France, the way to Islamic reformation is to challenge institutions — not stigmatize Muslims

“Recent events underscore the need for a reformed reading of Islam. But such reformation will not be brought about by stigmatizing Islam or Muslim communities, as the French president did. What is needed is to challenge Muslim institutions to take a clear position on Islamic jurisprudence justifying violence.”

“It was a policy statement about cracking down on “radical Islamist” influence among French Muslims to prevent their transformation into a “counter-republican” community. However, Macron’s bizarre remark that Islam “is in crisis all over the world today” unsurprisingly got most of the attention in the Middle East.”

“What was meant to be a debate about combating Islamic radicals in France turned into an outcry against “Macron’s stigmatization of Islam.” Nuanced Muslim voices got lost in the noise.
The Macron fiasco didn’t overshadow the problem of violence in the name of Islam for long. The beheading of a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, on Oct. 16 for showing his students images of a caricature depicting Islam’s prophet came as a crude reminder of the problem. Calling it an isolated act, as the grand mufti of Egypt did, doesn’t cut it any longer. Nor does the lamentation over French atrocities in Algeria half a century ago. The problem of violence motivated by a certain interpretation of Islam is real.”

“Three key premises held by the Islamic Salafist tradition lie at the source of the problem. First, the idea that sovereignty lies with “God,” not the people, restricts the role of legislatures to enacting Islamic law, which is also understood in its most literalist interpretation. Rulers who don’t uphold this principle are deemed idolatrous. Second, Muslims’ “apostasy,” often defined as having a different interpretation of their faith, is punishable by death. Third, when Muslim leaders fail to enact these rules, individual Muslims have a duty, under certain conditions, to carry them out themselves.

These interpretations of Islam underpin most of the violence in its name, since the Egyptian scholar Sayyid Qutb wrote his call for Jihad more than half a century ago, all the way to the Islamic State and “lone wolves” violently punishing those who “insult Islam” today. Islamic institutions such as Al-Azhar often denounce that violence and insist that its perpetrators do not represent “true Islam,” as Egypt’s mufti just did. Yet they rarely address the intellectual foundations of these belligerent interpretations of Islamic texts.

Independent-minded Islamic thinkers have long been advocating more clement readings of Islam, its laws and its relationship with non-Muslims. From Muhammad Abduh in the 19th century to Nasr Abu Zayd, Mohammed Arkoun and many others more recently, thinkers have critically reviewed Islamic jurisprudence to show its emphasis on reason, individual freedom and equality. But religious institutions and movements did not follow their lead. And political leaders, including those of the so-called secular regimes, hedged their bets and walked a fine line between reformers and Salafists. Decades of social, economic and political decay, foreign encroachment and military interventions, along with Saudi support, helped Salafi thought grow. Today, Salafi thought is no longer a fringe: It has penetrated mainstream religious institutions as well as the Islamist movements that had started off as modernist, such as the Muslim Brotherhood.

Those who are interested in promoting a reformist vision of Islam should challenge the foundations of Salafism within these institutions and movements — not “Islam” as a whole, as Macron did, nor the already stigmatized Muslim minorities who are struggling with racism and discrimination in Western countries.
Instead, Islamic institutions and movements should be pressed to come up with unambiguous answers to the key questions that Salafism poses: Does their interpretation of “true Islam” allow Muslims to use violence against others? Does it allow Muslims to uphold modern political institutions and their laws? Does it allow Muslims to live peacefully with people they consider apostates or infidels?

Challenging these institutions and movements will help, not undermine, the debate among Muslims over what Islam is — the debate that will shape the future of Islam.”

Macron steps up fight against radical Islam (and his critics)

“Macron announced the Cabinet will on Wednesday dissolve a pro-Hamas organization known as Cheikh Yassine, which he said was “directly involved” in the gruesome assassination of Samuel Paty, the eighth-grade teacher who was killed after he showed caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed during a class discussion on freedom of speech.

The teacher reportedly tried to be mindful of the sensitivity of the subject for some of his pupils by asking those who might be offended to either leave the class or look away, sparking the ire of one pupil’s father, among others.

After the disgruntled parent and several others posted a video on social media denouncing the teacher, calling for mobilization against him and mentioning the address of the school, an 18-year-old man, without apparent ties to the school, waited for Paty and beheaded him. On Tuesday, French media reported the investigation into the beheading revealed the assailant had been in touch with the father prior to the killing.

The assailant was of Chechen origin, and Macron and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke Tuesday evening, according to the Elysée, which said Macron “wants to reinforce Franco-Russian cooperation in the fight against terrorism and illegal immigration.”

The attack is not the first beheading or the bloodiest terror attack France has suffered in recent years, but it has struck a nerve. Schools and teachers, though underpaid and under-equipped, hold a unique place in the collective imagination of the French, who see themselves as the torchbearers of enlightenment. It also goes to the heart of the unique French conception of freedom of speech — one that prides itself on offending and tackling all sacred cows.”

“France has had a homegrown radical Islam problem for decades. It has caused problems for successive presidents and governments, which have struggled to reconcile the repression necessary to stamp it out with French laws, due process and freedom of speech. It culminated in 2015 with the bloodiest string of terror attacks in Europe: In January, assailants attacked satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and then in November, the Bataclan concert hall as well as cafés and restaurants in Paris.

The place of Islam in French society has been a lightning rod issue since former President Jacques Chirac passed a law banning French public service employees from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols, widely interpreted as a roundabout way of banning the Muslim headscarf.”

“Macron will award Paty the Legion of Honor, France’s highest civilian honor, and will lead a national tribute to him. It will take place at the Sorbonne University, a location chosen by Paty’s family.

“The Sorbonne is the symbolic monument of the spirit of enlightenment and of French cultural, literary and educational influence,” according to an Elysée official.”