Macron’s Vain Hope for an Enlightened Islam

Macron’s Vain Hope for an Enlightened Islam

In the course of a few weeks, France, which has the highest proportion of Muslim citizens in Europe, has been subjected, once again, to bloody assassinations by attackers shouting “Allahu Akbar”. The first was the beheading of schoolteacher Samuel Paty, who had been discussing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons with his class. This was followed two weeks later by the killing of three Christian worshippers inside Notre Dame church in Nice. The Nice attacker cut the throats of Nadine Devilliers, sixty, and sexton Vincent Loques, fifty-five. Simone Barreto Silva was repeatedly stabbed and died of her wounds. These two atrocities were perpetrated by young male immigrants from Chechnya and Tunisia. In a third incident, an Orthodox priest was wounded by a shotgun blast when he was closing his church in Lyon. These three attacks were all symbolic: targeting non-Islamic faith and criticism of Islam.

France’s “Burden”, and Macron’s Islamic Enlightenment

These attacks came not long after President Macron had delivered a “Fight Against Separatism” speech on October 2 to the French parliament, announcing stricter measures to crack down on the growing influence of what he called “radical Islamism”, an ideology which has “a proclaimed, publicised desire, a systematic way of organising things to contravene the Republic’s laws and create a parallel order, establish other values, develop another way of organising society which is initially separatist, but whose ultimate goal is to take over it [the Republic] completely.”

Describing the threat to France of Islamism as “existential”, Macron unveiled a series of measures to counter radicalisation, and at the same time restore and renew confidence in the Republic. Lamenting the ground already lost, he called for a “new awakening” to unite citizens behind the values of the Republic. Challenged on the one hand by Islamic radicalism, and on the other by widespread disillusionment and fear over the authorities’ failure to curb the growth of radicalism, Macron hopes to retrieve lost ground and rekindle hope for the future of France. He said that France must “tell things as they are, and also admit that we’re up against a challenge which has formed over decades in our country and that we won’t defeat it in a day”.

Macron was responding to deep-seated fears about the future of France. In 2016, after 147 people had been killed in Paris atrocities, Patrick Calvar, head of France’s Security Services, spoke of a looming civil war:

Where is the spark going to come from that will light the powder, transforming France into an uncontrollable country where groups take up arms and hand out their own justice? Who sees a crumbling country where violence and vengeance alternate between two camps, where the spiral of attacks does not stop?

The distinguished social scientist Pierre Manent issued this lament after the slaughter in 2016 of Father Jacques Hamel while celebrating communion in Normandy:

The French are exhausted, but they are first of all perplexed, lost. Things were not supposed to happen this way … We had supposedly entered into the final stage of democracy where human rights would reign, ever more rights ever more rigorously observed. We had left behind the age of nations as well as that of religions, and we would henceforth be free individuals moving frictionlessly over the surface of the planet … And now we see that religious affiliations and other collective attachments not only survive but return with a particular intensity … Meanwhile the ruling class, which is not a political but an ideological class … has been largely discredited in the eyes of citizens, but it occupies all the positions of institutional responsibility, especially in the media, and nowhere does one find groups or individuals who give the impression of understanding what is happening or of being able to stand up to it. We have no more confidence in those who lead us than in ourselves.

In his October 2 address, Macron emphasised the difficulty of striking a balance between overcoming Islamic radicalism, which he believes is demanded by Republican values, and at the same time not inflaming sentiments against Muslims as a whole. The latter outcome would, he believes, also be a failure for the Republic:

Our challenge today is to fight against this abuse [that is, of the Islamists] which some perpetuate in the name of religion, by ensuring that those who want to believe in Islam are not targeted and are citizens of our Republic in the full sense.

Macron describes this tension as something France has been “burdened with for years”. Indeed, he considers a key feature of the threat posed by Islamists to be “the trap of stigmatising a whole religion”, so one way for France to fight the jihad, he suggests, is to promote respect for and inclusion of Muslims.

This is not just France’s problem. Macron observed that Islam “is currently experiencing a crisis all over the world”, in that radicalisation and what he called “a very strong hardening” are now advanced in many nations: “everywhere there’s a crisis of Islam, which is being infected by … these radical impulses and the desire for a reinvented jihad, which means the destruction of the Other”.

Macron’s proposals are far-reaching. They include abolishing home-schooling, closing down independent schools, devoting more resources to policing and courts, bringing community language teaching under the control of the state, restoring policing in Muslim-majority zones, which he acknowledges has been let slide, reversing ghetto­isation, preventing radical takeovers of Muslim organisations, and rolling back sharia creep, such as the public cafeterias which now offer only halal-compliant menus, and the separation of sexes in public swimming pools. One of the examples Macron gave is that the use of sub-contractors to deliver public services has led to sharia restrictions being imposed on the public against government policy. For example, sub-contracted Muslim bus inspectors on public buses have been refusing admission to women if their clothing does not meet their sharia-informed expectations. Macron calls such practices “forced radicalisation”. Another proposal is that recipients of government grants will be required to sign up to secularism contracts.

Islamic Education

The most ambitious feature of Macron’s October 2 speech is his plan to change the way Islam is organised in France, making it more compatible with the Republic’s values. Whilst conceding that “it is not the state’s job to structure Islam”, Macron wants the state to help build a Muslim-led training body, funded by a tax on pilgrims to Mecca, which will allow France to establish “a form of Islam in our country that is compatible with Enlightenment values”. This, he hopes, will lead to an Islam which “can peacefully coexist with the Republic, respecting all the rules of separation [of religion and state] and calming all voices”. In essence he wants Muslim citizens to be French first, and followers of Islam second.

Macron intends to achieve this by two means. One is to cut back foreign influence, by closer regulation of foreign funding and ending the importation of imams from other countries. At present around 300 imams move to France each year from Turkey, Morocco and Algeria. The other means is to set up an institute to train French Muslims as clerics inside France, under the supervision of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). These measures, Macron hopes, will mould French Muslims into loyal republicans.

Macron also proposes to promote greater understanding of Islamic faith and culture through investing in higher education and research: “We must, very clearly, re-invest, on a massive scale, in the field of social sciences, history, understanding of civilisations.” Macron wants to prevent debates about Islam from becoming “ideological and exclusively political … I want France to become a country where we can teach the thinking of Averroes, Ibn Khaldun, to be a country that excels in the study of Muslim civilisations.” In support of this, Macron announced a grant of ten million euros to the Foundation for Islam in France.

France’s 1905 Law on the Separation of the Churches and State prohibits the government from interfering in the internal affairs of religions, including by providing finance. This is a limitation Macron must work around, for in reality he wants to re-direct the path of French Islam. The 1905 law was established to regulate the relationship between the state and Christian churches, but its application has been extended to cover the state’s relationship with all religions, including Islam.

In Islamic law, there is a principle that if a ruler establishes Islam, he must be obeyed. This potentially allows Muslim states to control mosques directly. Muslim states can use this control to promote radicalism or to inhibit it. For example, in Turkey, imams are appointed by the state, which also mandates that they be trained at state-controlled institutions, and the Turkish government has been driving a program of re-Islamisation of Turkey using, among other means, the imams under its control. In contrast, the 1905 French law prevents the state from exerting such control over mosques, and in any case, from the perspective of Islamic law, it would not be open to Muslims to allow a mosque to come under the control of a secular state.

Across Europe, many universities teach Christian theology, and after 9/11, some Western governments, including Germany, Holland, the UK and France, attempted to influence Islam in their countries by setting up university imam-training programs. Imported imams had been found to be conduits for radicalisation of the young, and governments had come to realise that most imams being brought in from Muslim countries lacked familiarity and sympathy with the culture and values of their new country.

Although a flood of new funding became available in the years after 9/11 to establish university Islamic seminary programs, such programs failed in their objective of influencing the course of Islamic theology in the mosques. Very few graduates of these centres have ended up pursuing careers as imams, and the centres themselves have abandoned the attempt to provide imam training, some closing and some being quietly transitioned into university Islamic Studies programs. This has created more academic positions for Muslim scholars and potentially hastened the Islamisation of knowledge, but has done nothing to limit radicalisation in mosques.

The project to establish university-based, state-funded seminary programs failed for several reasons. The most fundamental problem is that Muslims inevitably perceive these programs to be attempts by infidel states to control and divert Islam from its correct course. This entirely valid perception invalidates the program in the eyes of those who employ imams.

One of the functions of an imam is to provide guidance on issues to do with Islamic law. For Muslims to submit to an imam’s guidance they must be able to place their trust in his piety and knowledge. By definition, non-Muslims are considered to be “astray” from the rightly guided path of Islam, so an institution set up and influenced by a secular state to train imams, with an agenda to influence Islam towards secular values, will never be trusted by pious Muslims.

From a traditional Islamic perspective, the credibility of someone’s credentials as a religious scholar or teaching lies, not in the university degrees they hold, but in the reputation of their teachers for piety and religious knowledge. A Muslim scholar-in-formation traditionally acquires knowledge by sitting at the feet of qualified teachers, and receiving an ijazah (licence) from each one. The ijazah will include a scholarly chain of transmission of the knowledge gained from teacher to teacher, stretching back centuries, often to the companions of Muhammad. A degree in Islamic Studies from a secular university will not command the same authority.

At the same time, if it were not for security concerns, no Western government would have been offering to fund the education of imams. This obvious fact also invalidates state-sponsored seminary programs, because those Muslims who do not sympathise with acts of terror will not countenance any suggestion that Islam can be held responsible for self-styled jihadis’ heinous acts. This rejection of responsibility for acts of violence is apparent in the expressions of outrage from around the Muslim world about President Macron’s defence of freedom of speech. None of the protesters who are incensed by Macron can accept that France is under threat from Muslim violence. Even when Muslims are killing innocent French citizens in atrocious ways, what enrages Muslims in other countries is the perceived victimisation of Muslims.

Muslims will also assume that a state-funded program of imam-training will come under the close scrutiny of the Security Services, which is another reason to distrust it.

Another consideration is the reality of foreign control over European mosques. In Holland more than half the mosques are funded, and their imams appointed, by the Turkish state, and in the UK more than half the mosques are controlled by the Pakistan-based Deobandi movement, and most of the rest are Salafist or Balrevis, both of which are movements which are controlled from outside Britain. Such mosques will not surrender their pulpits to university-trained “imams”.

President Macron’s proposal to task the CFCM with training imams could avoid some of the problems associated with university-level imam training. However, it still runs the risk of being considered a thinly veiled attempt by the state to influence Islam—which of course it is. Another problem is that the CFCM is not at all a theologically liberal or secular-minded organisation, and it cannot be taken for granted that the imams it produces will embrace the values of secularity and the Republic.

Islam and Secularism

In Macron’s Western and indeed post-Christian understanding of secularity, religion is a personal, individual affair, and to follow a religion is an expression of individual freedom. By this reckoning, religion belongs in the home and in the church or mosque, not in public life. Thus Macron revealingly said in his October 2 speech, “If spirituality is a matter for the individual, secularity [laïcité] concerns us all.” Not so in Islam. In Islam spirituality is not merely a matter for the individual. Rather, religion is integral to politics: gaining power for Islam is the responsibility of all Muslims, and establishing the religion of Islam is the whole reason for an Islamic state’s existence.

A fundamental problem with Macron’s renewal program lies in a difference between Islam and Christianity, namely that the very idea of secularity is alien to Islam. The principle of the separation of church and state rests on biblical foundations. It was noteworthy that Marine Le Pen quoted a phrase of Jesus Christ in her recent speech against Islamism, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and render to God the things that are God’s” (Mark 12:17). Nothing like this exists in Islam: everything is Allah’s, and the core of Islam is about the exertion of power in service of Allah. As Bernard Lewis repeatedly pointed out, classical Arabic did not even have the language to make the distinction between church and state, sacred and profane, spiritual and temporal, and ecclesiastical and secular. Such terms entered Arabic via the writings of Arabic-speaking Christians.

In the West, secularism as a political ideology arose in response to long-standing struggles between spiritual and temporal authorities. These struggles took place in a Christian theological milieu which considered these two to be distinct. The separation of church and state was deployed to prevent the state from using religion to reinforce its authority, and to prevent the church from using state power to enforce its doctrines. That such mutual exploitation could be seen as a problem in the first place arises from the biblical contrast between the “kingdom of this world” and the “kingdom of God”. However, from an Islamic perspective, the whole point of the state is to impose Islam.

What this means in practice is that Islam sees religion and political power as inseparable. To establish Islam means to establish an Islamic public order, including the imposition of sharia, and to impose sharia requires access to power. This means that an inclination to seek such power, and for it to prevail, is hard-wired into the DNA of Islam. This is reflected in Sura 3:110, which defines the mission of the Muslim community, namely to command and forbid: “You are the best people raised up for mankind. You command what is right and forbid what is wrong, and you believe in Allah”, and in Sura 9:33 which states that Islam’s destiny is to prevail over other religions, “It is he [Allah] who sent his Messenger with guidance and the religion of truth [Islam] to make it prevail over every religion.”

Islamic Separatism

In addition to all this, Macron greatly underestimates the extent to which the theological characteristics of the Islamism he deplores are in fact integral to Islam. He was troubled in his October 2 speech by what he considers to be a trend to separatism in Muslim communities. He partly blamed this on past public government policy failures, which allowed immigrants to become isolated in the banlieues. Nevertheless, the will to separate is a part of orthodox Islamic spirituality, and because Islam does not separate the temporal from the spiritual, the separation Muslims seek is not merely spiritual, but political and cultural.

In classical Islamic jurisprudence it was forbidden for Muslims to live outside of an Islamic state for more than a few days at a time. This prohibition is particularly strong in the Maliki school of jurisprudence practised in the north-west of Africa, which is the dominant form of Islamic law practised in France. The duty to migrate into Islamic territory goes back to Muhammad, who said it must apply until the day of resurrection. Today a vast influx of Muslims into Western nations has effectively over-ridden this principle, and considerable efforts have been made by Muslim scholars in recent years to accommodate Islamic “minority jurisprudence” to the reality of Muslim minorities who have settled permanently outside the House of Islam. Over recent decades, statement after statement by eminent orthodox Muslims has advised Muslim immigrants living in Western lands that they must keep themselves separate from the surrounding culture, and not prefer it to Islamic culture.

For example, in 1985, the Washington-based International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT) invited the newly formed International Fiqh (jurisprudence) Academy (IFA) of the OIC (now the Organisation of Islamic Co-operation) to determine whether it is lawful in Islam for Muslims to become naturalised citizens of non-Muslim nations. Apparently this was quite a hot potato, and the IFA chose not to publish a formal answer, but it did gather opinions from some of the most eminent Muslim scholars of the day. One of the opinions was provided by Judge Mohammad Taqi Uthmani, a Pakistani jurist, permanent member of the IFA, and counted the most influential Muslim in the world in the 2020 edition of The Muslim 500: The World’s 500 Most Influential Muslims. Uthmani is the spiritual leader of the Deobandi movement, which controls most of the mosques in the UK.

Uthmani’s answer to the IIIT question was that naturalisation is absolutely forbidden if the nationalised Muslim’s intention is to advance their new nation, be proud of it, or resemble its people in practical ways (such as in clothing or cultural conventions). This conclusion was so obvious, Uthmani said, that “there is no need to give evidence” for it. Yet this is exactly what Macron is asking of French Muslims: that they should be transformed into loyal and proud citizens, adopting and conforming themselves to the values of the Republic.

The Islamic principle of separateness is based on verses of the Koran, as well as traditions of Muhammad in which he instructed Muslims to keep apart from infidels, and not to like them or imitate them. Thus, in his response to the IIIT’s question about naturalisation, Shaykh Muhammad al-Mukhtar al-Salami, the Grand Mufti of Tunisia, cited the Koranic verse, Sura 5:51:

You who believe! Do not take the Jews and the Christians as friends [allies or guardians]. They are friends of each other. Whoever of you takes them as friends is already one of them. Surely God does not guide the people who are evildoers.

The principle of separateness is expressed in the well-known Arabic phrase al-wala’ wa-l bara’ fī Allāh, which means “loyalty and disavowal for Allah”, and is often translated as “loving and hating for Allah’s sake”. This means holding fast to and loving what is pleasing to Allah and accords with his laws, and keeping separate from and hating what Allah dislikes and is not in accord with his laws. Muhammad said, “Truly the strongest grasp on faith is that you love for the sake of Allah and that you hate for the sake of Allah.”

The rejection of the non-Muslim other is also grounded in many verses of the Koran which speak critically of the kuffar (infidels) and urge Muslims not to associate with them, for example Sura 60:4, which advocates enmity towards non-Muslims:

There was a good example for you in Ibrahim [Abraham], and those who were with him, when they said to their people, “Surely we are free of you and what you serve instead of God. We repudiate you, and between us and you enmity has shown itself, and hatred forever, until you believe in God alone.”

Sheikh Shady Alsuleiman, President of the Australian Council of Imams since 2016, when asked in November 2002 whether al-wala’ wa-l bara’ is a part of Islamic faith, replied that it is “obviously a part of [our] belief” and its meaning is that Muslims are obligated to give allegiance to Islam and to Muslims, and not have allegiance to the kuffar nor follow their ways. Then the sheikh began to discuss the duty to migrate. He observed that Muhammad’s command not to live among the kuffar was a policy for Medina, when Muslims were strong, not for Mecca, when Muslims were weak. Today, he said, Muslims do not hold power, and there is not even any genuinely Islamic country for them to migrate to: the implication is that Muslims must accustom themselves to living among infidels and under their authority. He also observed that if Muslims communicate hatred to non-Muslims, no one would convert to Islam. Sheikh Shady concluded that, as long as Muslims are “in a state of weakness … we can’t implement the rulings of strength”. The clear implication is that until they have power, Muslims must accustom themselves to accepting life under non-Muslim dominance, and the open manifestation of rejection of the infidel awaits the hoped-for but not yet realised political ascendancy of Islam.

This reply is interesting as much for what it does not say as for what it does say. Alsuleiman does not disavow al-wala’ wa-l bara’, but moderates its application, on pragmatic grounds. He understands that this a sensitive subject. As long as Muslims are vulnerable and dependent for their security upon others, proclaiming this teaching is risky as it could incite hostility against Muslims and inhibit the spread of Islam.

It must be emphasised that Sheikh Shady is an orthodox Muslim cleric, not a Salafi. Is he an “Islamist”? Perhaps not, at least, not as long as Islam is politically weak. Nevertheless his remarks show that disavowal of non-Islam is integral to his faith, not an aberration, and it is only in view of their vulnerability due to lack of political power that he advises Muslims not to manifest hostility to the surrounding culture.

Another theological trend which stands in the way of Macron’s program is Islam’s tendency to treat groups of people, defined on religious grounds, as collectives with starkly delineated moral qualities. The Koran treats believers and non-believers as groups with contrasting attributes: Muslims are righteous and the kuffar are inherently hostile and intent on destroying Islam. Attacks on Christians and Jews in and outside churches and synagogues demonstrate the principle of collective culpability.

Such collectivist thinking was also on show when the former prime minister of Malaysia, Mahathir Mohamad, tweeted in response to President Macron that “Muslims have a right to be angry and kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past.” He explained that “since you have blamed all Muslims and the Muslims’ religion for what was done by one angry person, the Muslims have a right to punish the French”. In other words, if the slaughter of a French schoolteacher gives Macron the right to criticise Islam, then Muslims also should be afforded the right to punish the citizens of France for what Macron said. It is all about the collective.

Macron’s underestimation of the challenge of Islam is apparent when he takes Averroes (Ibn Rushd) and Ibn Khaldun to be names to conjure with. These two scholars from the past are meant to stand for all the great Muslim thinkers whose wisdom should be taught in French schools, as part of a grand project to gain a “better understanding of the civilisations that coexist on our soil”. In reality, if they were alive today, both Averroes and Ibn Khaldun would be considered Islamists. Ibn Khaldun criticised the separation of religion and politics in Christianity, proudly observing that “in the Muslim community, the holy war is a religious duty, because of the universalism of the [Muslim] mission and the [obligation to] convert everybody to Islam either by persuasion or by force”. In contrast, the weakness of Christianity, he asserted, is that Christian rulers are not “under obligation to gain power over other nations, as is the case with Islam”.

For all his commentaries on Aristotle, Ibn Rushd was an orthodox Sunni jurist who affirmed the obligation of an Islamic state to wage war against non-believers to spread Islam: “According to the majority of scholars, the compulsory nature of the jihad is founded upon [the Koranic verse] ‘Fighting is prescribed for you, though it is distasteful to you’” (Sura 2:16). He also wrote, in agreement with Ibn Khaldun, “Why wage war? The Muslim jurists agree that there are two purposes [for Muslims] to fight the People of the Book [Christians and Jews] … it is either for conversion to Islam or exacting tribute.” So much for defensive jihad.

The irony is that Macron was right about the need to understand these scholars and their message. The French do need to gain a better understanding of the foundations of Islamic civilisation, if only to better appreciate that the theological roots of Islamism can be found in the orthodox mainstream of Islam itself. Then they might come to understand how difficult and even fantastical is the project Macron is envisaging, to lead French Islam through an Enlightenment, and at the same time to inspire Muslims and non-Muslims to “love the Republic again”, together. This is a policy grounded in denial. It is blind to the reality that the French doctrine of laïcité presupposes a particular understanding of “religion” and its distinctness from politics, which arose from a cultural context shaped by the Bible. Islam is something else, and the French policy of laïcité is ill-equipped to contain and manage Islam’s mode of being, with its all-encompassing social, cultural and political claims.

Macron wants French Islam to embrace the (biblical) idea of separation of church and state. Ironically, he wants to transform Islam for the sake of laïcité. For its part, French Islam wants the state to allow it to enforce its own dogma of separation, namely the separation of Islam from non-Islam, and Muslims from non-Muslims.

Macron was right to discern that Islamists want to be separate in order, eventually, to take over completely, but although there is much that France can do to contain this ambition, Macron cannot preach freedom of religion to Muslims and at the same time expect them to voluntarily limit their religious horizons to the kind of private, individual piety that he approves of. Let France enforce its laws upon its citizens, but do not expect French Muslims to voluntarily submit to an “Enlightenment” which many of them will rightly discern is contrary to their deeply held religious beliefs and values.


Some measures in Macron’s proposals are long overdue, such as shutting down unregistered religious schools, limiting the entry of foreign-trained imams, limiting the enforcement of sharia upon the French public, greater regulation of foreign financing, and closer monitoring of mosques. Macron is also right to identify radical political Islam, or “Islamism”, as a threat to the Republic. That too little has been done for too long to counter this threat is because the problem has been ignored, misunderstood and denied. The frog has been slowly cooking for a long time, and now it wants to jump out of the pot!

Regrettably Macron, even as he attempts to shore up France’s resolve, has misunderstood the depth and extent of the problem. Some of his proposed measures can no doubt help strengthen France’s grasp on its secularity, and he is right to focus on the key role of imams in advancing the separation of Islamisation, but his hope of “forging a type of Enlightenment Islam in France” will prove to be a vain one. French Muslims will not allow Islam to be patronised by being turned into a client of the secular state. They will discern the hypocrisy of trying to interfere in Islam for the sake of upholding a separation between church and state.

This essay first appeared in Quadrant.

Mark Durie is the founding director of the Institute for Spiritual Awareness, a Shillman-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Senior Research Fellow of the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at the Melbourne School of Theology.

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