Although the France-Morocco initiative on imams is new, international religious training exchanges are part of an established phenomenon that some security experts call '' ''Embassy Islam'', because
the religious infrastructure of Muslim communities in Western Europe was, in a sense, decided in advance, not by the communities themselves, but by those who had the power to set the conditions: sending and receiving states and European governments were content to outsource the day to day management of Islamic religious observance, a practice that dovetailed with the interests of the country of origin.
''Laicité'' or state secularism---enshrined in 1905 law--is the cornerstone of French national and political identity, but created a hostile environment for the country's increasingly multi-ethnic citizenry and growing immigrant populations. The ongoing debate over a 2004 law that banned religious symbols in schools and 2010 law banning the full veil crystallizes the tension. And the rising number of terror attacks in France, highlighted the need for France to rethink its steadfast adherence to Laicité amid changing demographic landscape.
Mosques have long been the target of French counter-radicalization measures, and numerous imams have been deported since 2002. The Interior Ministry has renewed these deportation efforts in response to both Paris attack ( November, 13, 2015) and Nice Attack (July 14, 2016) and the rising number of French citizens that have joined the self proclaimed Islamic State in Syria and Iraq---over 1,400 or nearly half of the European jihadis known to have traveled to Middle- East.
At least 44 imams have been deported last year, and Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve urged imams to take university-level courses in secularism as part of new anti radicalization measures. Although some imams have been expelled for being ''rogue'' or preaching what the French Interior Minister considers hate speech or radical ideology, many are deported because they are Islamist and have not affiliated with any government. The result is that France's expelling one kind of imam to import another.
Training imams is a catastrophe, linked to a national policy that mistreats French Muslims while alleging that they are part of the French community. This contradictory attitude informs a situation in which, through agreements with Middle East and North African governments, the state imports imams who do not speak French, know little of French culture and hold posts in corrupt networks.
The Strategy reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the plurality of French Muslims, in terms of religion, culture and generational differences. And although foreign imams have particularly little resonance among younger French Muslims, the 'Laicité' law prohibits state-run trainings of religious leaders, making an interlocutor necessary. The problem here is that the government body created to play that role--the French Council of the Muslim Faith--is completely dysfunctional, internally divided and holds little political weight.
As a result, the fate of mosques and imams are often in the hands of foreign governments--Morocco, Algeria and Turkey--that know little of France's Muslim communities and the French Interior Ministry ''modus operandi''.
France's policy on imams--illustrative of flawed approach to managing multiculturalism is a far cry from the counter-extremism strategy the country needs. Targeting imams as part of anti-extremism efforts is linked to a false amalgam that blames radicalism on too much Islam. Islam is not what drives French youths to Syria or Iraq: 70 percent of European jihadis have come from atheist, Catholic or non practicing Muslim families, like the Nice attacker, Mohamed L Bouhlel.
Research reveal that jihadis radicalizing youths hardly talk about Islam at all: the process uses tactics of sectarian movements and totalitarian political parties, but Islam is just the final polish. The majority of youths radicalized in France have never set foot in a mosque. The indoctrination process occurs online. What's more, it serves no purpose to teach good Islam to someone already under the grasp of jihadis.
That doesn't mean that increasing professional standards for imams is necessarily bad, but linking it to the fight against radicalism is to misunderstanding what is happening in France. Recruiters seek people who know nothing about Islam. Even if targeting places of Islamic preaching were a useful strategy against extremism, the efficacy of working with foreign government to that end is questionable: There is no reason to outsource this work to government that lack credibility and essentially bureaucratic, statist institutions.
The ambiguity around French policy toward imams is the result of a dated system unable to cope with changing social realities. Following the Paris attack/Nice attack killings, French Prime Minister declared the opening of a war against radical Islam, against everything that aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity. But France's reticence to adapt its attitude toward religion creates contradictions and inconsistencies that undermine these efforts.
Domestic terrorist attacks and the departure of French youths to Syria and Iraq are real threats to national security and the social fabric. But the problem is two-fold. On the one hand, France is pursuing a national policy that refuses to acknowledge that its insular understanding of French identity and the state's relationship with religion is losing steam.
And on the other hand, the assumed causality between Islam and youth radicalization misses the mark, misdirecting resources that could prevent thousands of citizens from joining terrorists networks abroad. Sending imams to be trained in Morocco, then, may be a means to restore shaky relations, but is in continuity with a flawed approach to countering violent extremism.
By Guylain Gustave Moke
World Affairs Expert