Gavin Mortimer

Meet Macron’s nemesis: the ‘Malcolm X of French Muslims’

Meet Macron's nemesis: the 'Malcolm X of French Muslims'
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Emmanuel Macron is becoming quite the curmudgeon in attacking those who don't conform to his view of the migrant crisis. The French president has said the Italian government is "cynical and irresponsible", likened populism to "leprosy" and demanded fines be levied against EU states that don't take their share of migrants. The Italians, increasingly exasperated with the French president, have hit back – labelling him a "chatterbox".

There is a subject, however, on which Macron has gone uncharacteristically quiet in recent months: Islam. During last year's presidential campaign it was the one issue on which he appeared uncomfortable when challenged by Marine Le Pen. His response was not to offer a strategy for combating the rise of Islamic extremism in France but to attack the National Front, warning that a vote for Le Pen could lead to a civil war.

In the months after the election, the silence continued. Then, at the beginning of this year, he announced that he wanted a "restructuring of Islam in France", promising to unveil the details in April. That date was subsequently pushed back to May, then June, and on Monday evening, Gérard Collomb, France's Interior Minister, issued a statement saying that from now until September, France's Muslims will be consulted on the best way to "organise Islam within the framework of our Republican institutions".

The complexity of the task means that this procrastination isn't much of a surprise. Leaders who have tried to reform Islam – such as Egypt's president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi – have run into similar problems; al-Sisi has got nowhere in two years of trying to introduce changes. While it's prudent of Macron not to rush out a half-baked plan, the delay will fuel the view on the right that France's president lacks the determination and the realism to defeat the Islamists' ideology.

It may even encourage far-right extremists to take matters into their own hands. Collomb issued his statement hours after meeting representatives from Muslim groups who were agitated after a wave of arrests at the weekend. Ten people aged between 32 and 69 were detained across France and are to face preliminary charges over an alleged plot to kill "radical imams, veiled women or former Islamist prisoners". Belonging to a group called Action des Forces Opérationnelles, the members are said to include former soldiers and retired policemen, who believe France is being Islamified through a combination of domestic naivety and foreign influence. A considerable arsenal was recovered during the arrests, including rifles and grenades, and police believe they were to be used in a reprisal attack in the event of another Islamist outrage in France.

One of the men advising Macron in his reorganisation of Islam in France is Hakim El Karoui, who in 2016 conducted an extensive survey into his religion. The results revealed that 28 per cent of the country's Muslims espoused an extreme interpretation of Islam, a figure that rose to 50 per cent among the under-25s.

El Karoui has called for a "cultural counter-revolution" against the extremists, particularly the Salafists whose influence continues to grow at an alarming rate in mosques, trade unions, sports clubs, universities and at the workplace. This has been facilitated to a large extent by money and by imams sent from overseas – a practice Macron wants to stop. Macron is also said to be favourable to El Karoui's idea of appointing a grand imam.

This doesn't sit well with many Muslims, who say that their religion isn't for reforming, certainly not by a non-Muslim. "Macron can do his thing on his side and we'll do ours," said Marwan Muhammad in a recent interview. "He can nominate a grand Imam, he can even pray behind him if he wants, but that doesn't mean he'll receive the people's approval." Muhammad, 39, is erudite, charming and a skilled communicator, and could enter politics if he wished but says that isn't an ambition. Nonetheless he's one of the few people who has seized the initiative from Macron in the last year, launching a "Grand Consultation" among France's estimated six million Muslims in response to the president's plan to reorganise their religion. He had 20,000 responses in one week alone, leaving Macron to play catch-up with his own consultation.

If Muhammad does change his mind about a political career there is certainly an opening for someone like him. An amateur DJ who has been described as the "Malcolm X of French Muslims", Muhammad is a former director of the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, and was prominent in speaking out against the burkini ban in 2016. More recently, this month he has launched a vigorous defence of the controversial "Islamo-hooligan" rapper, Médine, who some want banned from performing at the Bataclan later this year.

Muhammad knows his audience inside out, which is more than can be said for Macron. The French president has the conceit to believe he can charm anyone but young Muslims looking for someone who will speak for them are more likely to listen to a man like Muhammad.