In the apartment block next to mine in Paris there are two Muslim families. One I see often: the dad dresses in jeans and a t-shirt, and when the weather is good he's in the park playing with his kids. So, too, the mum: a stylish woman who matches her headscarves to whatever else she wears with the effortless chic of a Parisian. I see less of the other family: the husband dresses in the white robes of a Salafist and never goes to the park with his child. I've seen his wife only once. The two families are emblematic of the fight France faces to defeat Islamic extremism. It will be a long fight. In a report in its weekend magazine earlier this month, Le Figaro said:
'Perhaps, in fifty years, the secularisation of Islam will have occurred, but it will be necessary to go through ten years of high tension'.
Francois Hollande alluded to this tension in comments publicised last week from a book by two journalists from Le Monde:
'It's true there is a problem with Islam. Nobody doubts that...it’s not that Islam is a problem because it’s a religion that is in itself dangerous, but because it wants to assert itself as a religion on the Republic.'
How best to deal with the 'problem' of Islam is one of the key campaign issues ahead of May's French presidential election. Nicolas Sarkozy has already ramped up his rhetoric. While Sarkozy's main centre-right rival, Alain Juppé, has adopted a more conciliatory approach in the hope of attracting centre-left voters disenchanted with Hollande's ruling Socialist party. The 71-year-old Juppé warned in September that France was in danger of sliding 'towards a civil war'. His words were a rebuke to some of Sarkozy's more inflammatory statements, but they will have resonated with many in France who are alarmed at the threat posed by the rise of hardline Islamic ideology.
A recent survey conducted by Hakim El Karoui, a former government advisor, categorised France's Muslim population into three groups: the 'silent majority' is the largest, at 46 per cent, and is composed of Muslims fully-integrated into French society. Then there are the 25 per cent of 'conservatives'; and finally the 28 per cent of 'authoritarians', the extremists who want the implementation of Sharia and all women wearing a niqab. The survey's report identified the 'conservatives' as being 'at the heart of the political and ideological battle' in the Muslim community. Proud of their religion, the 'conservatives' adhere to its every aspect 'without putting it above the law of the Republic...(and) they clearly reject the niqab and accept laïcité'.
Laïcité is the secularism which, since its codification in 1905, has separated the Church from the State; in other words, it has taken the power out of religion. When Laïcité became law it was to the widespread dismay of the Catholic Church. As the largest religion in France it had most to lose from the cessation of State subsidies, and lose it did. Not long after the 1905 law, 42,000 priests were begging on the streets. Over time, the anger of Catholics subsided and in 1958, Pope Pius XII described Laïcité as 'healthy and legitimate'. In 2005, the Catholic Church in France published an article reflecting on a centenary of Laïcité and concluded that it had achieved 'a satisfying balance'.
But since the publication of the Catholic Church's optimistic article, this peaceful balance has come under increasing attack from Islamic extremists, assisted by elements of the French Left known as 'Islamo-gauchistes', and a growing number of Anglophone commentators who, from their desks in Britain and America, write critical articles of Laïcité that are as supercilious as they are ignorant.
One British academic wondered recently in a magazine article 'whether or not this secularism, the benchmark of French values, is compatible with Islam'. He concluded it wasn't and the result was 'an underlying Islamophobia that can all too easily blend into outright hostility.' Other critics claim that France's secularism specifically targets Islam although no mention is made of the fact that if Muslims are being persecuted why their places of worship have increased from 150 in 1976 to approximately 2,200 today. A British-based writer in the Financial Times claimed Laïcité had become a civil religion 'monitoring the behaviour and social values' of Muslims. The same writer then complained that the 2004 law banning the wearing of ostentatious religious symbols in schools was 'manifestly directed at Muslims' because it outlawed the headscarf.
This argument ignores the fact that all religions in France have had to make sacrifices in the name of Laïcité. It also plays into the hands of the extremists, who since the promulgation in 2005 of the manifesto, 'The Global Islamic Resistance Call', have sought to destabilise France's Muslim community. One of the principal strategies advocated within the 1,600-page manifesto, written by the French-educated Abu Musab al-Suri, is to create a cult of victimhood among the more impressionable Muslims by challenging Laïcité and then crying 'Islamophobia' when their demands are refused.
France has, in the past, shrugged off Anglo-Saxon criticism of Laïcité but recently they have started to question the British approach to Islam, where there are are now more than eighty Sharia Courts but still not one conviction for Female Genital Mutilation despite more than 4,000 reported cases in 2015. Where multi-wife marriages are legally recognised and a police chief believes allowing female constables to wear a burka would be a progressive idea. Ed Miliband's plans to criminalise Islamophobia never came to pass but as Louis Smith recently learned, even light-hearted mockery of Islam in Britain has grave consequences.
Frankly, the French prefer Laïcité to appeasement. The common misconception in Britain is that France has been singled out by Islamic State because of its colonial record in North Africa. It's obviously a factor, but the primary reason was explained in the February 2015 issue of Dar al-Islam, the magazine of Islamic State:
'After the 1789 revolution, France found itself another religion just as false and idolatrous as Roman Catholicism: democracy and Laïcité. The French elites, still as corrupt and immoral, continued to fight Islam, this time in the name of progress and reason.'
I discussed my neighbours with two friends who came for supper last week, a French Algerian couple who both emigrated to France when they were children. 'Laïcité is the cement that holds France together,' my friend explained. 'My faith is important to me but within the framework of the Republic. The extremists' first target are the Muslims who accept Laïcité. They want to intimidate us into rejecting France. So while Laïcité is a cement for France as a whole, for Muslims like me, and your secular neighbours, it is our shield against the extremists.'