A beacon of enlightenment aimed at the Muslim world! A gift from Europe to Islam! It was in those terms that Jean-Pierre Chauvenement, then France's minister of interior, described his project for creating a "French church of Islam" in 1999.
The idea was that the French government would help create an Islamic authority as its official interlocutor on behalf of France's estimated 6.8 million Muslims. That authority would, in turn, develop "a progressive, modern" version of Islam that could be marketed throughout the Muslim world as an alternative to the "obscurantist, reactionary" versions in force in most Islamic countries.
The long-term geopolitical potentials of such a project could not be overestimated. Chauvenement imagined an alliance of a neo-Gaullist France with the Muslim world against the "Anglo-Saxons", led by the United States, and the Brussels bureaucrats who wish to dissolve the French nation in the witches' brew of a federal Europe. The Muslim world would become France's hinterland and geostrategic depth against rival powers on both sides of the Atlantic. Chauvenement created an "Istishara" (consultation), brining together seven federations, five major mosques and a number of "personalities" representing Sufi fraternities. The minister saw the proposed Islamic organization as a union of numerous groups and structures, modeled on the Protestant federation. But the final accord, adopted in 2001, chose a different model, that of the consistory that represents France's 800,000-strong Jewish community.
But before his plans could be implemented Chauvenement was out of power, replaced by Nicholas Sarkozy who, although he shared the idea of creating a "French church of Islam" was more interested in mobilizing Muslim support for his presidential ambitions rather than bringing the Muslim world out of "Dark Ages."
Although the French state, supposed to be secular, is not allowed to use its resources for religious purposes, Sarkozy spent substantial sums on creating what he named French Council of Muslim Cult (CFCM) in 2002. He did not stop to bother about such issues as whether or not Islam should be seen as a religion, an ethnic community, or a political movement in France.
Sarkozy worked with four groups that for all intents and purposes are political rather than religious organizations. The first is The Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), largely dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots such as Hamas. The second is the "grand" mosque in Paris, which is financed and controlled by the Algerian government. The third, the Coordinating Committee for Turkish Muslims in France (CCMTF), is an outfit controlled by the government at in Ankara. Finally, the fourth and the largest in terms of numbers is the National Federation of France's Muslims (FNMF), controlled by the Moroccan government.
To underline the fact that the project was political rather than religious and/or cultural, Sarkozy invited Algerian, Moroccan and Turkish ambassadors to become involved in shaping what was later known as the "Nainville-les-Roches accords" under which the key posts in the CFCM were divided among the four partners. At the last minute President Jacques Chirac demanded that one of his protégés, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque be named head of the CFCM.
To give their concoction a democratic sugarcoating Sarkozy and Chirac organized two elections, one in April 2003 and another in June 2005 to rubber-stamp the power-sharing scheme worked out with the Algerian, Moroccan and Turkish embassies. The two elections revealed the Moroccan FNMF as the only group with grassroots support. But even then the popular base of the CFCM remained extremely narrow. Of the estimated 6.8 million Muslims in France, at least half of them French citizens, some four million were eligible to vote. In the event, however, no more than 40,000 bothered to do so.
Since its creation, the CFCM has been plagued by power struggle at two levels. At one level the fight is among Muslim countries that seek to use it as a vehicle for projecting influence in France and keeping an eye on their opponents in exile. At another level the fight is over who controls the lucrative aspects of Islam, including the issuing of "halal" labels for foodstuff, especially meat, the organization of Haj and Umrah pilgrimages to Makkah, and the distribution of posts that the French government allocates to Muslims as part of an unofficial policy of "positive discrimination."
The result has been a near total paralysis of the "French church of Islam". After more than three years of debate and discussion absolutely no progress has been made on any of he issues referred to the CFCM. Projects for constructing more than two dozen mosques remain suspended because the CFCM cannot agree on who will finance and control them.
Even such a simple decision as naming chaplains for the army and prisons, remains blocked by rivalries. (Three chaplains have been named but their appointments have not been confirmed.)
To make matters worse, the CFCM is now faced with the possible break-up of its largest component, the Moroccan— dominated FNMF, whose President Muhammad Bechari has become persona non grata in Rabat. The Moroccan government's attempts at replacing Bechari, however, have failed so far because he has managed to prevent the FNMF's council to convene to decide his fate.
The failure of the "French church of Islam" was written in its genes. It started with the fact that the French government did not realize that there are no church-like structures in Islam, a faith that emphasizes the direct link between the believer and his Creator.
The organizations that the French state decided to work with were and remain political groups and should have been treated as such. There is no harm in the French state establishing a relationship with the Muslim Brotherhood or any other political party whose members are of Muslim faith. But it would be wrong to see the Brotherhood, or any other political party, as representatives of Islam as a religious faith. Nor is there any harm in the French state consulting foreign powers on issues regarding immigrant communities in France. But then again it would be wrong to think that the Turkish, Algerian and Moroccan governments are anything but secular institutions
The problem that France, and for that matter many other countries, have with Muslims concerns immigration, social alienation, multiculturalism, and, increasingly, terrorism, and is thus political, not religious.
Many more Muslims are active in various French political parties, from the ultra-right, and anti-Arab National Front to the ultra-left, Trotskyite Labor Force (Force Ouvriere), and passing by all the mainstream outfits, than in the "French church of Islam."
Muslims have no religious problems in France where all sorts of mosques are allowed and every single Islamic sect is free to practice and propagate its version of the faith — something that is impossible in officially Muslim countries. The chance that France offers the Muslims is that of freedom, including the freedom of unity in diversity. The "French Church of Islam" project, however, is designed to destroy that diversity and, by imposing one-size fits all, force all Muslims to adhere to an officially endorsed version of the faith.
France could exert a more positive influence on the global development of Islam by abandoning the project and allowing its Muslims, representing the second largest religious community in the republic, to practice their faith the way they see fit. In other words the best that France can do is to be true to its secularist values.