French row over mosque isn’t simply about state financing – it runs deep into Islamophobia and French secularism

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The storm over the construction of the grand mosque in Strasbourg has been long brewing. Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Among the anti-Muslim slogans discovered sprayed across an Islamic community center in western France on the morning of April 11, 2021, was a reference to a mosque that hasn’t even finished being built yet.

“EELV = Traitors” read the graffitied message, alongside others including “No to Islamization” and references to the Crusades. It was spray painted on an Islamic center in Rennes, but its target was Strasbourg’s leading Green (EELV) party, members of whom voted on March 22 to subsidize the construction of the Eyyub Sultan mosque – also known as the Grand Mosque of Strasbourg – with a grant of 2.5 million euros (US$3 million), or 10% of the total costs.

Construction of what is slated to be the largest mosque in Europe – and especially the state’s role in its financing – has sparked controversy for many reasons. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has condemned Strasbourg’s decision, citing the potential of “foreign meddling.” His concerns relate to the future mosque’s leadership – the French branch of the Turkish-based Milli Görüs Islamic Confederation, an Islamic political organization for the Turkish diaspora across Europe.

A man prays inside the Avicenna Islamic Cultural centre in Rennes
A man prays inside the Rennes Islamic center, which was subjected to racist graffiti two days ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.
Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images

The vote and its backlash also come on the heels of a series of measures imposed in France under the guise of reinforcing secularism and stamping out radicalization – ones that critics say unfairly target the country’s Muslim population and contribute to a climate of Islamophobia. This includes the French Republican principles bill that was passed by the French Senate on April 12, 2021, with stricter regulations on Muslim dress and prayer locations added to the text.

So where does the Strasbourg mosque controversy fit into all this? Is it motivated by geopolitical concerns and fears of an Islamist threat? Does it merely reflect confusion over state funding for religion in France? Or is it simply an extension of broader debates over how Islam fits into French secularism?

My research surrounding the politics of religion, secularism, Islam and pluralism in France over the past 10 years suggests that it is most likely a mix of all of these factors.

Funding religious buildings

One contributing factor to the controversy over the Strasbourg mosque is the confusion over French laws restricting the funding of places of worship.

Notably, laws about the separation of church and state, or “laïcité laws,” do not apply equally to all French territories.

In 1905, when church and state were officially separated, certain territories were exempted, such as Guyane, where the Catholic Church remains the only recognized religion. At that time, the now-French region of Alsace-Moselle – in which Strasbourg is situated – was part of Germany. When France recovered the territory in 1918, the region negotiated an exception to the 1905 law, instead choosing to remain under the Concordat of 1802, which officially recognizes certain religions – though not Islam – and allows for direct state subsidizing of places of worship.

As such, officials in Strasbourg are well within their rights to finance the mosque or any other house of worship, so long as they adhere to local laws that limit funding to 10% of construction costs.

But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean the move is popular.

In a 2021 poll by the French Institute of Opinion and Marketing Studies (IFOP), more than two-thirds of respondents said they opposed all public funding of religious buildings or ministries. That number rises to nearly 79% when it comes to Islamic centers. Specifically, 85% of the overall French population said they oppose state funding for the Strasbourg mosque, with 79% of Alsace-Moselle residents against the move.

Geopolitical fears

Such opposition hasn’t been formed in a vacuum – the mosque’s controversy comes amid broader political debates over foreign intervention and fostering an “Islam of France” that conforms with what is perceived as the national identity.

One of the main arguments against the mosque stems from its leaders’ affiliation with the Turkish-based Milli Görüs.

The French branch of Milli Görüs is one of the few Muslim organizations in France that refused to sign the recent state-imposed charter of principles of Islam in France. The authors of the charter, the French Council of the Muslim Religion (CFCM), along with the French government that initiated its formulation, say that it serves as a reminder that Republican principles must come before religious convictions. The charter strictly condemns political Islam and any foreign interference in mosque management.

But French Milli Görüs leaders have accused the state of “interference with Muslim worship” and political manipulation of Islam.

They complain that they were not consulted at all in the charter’s drafting and that Milli Görüs is being unfairly accused of being “less Republican” than other Muslim organizations for their abstention from signing.

Those wary of Milli Görüs’ leadership of the mosque also cite ties between the group and Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling AKP. It has prompted concerns over the possibilities of Turkish government meddling in French sociopolitical affairs.

These fears of foreign intervention reflect a major policy shift in France over the past few decades over how it perceives foreign ties to French Muslim organizations. Before the 1990s, the French state encouraged such relationships in a bid, some have argued, to keep Islam “foreign.” But this changed as the public presence of Islam in France grew and amid post-9/11 suspicions of foreign manipulation. By 2016, then-Prime Minister Manuel Valls was calling for a ban on foreign funding for mosques.

This ethos has continued with provisions in the recent French Republican principles bill that require strict declarations of any foreign funding for religious organizations and give authorities the ability to ban any donations if there is sufficient evidence of a “serious threat affecting a fundamental interest of society.”

From this standpoint, allocating state funds to subsidize a mosque with foreign ties seems to run counter to efforts to foster an “Islam of France” that’s more integrated into secular French Republican values.

Mosques, moderation and Islamophobia

Of course there are those who just don’t want more mosques in France no matter how they are funded, spurred by erroneous conflations between radicalization, Islamist separatism, and places of worship.

But research in the U.S. has shown that mosque attendance is often an indicator of greater “social and political integration” and civic engagement. Mosques are not just places of worship. They are gathering places, cultural centers, educational centers, community outreach hubs, interfaith facilitators, social resource centers and even sometimes places for non-Muslims to learn about Islam.

This is especially true for “grand mosques” such as the Grand Mosque of Paris or the Grand Mosque of Lyon, where space is deliberately allocated for public visits, educational programs and community events. Having visited Milli Görüs centers in France and spoken with some of their members, directors and school officials, I believe these mosques seem to fit this same community and civic engagement profile.

Regardless, many French politicians and ordinary citizens believe that the secular principles that undergird French society need to be protected from a growing “Islamist threat.”

Sentiment is riding particularly high in the long lead-up to the 2022 elections, in which President Macron may attempt to appeal to anti-immigrant voters to curb the power of the far right.

In such an environment, those looking for Islamist threats seem to find them everywhere. Such fearmongering has seen scholars studying Islam and Islamophobia accused of advancing an Islamo-leftist agenda, the dissolution of the nation’s largest anti-Islamophobia organization, and home-schooling parents blamed for radicalizing Muslim youth.

The controversy surrounding the Strasbourg mosque has obvious geopolitical groundings and clearly fits into dominant political narratives of protecting France’s secular principles. But it also fits into popular Islamophobic rhetoric of an omnipresent Islamist threat – rhetoric that hinders French Muslim citizens from finding community and belonging in France, whether in mosques or elsewhere.

[3 media outlets, 1 religion newsletter. Get stories from The Conversation, AP and RNS.]

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Carol Ferrara does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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