other key points, the bill aims to keep a close watch on associations, including those that often run mosques, with measures including one aimed at ensuring that outsiders can’t take control of an association.

Another measure requires associations receiving state funds to sign a “contract of Republican commitment” ensuring they honor French values. Funding must be reimbursed if the contract is broken. While foreign funding for mosques isn’t banned, amounts over 10,000 euros ($12,100) must be declared.

If some Muslims feel a new layer of stigmatism, France’s other religions feel collateral damage. Le Monde newspaper reported they were unanimous in their criticism of the treatment of religious associations, which leaders told a parliamentary commission adds unnecessary layers of work, oversight and suspicion for all faiths.

The proposed law also seeks to halt the issuing by doctors of virginity certificates, the practice of polygamy and forced marriage. Doctors would be fined and risk jail for providing virginity certificates.

The law includes an article that Justice Minister Eric Dupond-Moretti has called the “Paty law,” after the beheading of school teacher Samuel Paty who showed students in a civics class caricatures of the prophet. It creates a new crime for hate speech online in which someone’s personal details are posted. A Chechen refugee beheaded Paty after information about the teacher was spread online.

The parliamentary debate comes after the French president’s defense of the right to produce or show such caricatures following the school teacher’s beheading, a stance for free expression that upset many Muslims abroad. It triggered protests in multiple countries where Macron’s position was perceived as anti-Muslim, which his government strongly denies. An international collective of pro-Muslim groups filed a complaint last month with the U.N. Human Rights Committee, accusing France’s government of “Islamophobic attitudes.”

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