“This one, I have displayed it here, but I will not put it on any of my social media pages,” Skander says, pointing to a poster of the French government’s official logo. Skander is a thickly bearded 32-year old artist and web designer who runs a “Muslim Art” shop in Paris. @Skanderous is the name he uses on social media – he has 10,300 Instagram followers – as his work can attract controversy.

We are at the foire musulmane or Muslim Fair, at le Bourget Parc des Expositions in a northern suburb inhabited mostly by immigrants and refugees with a Muslim background, on Friday, 19th April, 2019.

This one, I have displayed it here, but I will not put it on any of my social media pages,” Skander says, pointing to a poster of the French government’s official logo.

At the first glance, this drawing looks the same as a French icon, copying the blue, white and red colors of the French flag with Marianne – one of the most prominent symbols of the French Republic, used on most government documents. Marianne represents opposition to monarchy and the championship of freedom and democracy against all forms of oppression. Below the flag are the three words representing the French republic: Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. [Freedom, Equality and Fraternity].

But this Marianne’s flowing hair is covered by a headscarf. “Why cannot she represent Muslims of France too?” says the artist, and then points towards the three words below the flag. “Also I have a put a question mark after the three words Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité because as Muslims are we really equal in France?”

Despite this tone of grievance, it’s worth noting that Skander has studied in New York, visited Japan and Iran, and lived in Tunis, and speaks knowledgeably about his love of zellige tile mosaics.

Organizers claim that the fair, started in 1982, is the “annual meeting”
 of Muslims from all around France. The fair has grown in its reach and size almost every year, with organizers claiming that more than 160,000 people visited the four-day fair this year. And indeed the enthusiasm was visible from the start of the event, with men, women and children queuing up hours in advance even before the fair opened its doors. This is despite the 12 euro ($14) single day entry fee.

Skander modifies the official emblem of the French government and Islamizes it

But Islam is a central concern in France, where it’s the second-most widely professed religion behind Catholic Christianity. France has the largest number of Muslims in the Western world primarily due to migration from North African and Middle Eastern countries. A 2017 Pew Research report documents the Muslim population at 5,720,000 or 8.8% of the total population, though as we will see this is a contested number. And obviously, after the notorious attacks of 2015, France is very concerned about radical Islam and foreign funding of Islam in France.

The fair is divided into two main halls. The first part could be called the “intellectual space”, utilized by French Muslim thinkers who do talks, presentations and debates, while the second part is mainly for Islam-compliant merchandise, with items like food, clothing and books on sale. (These included works by extreme Islamist Yousef al Qaradawi, banned from entering France since 2012.)

The hall where the French thinkers are going to carry out their activities has a small replica of the Ka’aba from Mecca, adorned in the original’s black and golden colors.. It appears to be one of the main attractions at this festival, perhaps due to the attachment Muslims from around the world give to the Holy Mosque, and especially the Kaa’ba, where they have to circumambulate to perform the pilgrimage ritual. Many of the visitors are enthusiastically checking out the monument and are also taking selfies with it. A few meters away is another replica – this time of the famous Al-Aqsa mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem. This monument is also held dear by Muslims around the world, especially since the Palestine-Israel conflict has made access to the mosque difficult for Muslims. Around the replica, there are big banners explaining the conflict, the history of the mosque and how the Muslims have been wronged in Israel and Palestine.

Cleverly, close to these models are stalls offering a range of Muslim-specific travel services like that of a pilgrimage to Mecca, Islamic insurance and even Islamic loans that are considered shariah-compliant as they claim to be interest- free, because many Muslims believe charging interest on loans is wrong.

A wall showing artwork by the artist called Skander

Nearby is Skander’s art. He mixes modern pop art with Islamic patterns or Islamizes and sometimes Arabizes classic French art like Marianne on Photoshop, printing the fusion on various products, often posters. Another is his version of the famous Mona Lisa, “Louisa Mouna”, also wearing a headscarf, with a higher neckline and henna on her hands, to imply her Muslim roots. It sells for $52 on Etsy.

While such messaging is pertinent given many of the problems Muslims have been facing in France, this fair appears to have a planned strategy: the need for creating a separate identity for Muslims here is loud and clear. And it seems like the organizers do not just want to create an identity that is different from the French but also to emphasize that Muslims are victims of France and are being wronged in France and around the world and therefore there is a need for them to come together to protect themselves.

And the credit for that goes to the organization behind the event, Musulmans de France [MDF] (Muslims of France) a non –profit established in 1983 by migrants from the North Africa and the Middle East claiming a membership of 1600 individuals and over 600 affiliated NGOs.

In a pamphlet available at their head office the MDF outlines its aims of integrating the Islamic way of life and French republican values. It further adds that it wants to help Muslims in France to live and practice their religion in harmony with their environment.

“We want to spread awareness about Islam, Muslims and the issues facing them today in France and the rest of Europe,” says one organizer, from Strasbourg, who prefers not to be named.

Sounds innocuous. But if we look below the surface, MDF becomes less anodyne.

MDF was not always known by that name. Until mid 2017 it was called UOIF (Union des Organisations Islamiques de France), the Union of Islamic Organisations of France. It changed its name after the United Arab Emirates designated it a terrorism-supporting organization due to its links to the Muslim Brotherhood and blacklisted its activities in the Middle Eastern state. One researcher at the 32,000-employee national think tank CNRS called the UOIF “incontestably” the representative of the Muslim Brotherhood in France”. The MB was designated a terrorist organization by Egypt in December 2013 and by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in March 2014, while it is supported by Qatar.)

Founded in Egypt in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, the Muslim Brotherhood – or al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen in Arabic – initially aimed to spread Islamic morals and good works, but soon became involved in politics and even violence. As the New York Times put it, The Muslim Brotherhood “…in the 1940s formed a secret, armed wing to fight against British colonial rule. It renounced violence in the 1960s and later embraced electoral democracy instead, although some offshoots and former members have engaged in terrorism.” Some of the early leadership of the group has also been involved in inspiring violent Islamist movements, for example, Sayyid Qutb, who was executed by the Egyptian state in 1966. Qutb’s work advocated the use of jihad (struggle) against jahili (ignorant) societies, both Western and so-called Islamic ones, which he argued were in need of radical transformation.

People take selfies with a replica of the Ka’aba at the foire musulmane held at the outskirts of Paris by MDF

Qutb’s 1964 work “Milestones” inspired the founders of many radical Islamist groups, including Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda. And while the group leaders today say that they support democratic principles, one of their goals remains to create a state ruled by Islamic law, or Sharia. Its most famous slogan is: “Islam is the solution.”

But is the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization? In April, the Trump administration considered designating it as such. But while some officials support designation, others have argued more technically that “the criteria for designating a terrorist organization are not a good fit for the Muslim Brotherhood, which is less a coherent body than a loose-knit movement with chapters in different countries”.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood denies any hand in any terror activities, some former members like Ayman Al-Zawahiri have gone on to become prominent names in global terrorist organizations like Al Qaeda.

And while the MDF has publicly distanced itself from the Muslim Brotherhood, former officials say that it is linked to the group even today and is also a hub for spreading Islamic radicalization in France.

Mohamed Louizi is one such former MDF associate, who worked with the organization as a regional officer until 2006. He joined the organization as a social worker in 1998 and moved up the ladder. He currently lives in Lille, in the north of France, and is writing a book on the Brotherhood in France.

By profession he is an engineer but his real passion is exposing the presence of the Muslim Brotherhood and its affiliate organizations like the MDF operating in France. Given that Mr Louizi was part of the MDF and other such organizations for years, he knows many of them inside out and has been able to reveal shocking and appalling details about how they operate in France. Since 2007 he has run a blog that documents the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist organizations in France.

“I was part of the Muslim Brotherhood when growing up back home in Morocco. Then they approached me here and one of the organizations that is working on their agenda is MDF,” Mohamad Louizi recalls.

Mr Louizi moved to France in the late nineties for higher education and became part of an organization called l’Association France Plurielle (Pluralist France) which he says also had links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

“Anouar Kbibech was one of the main leaders of this organization at that time,” explains Louizi,
adding that Kbibech later went on to become the head of an officially recognized body, Conseil français du culte musulman, French Council of the Muslim Faith, usually abbreviated to CFCM.

Mohamed Louizi, former MDF associate

CFCM came into existence in 2003 to serve as an official interlocutor with the French state in the regulation of Muslim religious activities. It was also going to be an official umbrella organization that directly interacted with government. The idea was pushed by the then-Minister of Interior and future president Nicolas Sarkozy for groups like UIOF (now MDF) to join a central organization and be regulated.

According to Mr Louizi, Kbibech also believes in the Brotherhood ideology and his infiltration of CFCM reflects how deeply entrenched the group’s supporters are in France.

Through its membership in the CFCM, the MDF became part of an emerging institutionalized, official structure of French Islam. But the honeymoon did not last. The incapacity of the CFCM to maintain cohesion led the MDF to withdraw from the CFCM in 2011. The Federation of the Mosque of Paris had previously withdrawn in 2008 because it could not accept the rotating presidency negotiated several years prior. Deprived of these two important actors, the CFCM is today a hollow shell.

And once again political Islam’s leadership in France is being claimed by several groups, and according to Mr Louizi many of them are infiltrated by foreign groups like the Muslim Brotherhood. “MDF was mainly financed in the 1990s and 2000 by Saudi and Kuwaiti foreign funding,” Mr Louizi explains,”and then Qatar came into the picture, and starting pumping money in via Qatar Charity, as also proven by the recent book – Qatar Papers – How the State Finances Islam in France and Europe. I have investigated and documented this in my blog too, Mr Louizi adds.

The replica of the Al-Aqsa Mosque from the city of Jerusalem being displayed at the foire musulmane held on the outskirts of Paris

Qatar Papers, a book published in 2019 by two French journalists Georges Malbrunot and Christian Chesnot, investigates the payments made by Qatar to Muslim Brotherhood affiliated organizations in Europe. The journalists have evidence of cheques and money transfers along with official documents and testimonials that show how Doha is funding organizations that promote the Brotherhood’s ideology across the European continent.

Due to his activism Mr Louizi has had to face court proceedings too. “The MDF and their affiliates have tried to financially attack me through defamation cases. I have had to pay a lot in legal fees and they keep embroiling me in new cases even though they haven’t been able to win. They are an organization with a lot more money than I have, so it’s been tough for me financially to continue doing this,” he laments.

They have also been denying him entry into his local mosque which is controlled by the MDF. “They also approached my wife and told her that I was no longer a Muslim and therefore she needed to leave me,” he claims.

Mr Louizi believes that the French state needs to wake up and start cracking down against organizations that are spreading radical Islamist ideas. “According to my research, the organizations that have the Brotherhood influence and similar radical ideologies include the grand mosques in Bordeaux, Mulhouse, Reims, Le Havre, Décines-Charpieu, Grenoble and Marseille. France has seen the worst kind of Islamic terrorism in recent years, and therefore it is necessary that it deals with this issue on a priority basis,” he adds, and further outlines NGOs that are problematic due to their linkages to the Muslim Brotherhood including Secours Islamique France (Islamic Aid France) CBSP – Comité de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (Benevolent Committee for Palestinian Aid), and Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France.

France’s attitude towards and management of Islam has changed over the years. Lying in the background is the tense colonial past the country has had with Muslim nations in North Africa and the Middle East. Then there is the fact that Sunni Islam (which is the main current of Islam in France) does not have a clerical hierarchy. There are therefore no religious authorities similar to those of the Catholic Church that would be natural interlocutors with the French state.

The first massive influx of Muslims in the French society started in the sixties and continued until the nineties. They were mostly immigrant workers living within their own community circles. These migrants were mostly from Morocco, Algeria and Turkey, and their nations of origin considered themselves as interlocutors with the French State on issue of religion.

“They sent paid imams to France, funded prayer rooms, and organized national federations to serve as conduits for their influence,” writes Rim-Sarah Alouane in a research paper for the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC.

At that time, Algeria exerted the most influence, given France’s rule from 1830 to 1962 and the fact that a majority of French Muslims are of Algerian origin.

Even today, foreign imams in France remain in high numbers. According to the ministry of interior, 151 imams have been sent by Turkey (which has undertaken a spate of religious outreach to Muslims across Europe over the past decade), 120 by Algeria, and 30 by Morocco.

“In the aftermath of the Iranian revolution of 1979, the assassination in Egypt of President Anwar el-Sadat in 1981, and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, France came to realize that Islamist movements constituted a body of new political actors that were difficult to control—a task seen as better suited for Muslim-majority governments,” Ms Alouane explains further.

However Ms Alouane’s research points to the fact that in the eighties, many of the French Muslims started to settle in France with their families, and their second generation became part of French society. However many of the Muslim youth of that time found it difficult to integrate with the larger culture, given the differences between what their parents taught them and what a secularized French society was demanding from them.

“France understood, perhaps a little too late, that delegating the management of Islam to foreign powers was no longer sufficient and perhaps even creating new problems and it became necessary to curtail their influence,” Ms Alouane concludes in her paper.

In 2003, the French government finally formed the CFCM, but it has been unable to wield any significant influence.

In recent years, France has once again seen a tug of war between different NGOs vying to become representatives of Muslims in Franc. French President Emmanuel Macron also announced his plan to organize Islam in France in a February 2018 interview and has been meeting with prominent Muslims in the country to discuss this issue.

The French President wants to ensure that there is no foreign funding within the Muslim organizations operating in France. He has also suggested training clerics/Imams at home rather than abroad and wants more transparency with the issue of collecting charity from French Muslims. Macron also want to create new representative bodies to act as interlocutors between the Muslim community and the French state. (This would not necessarily mean replacing the CFCM.)

The problem of Islam in France has also been further complicated with Islamist terrorism that hit France in recent years. In 2015 the country saw the worst violence perpetrated by Islamist terrorists, some of who were French nationals.

On 7 January 2015, two brothers, Saïd and Chérif Kouachi, forced their way into the offices of the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Armed with rifles and other weapons, they killed 12 people and injured 11 others. The gunmen identified themselves as belonging to the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda’s branch in Yemen, which took responsibility for the attack.

Several related attacks followed in the Île-de-France region on 7–9 January 2015, including the kosher supermarket siege where a terrorist held 19 hostages, of whom he murdered four Jews. There was a stabbing attack on February 3, and a beheading on June 26, followed by the thwarted Thalys train shooting on August 21.

Then on November 13, 2015, there were a series of co-ordinated terrorist attacks that took place in Paris, and a northern suburb, Saint-Denis. Three suicide attackers hit outside the famous Stade de France in Saint-Denis. These attacks were followed by several mass-shootings and another suicide bombing at commercial places like restaurants, bars and cafes in the Paris area. Gunmen took hostages at a concert in the Bataclan theatre. The attackers killed 130 people, including 90 at the theatre. Another 413 people were injured.

These attacks killed more people than any others in France since the Second World War, and were the second deadliest in the European Union since the Madrid train bombings in 2004.

One near-victim of the January 2015 attacks at the Charlie Hebdo office is Moroccan-born journalist and activist Zineb El Rhazoui, 37 years old, an avowed atheist who wrote a religion column for the magazine. The police told her she was on the target list; happily she was in Morocco that day. She later left Charlie Hebdo stating that the magazine had set its editorial policy to appease Islamists, and now tries to raise awareness about the Islamist threat in the country. She has to live under constant police protection, and in secrecy. I met with her in April at her apartment in Paris. During our interview, she disappeared for a bit, shortly reappearing wearing an abaya and a niqab – the full body cloak and the face veil – which some Muslim women wear to cover themselves up in accordance with one interpretation of the Quran. “How do I look in this?” she asked laughingly. She explained she was being ironic, given that in such attire, one cannot really see how a person looks. “Imagine those who live within this,” she added. 

Zineb El Rhazoui, Charlie Hebdo near-victim journalist/activist

Ms El Rhazoui is quite passionate when it comes to talking about Islam and the relationship French Muslims have had with the French republic.

Since the attacks, Ms El Rhazoui is also one of those advising the French President and his team on how to deal with Islamic organizations in France.

She believes that many of them are the first step towards radicalizing the Muslim youth of France.

“The Islamic organizations operating in France need to be monitored, especially when it comes to their financial sources, but currently they operate as non-governmental organizations and get away without any scrutiny about what is going inside them and who is funding them, etc.”.

According to Ms El Rhazoui, the Muslim Brotherhood is also a major motivator for radical Islam in France and they have been operating through local affiliates including the MDF.

“We need to revive the CFCM and rid it of any influence of foreign lobbies,” she says, adding that in recent years, Turkey and Qatar are two countries that are trying to get influence through different Islamist NGOs in the country. “Also the French government needs to apply the law. No religious place can host a political meeting and many of these NGOs are violating that,” Ms El Rhazoui adds.

Ms El Rhazoui and a team of volunteers have recently started collecting information on radical speeches by Muslim thinkers in France and is sharing this information with the government. “There is a lot of literature of Hassan al-Banna and Yusuf Al-Qaradawi that is still being followed by many of these French Muslim organizations and preachers, and we are identifying it so that the government can intervene and stop such radicalization,” she adds, pointing to two of the Muslim Brotherhood’s influential figures.

Al-Qaradawi lives in Qatar currently, and was banned from entering France in 2012 for his extremist views, but his books are still widely available in the country, as at the MDF fair.

While Ms El Rhazoui strongly believes that the French government needs to work with the existing framework of CFCM to deal with Muslims in France, others like the distinguished figure Hakim el Karoui disagree.

Mr El Karoui was born in France in 1971, with a Tunisian father (one of whose brothers was a Tunisian Prime Minister) and French mother, both professors. A graduate of one of the prestigious ecoles normales superieures that lead to the highest positions in the French state, el Karoui has had a high profile career as a university professor, banker and government employee and published three books. He is the man behind a new organization that is negotiating with the Macron government to set up a new body to act as an interlocutor between the French authorities and the Muslim population.

Currently a financial and government consultant, Mr el Karoui met with me at his Paris office in May. He launched Association musulmane pour un islam de France (Amif), or Muslim Association for a French Islam, in January this year, and it has won the attention of the government as a potential interlocutor.

With this organization Mr. El Karoui, intends mainly to regulate and bring financial transparency to the sectors of the pilgrimage and the halal meat market and to finance an independent “theological council” to fight against Islamist radicalization in France. As described by Le Monde at the time of Amif’s launch, he aims at a “serene integration” of Islam in France. While before the 2015 attacks, he thought religious questions were a private matter, afterwards, he believes that they are also a political matter. Mr El Karoui specifically mentioned the need to separate Islam in France from “foreign interference”.

Mr El Karoui received much media attention for a 100+ page research paper he published with a French think tank, the Montaigne Institute, in 2016, titled “A French Islam is possible.”

“The violence which has been wrought in its name in France, against French citizens, must be addressed. The organisation of this religion must undergo a profound change if it is to fight against a religious fundamentalism that provides a breeding ground for terrorism.”

In 2016 the Montaigne Institute carried out a survey of 1029 persons together with the French Institute of Public Opinion (IFOP). This was a landmark event because as the Montaigne Institute explains, 
“There are no official statistical data on the socio-demographics of the Muslim population.”

According to the eye-opening survey, the number of Muslims in France is lower than what is claimed by exaggerated figures of 10% or so: they represent only 5.6 % of the population over 15 years of age in mainland France. However, among under -25s, almost 10% identify as Muslim. This larger degree of religious identification by Muslim youth runs counter to the trend among French Christians: while almost 75% of over-75s identify as Christian, only 30% of those under 30 do. Also, while only 20% of French over-75s say they have no religion, almost half of under-30s do. So among young French, Muslims are more Muslim and Christians are less Christian.

Second, the Muslim population is considerably younger than the national average, with lower educational qualifications. But while 25% had less than a high school diploma, 32% had had least 2 years of university. The survey comments on the “social division among the Muslim population”.

This survey also showed, reassuringly, that a majority of Muslims in France adhere to a system of values and a religious practice which can seamlessly co-exist within the corpus of the French Republic and nation. However, it also found almost 50% of 15 to 25 -year old Muslims whose sense of identity was first and foremost tied to religion, and who stood firm in their belief that: “the more fundamentalist you are, the more you are Muslim, and therefore the more you are yourself.”

Secularists may take comfort from one interesting and surprising result: While 7.5% of Muslims had no Muslim parent, and were thus converts, 15% of the sample did not identify as Muslim despite having at least one Muslim parent. So, as the survey puts it, twice as many people “exit” as “enter” Islam.

“Whether we deplore it, applaud it, seek to fight it or accept it, this social reality is inescapable. It must be addressed in the context which we presently face: that of an unrestrained terrorist violence perpetrated in the name of Islam, which makes the current trend towards a self-assertion based on religious identity, or even based on a theological and political world view, a source of anxiety for a large section of the French populace,” Mr El Karoui states.

Mr El Karoui feels that the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) established in 2003 has shown itslimitations, mainly due to the influence of foreign states he preferred not to name, to whom France has outsourced a certain control over its society and national security.

Another limitation is a lack of understanding in the face of an ever more identity-driven Islam, with young boys and girls – often French by birth – leading the trend and unable to relate to the current institutional leaders who are almost all men, often over 60 and born abroad. The CFCM also seems unable to take action in the face of spreading religious radicalization. Meanwhile conspiracy theories, anti-Semitism and a sense of victimhood abound among those for whom an authoritarian – and even radical – form of Islam provides a means of self-assertion.

Hakim El Karoui

“To overcome these obstacles,”, Mr El Karoui says, “We must bear in mind the new reality of Islam in this country: the majority of Muslims are born in France and three-quarters of them are French nationals. While labourers, low-ranking employees and the unemployed are over-represented compared to the national average, a new, well-educated and professionally well-integrated elite is emerging. Building a French Islam is therefore possible, but immensely challenging. We have to accept that various tensions are bound to arise, and orchestrate these evolutions carefully enough so that they may attain their objective. We must be prepared to shake up conservative views and preconceived ideas at every step.

“This is why the State will have to show its commitment at the highest level, in order for this new organisation of French Islam to see the light; it still has a role to play to facilitate these changes before removing itself from the picture, in accordance with the principle of secularism. The stakes are high: it is a matter of preserving our sense of national unity, and, for Muslims, a chance to create a modern approach to religion,” Mr El Karoui further explains.

“A Muslim Who Wishes You Well”

While Mr El Karoui suggests the launch of a new organization to tackle the issue of Islamization in France, some are also using arts and culture to deradicalize Muslim society in France.

One such activist is Farid Abdelkrim, 52, who used to be the former president of the Young Muslims of France, another organization that had links with MDF and the Muslim Brotherhood.

But he quit all that in 2015 after the terror attacks in France. He felt that the Muslim community in France was headed in the wrong direction and he had to do something. So Mr Abdelkrim – who is friendly and funny – got into stand-up comedy and theatre, focusing on talking about Islam.

It was an unpredictable turn in a life with several. Born in Nantes in 1967, of Algerian heritage, his father died when he was 13. Mr Abdelkrim drifted into delinquency, then converted to Islam and almost immediately became involved with Islamic NGOs including as an observer-member of UOIF in 1996. (He disassociated himself in 2005).

“When I joined the Muslim Brotherhood, I was 18 – I learned everything from them, but I had no other alternatives so whatever they said, I believed.”

Farid Abdelkrim started to see religion differently only recently. “What is religion in anyone’s life? It’s not about praying 24/7 hours – the Muslim Brotherhood would always emphasize – keep connected to God. They would say whatever you do, think about Allah first. But I now realize that this is madness. We should give people the space to find themselves and help to find themselves. They should not be forced into 24-hour worship. They should live life a little too,” he adds.

For Mr AbdelKrim, who explains his ideas calmly and patiently, organizations affiliated with Muslim Brotherhood have filled the French Muslims with ideas of “haram and halal (forbidden and allowed as per Shariah) and the fear of God over everything.”

“’Don’t look at girls’ hair’, ‘don’t pray this way’, etc. But this makes people go mad. This is not normal. They have made people dependent on imams. That’s why I quit the Brotherhood because I could not tolerate such a life anymore. I wanted to go back to my original self before I joined them. How I was when I was before 18. I used to sing. But the Muslim Brotherhood told me it was haram and so I gave that up too. But now I am doing music again. I am performing and through that I am reaching out the youngsters.

“The younger generation”, he continues, “is looking for a new way towards Islamism. Today, the younger people want reformation of Islam and for them Hassan Al Banna, Abu Ala Maudidi etc. [the founders and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood] cannot offer what they are looking for. There is a political Islam – and the 30- and 40- year olds want to be part of politics but in the Islamic way. They want to do Islamic politics that addresses feminism, law, rights, legality,” Mr Abelkrim explains, referring to a progressive political Islam.

One of his activities to reach out to young people is to perform in a two-character play called “Letters of Noor.” The play features a girl who has left her father in France and joined the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.

He does this play at different schools in France, especially those in the northern suburbs of Paris, where the French Muslim population is concentrated.

“This play is a story about letters of love between a daughter and a father, which is universal. I want to use this play to evoke different thoughts in people and to ask them about what they feel. Youngsters should be taught about the flavor of culture, art, theatre, etc. Religion is a way to God which is the objective but the French Muslim organizations have made religion the objective. They are wrong. The imams should bring in the idea of God rather than the religion in the mosques. So I am using theatre to explain to people and reconnect them directly them with God. My aim is to make them think and not to fall for other people’s messaging or communications. Work yourself and make up your mind yourself. Be good citizens. Love the ones who are not like you. Love everyone, be it Jew or Christian,” he adds.

Mr Abdelkrim feels organizations like the one he was associated with and the MDF do not serve the French Muslim cause, and instead complicate it further. “These organizations that had links with the Muslim Brotherhood had a public message of integration but they also have a secret agenda which goes against integration. They want to manage all of the French Muslims under their rule, and control them, and also want to take over other French people,” he explains.

Mr Abdelkrim echoes some of what El Karoui says about today’s Muslim youth. “The new generation has many new demands – and it has created difficulty for MDF and their mosques to keep up with the new generation, so in response they have became more strict in their imposition of Islamic rules. For example they are making sermons about women and how the women should cover themselves up and put on the hijab,” he claims.

But Mr Abdelkrim also feels that the older organizations no longer have the kind of influence they enjoyed in the past in France.

“The internet is a bigger problem today – the videos on social media which have extremist content. For example there is Rachid Abu Hudaifa, Nader Abu Anas, Othmane Iquioussen, Ahmed Miktah, Abdul Monir Busanna etc. They are the ones doing the radical Islamist messaging. They are the gateway,” he adds.

Interestingly many of these names have family members that were connected to the Muslim Brotherhood in the past but their new generation seems to have gone independent.

Like others, Mr AbdelKrim also says he wants a localized solution for the problem of Islamic radicalizaiton in the country.

“I want a French Islam … But what is French Islam? Islam should be here in France but it should respect French history, culture, environment and the concept of “egalite, fraternite, liberte” — the French Republic’s motto. This is a secular country where you can believe or not believe. You can have a religion or not. You can change it or give up. The French government is aware of everything but because it’s secular it cannot choose any sides. They don’t interfere with religion so Muslims should organize themselves. But the ones who are organizing themselves are actually causing troubles for the state,” he concludes.

A scene from the play ‘Letters to Nour’ being performed by Farid

French Muslim intellectuals are quite divided on what the solution to France’s “Islamist” problem should be, with each proposing a different approach, from Ms El Rhazoui’s undaunted atheism and hostility to Islamism to Mr El Karoui’s emphasis on reforming the bureaucracy and getting the statistics to Mr Abdelkrim’s humorous angle to youth. Nevertheless they all agree that Islam in France needs a new approach.

Successive French governments have struggled when it comes to finalizing their policy of how to tackle the issues Muslims face and pose in France. Today, there is an issue of Islamist terrorism and growing feeling of alienation among the ever-expanding French Muslim population which can be exploited by local or foreign powers, especially by those with vested interests: precisely what was on offer at the foire musulman, organized by the MDF and linked to Muslim Brotherhood ideology.

So if the Macron-led government wishes to reorganize Islam as it has proposed, then it must do so quickly with input from all relevant stakeholders that need to be on board, especially the ones who propose a progressive version of Islam, instead of the old puritanical methods which many French youth feel have no place in today’s world.

This way, those organizations that are detrimental to the peaceful coexistence of different believers and non-believers will no longer remain relevant.

Taha Siddiqui
Taha Siddiqui

Taha Siddiqui is an award-winning Pakistani journalist who fled to Paris, France, after narrowly escaping an armed abduction in January 2018. He has reported for The New York Times, The Guardian, France24, Al Jazeera, Christian Science Monitor, The Telegraph, Arte and others and won the Prix Albert Londres in 2014 for his documentary on polio in Pakistan and Afghanistan. He also manages safenewsrooms.org, which was shortlisted for the Prize for Independence by RSF Press Freedom Awards in November 2018, and lectures on social media and journalism at prestigious French university Sciences Po.

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