France Working to De-Radicalize Its Mosques

by Johanna Markind
August 10, 2016

France is taking steps to de-radicalize its mosques in the hopes of preventing the radicalization of its Muslim community.

Since December, the French government, acting under expanded emergency powers, has shutdown twenty mosques for preaching Salafism, a strict and highly politicized Sunni interpretation of Islam. Groups such as ISIS adhere to Salafism. About 120 of France’s 2,500 mosques and prayer halls are considered Salafist.

A little background: the United States’ 9/11 Commission found that Saudi Arabia uses charity and “government funds to spread Wahhabi [a Saudi form of Salafism] beliefs throughout the world, including in mosques and schools.” The technique of spreading Wahhabi-Salafi beliefs by funding mosques and, crucially, those who preach in them, has occurred in places as far-flungas Pakistan, Senegal, and Germany.

In Belgium, the Saudis remade an Oriental pavilion into the Great Mosque of Brussels. They continue to fund many Belgian clerics whose “radical Salafist teachings came from a very different tradition” from the Islam of the Muslim communities who immigrated to Belgium from Morocco and Turkey. Gulf charity funds likewise radicalized the previously tolerant Muslim community in Kosovo. Both countries are among the largest sources of ISIS fighters in Europe. Belgium has provided more fighters per capita than any other country in Western Europe; Kosovo is the overall second-largest European country of origin, again, per capita.

The problem is not that foreign charities directly subsidize jihadi activities, but that they promote a highly aggressive ideology with a political agenda, whose followers are more likely to take the next step into violent action. In trying to contain radical Islam, Kosovar authorities have arrested 14 imams and shut down 19 Muslim organizations for acting against the constitution, inciting hatred and recruiting for terrorism. Belgium has arrested militant preacher Fouad Belkacem and threatened to close radical mosques in the Molenbeek district of Brussels.

The Saudis have also funded mosques in France, including one in Nice that opened in July (two weeks before the Bastille Day attack) after a 14-year struggle. The city’s former mayor, Christian Estrosi, had accused building owner Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz, who is Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Affairs Minister, of “advocating sharia.”

France has had a long-running debate about foreign influence over its Islamic institutions. A Senate report published on July 5, 2016, recommended monitoring foreign funds by having them channeled through a dedicated foundation. It also called for setting up a training program sufficient to train the country’s Muslim religious leaders that is “adapted to the French context.” Currently, France has two small institutions qualified to train imams, which are inadequate to meet the community’s needs. Therefore, about 300 imams were hired from abroad. The foreign imams are not well-adapted to France, and many of them speak French poorly, if at all. Finally, the report cautioned that there is an inherent tension between the government’s desire for more control over French Islam and the country’s legal separation of “church” and state.

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