Stigmatising Muslims in France can only do more harm

The balance between security and freedom is one of the major challenges in the immediate future.

Many observers in France realise that imams provide indispensable support for the containment strategy of sectarian speeches, writes Ennasri [Reuters]

France is in mourning. Struck by a carnage that killed 129 innocent people and injured more than 300, the country is now recovering from the worst attacks it experienced since World War II. Confronted by such a tragedy, national unity is no longer a need but an imperative.

However, the common stance that the nation, with all its components, must express in such circumstances should not be at the expense of adherence to the republic’s values.

So, while security is an inalienable right and the first sovereign prerogative of the state, it should not, however, jeopardise the exercise of civil liberties – nor should it leave room for raising suspicions about a particular segment of our society.

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This balance between security and freedom is one of the major challenges in the immediate future. In this sense, the authorities are held responsible for negotiating that outcome because how the situation will evolve on a national level largely depends on the choices that are made today.

Security policies and the Muslim community

However, two recent decisions raised concerns. The first is the entrenchment of the state of emergency. In a country that, since 9/11, voted seven anti-terrorism laws – one every two years on average – stressing on a security policy shift seems to be related more to a political issue.

The current security apparatus is quite sufficient, and if there is a deficiency, it is not so much in the nature of the legislative framework; rather, it is in the medium and the human resources, especially, that are devoted to the surveillance missions.

Already, some human rights organisations (such as Human Rights League) or some judges put the kibosh on this propensity to capitalise on the emotion to justify a shift in security policies.

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The other element on which the government seems to precipitate in is the issue relating to the mosques and imams. This is a crucial matter since some 2,500 mosques in France represent the gathering space of most of the Muslim community.

Several intellectuals, politicians, and journalists have accused the mosques of being centres of radicalisation. In reality, there is no problem with the overwhelming majority of mosques in France. Most cater to congregations from Morocco, Algeria or Turkey.

So, most speeches are controlled. Few mosques are Salafist whose speeches can be debatable, but in no case are they violent. Moreover, on the internet or in their English-language digital magazine, Dabiq, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) often considers the imams of these mosques to be “infidels”.

However, the statement made by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve on the closure of mosques where radical discourse takes place is somehow awkward, to say the least.

Indeed, pointing out that some mosques (estimated between 80 and 100, depending on the source) would be radicalisation spots is primarily a counter-sense. Many experts and reports have shown that the mechanics of radicalisation are materialised outside of mosques and that the principal place of brainwashing and recruitment is the internet.

Wrong strategy

Many observers in France also realise that 2,500 imams provide indispensable support for the containment strategy of sectarian speeches. Being on the ground, they are the ones that convey hopeful messages and are the go-to sources of the faithful.

Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January, not one mosque in France is unlisted or not being closely monitored - whether through the French authorities' surveillance or the foreign consulates.


Similarly, they are often viewed as ideological shields facing the ISIL propaganda, and more than one of those imams in France received a death threat precisely because they provide a presence in mosques and neighbourhoods that prevents the spread of extremist messages.

Finally, Cazeneuve’s words seem also to cater to the media hysteria at a time when the government wants to bang its fist on the table to demonstrate to the public opinion its capacity to respond.

Since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January, not one mosque in France is unlisted or not being closely monitored – whether through the French authorities’ surveillance or the foreign consulates.

Cazeneuve’s strategy has also been an unfortunate illustration: as we learned that, earlier this week, the oldest mosque in the city of Aubervilliers in Saint-Denis as well as the mosque in Gennevilliers town were raided.

For many, this is an incomprehensible action. Indeed, how can one think of this place of worship in Aubervilliers – well-reputed and known to be a place for the exchange of ideas and dialogue with other communities – would be used as a weapons and ammunition depot?

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The images circulating on the social media have angered the Muslim community who questioned how this mosque – whose leaders were invited to the first Forum for Dialogue of the French government with Islam only a few months ago to discuss the future of Islam in France – could undergo such an aggression.

Naturally, nothing incriminating was found at the mosque, but the images of gutted libraries or stoned ceilings attest to the violence of the raid.


For many, it is an attempt to prove to public opinion that the authorities will not give up. However, it is, of course, intolerable to accept that for the sake of media coverage, one can trample on certain principles of respect and dignity.

If a state of emergency is needed today, it cannot justify everything. In this sense, it is imperative that the authorities separate the issues and stop jeopardising our nation’s cohesion through such measures – dangerous and unnecessary as they are – only for the sake of political or electoral interests.

That would be playing in the populists’ backyards by all sides and empowering ISIL ideologues whose fatal project is to highlight the hypothetical persecution of Muslims in order to generate recruits.

We have a historic opportunity. We must do absolutely everything to avoid the trap of division.

Nabil Ennasri is a French affairs analyst, author and civil society activist, focusing on social issues such as discrimination and education.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.