More importantly, the Muslims who live in France are divided into countless religious faiths and persuasions. There are also numerous Sufi movements, especially among those of Turkish and Kurdish background
Nicholas Sarkozy is a man in a hurry. France's Interior Minister knows that he has less than five years in which to gain enough stature to seek the presidency after the incumbent, Jacques Chirac retires. Not surprisingly, whatever Sarkozy has done since he moved to Place Bueavais, the Parisian headquarters of the Interior Ministry has been marked by that timetable.
Thus, it is in a great hurry that Sarkozy wants to create what he describes as " a French church of Islam." Initially launched in the early 1980s, the project has been taken up, and dropped, by six successive ministers from both left and right. In 1987, one such minister, Charles Pasqua, described Islam as France's "No. 1 problem." The project aims at creating an officially recognized authority capable of representing France's Muslims. Similar authorities exist for Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox Christian communities as well as Jews. The so-called "French church of Islam" would decide who should attend official functions, and who should be consulted on matters of faith as far as the Muslim community is concerned.
Back in the 1980s this writer was invited by Pasqua to offer a view on the project. The response given at that time was that the proposed project would either prove impossible to apply or, if applied, could divide the Muslim community in France, and encourage radical fundamentalists.
There is no reason to hold a different view today.
Sarkozy, like his predecessors, fails to understand the specific nature of Islam as a religion.
Almost all of France's Catholics, Protestant and Orthodox inhabitants are citizens of the French Republic who have grown up in a culture based on a separation of church and state. They are distinguished from other French citizens only by faith.
France's Jewish community is also distinct because Judaism encompasses religious, ethnic, and, to some extent, cultural identities. More importantly, the Jews have no ambition of converting others to their faith.
Islam is different. To start with, only half of the estimated 5.2 million Muslims who live in France are French citizens. And even many of those who do have French citizenship insist on keeping their previous Islamic nationality. (That is especially the case with the North Africans.) Clear ethnic, linguistic and cultural identities mark out most of France's Muslims from the rest of society.
More importantly, the Muslims who live in France are divided into countless religious faiths and persuasions. There are, of course, all the usual Sunni and Shiite variations. But there are also numerous Sufi movements, especially among those of Turkish and Kurdish background. According to recent studies, France's Muslims come from 53 different countries, speak 21 different languages, and represent numerous Asian, Middle Eastern, African and European cultures.
All these groups and movements would deeply resent any attempt by the French government to impose a single authority on them.
Unlike the Catholics who have the Vatican and the pope to refer to on key issues of faith, and unlike the practicing Jews who follow the rabbinate Israel on such matters, Muslims lack a single authority capable of performing a similar role. A Muslim may consult as many people as he likes but is not obliged to defer to anybody's opinion on matters of faith. Studies by the National Center for Scientific Research in Paris show that less than 13 percent of France's Muslims practice their religion. But almost all emphasize Islam as part of their more complex identity. It might sound oxymoronic but the truth is that even self-professed atheists born in an Islamic society often regard themselves as Muslims, at least by culture.
Supporters of the Sarkozy project insist that a French Islam will be "progressive, liberal and modern". Fatwas (opinions) coming from a mufti in Paris are likely to be less "reactionary " than those coming from, say, Qom or Bamako. In time, Paris could become a major centre of Islamic scholarship and theology, perhaps even leading Islam into its version of the Reformation. And, somewhere down the road, why not imagine French Muslim missionaries crisscrossing the globe to offer their brand of "progressive" Islam?
All that, however, is taking place on an increasing scale already, and without government intervention. The work of French scholars has had an impact on modern Islamic thought at least since the 1950s. Contacts between Muslims in France ands their co-religionists in Africa, the Middle East and Asia is already having a liberalizing impact in a number of countries, including Algeria, Turkey, and Iran.
To put an official stamp on all that could make it suspect in the eyes of many Muslims, especially in North Africa and the Middle East where the belief in the conspiracy theory is strong.
Islam has always faced a dire choice between unity and diversity. Whenever it chose unity it gained monetary military and political strength but at the price of losing its spiritual, scientific and cultural vitality. This was because unity always ended up being confused with uniformity.
The Sarkozy project may impose a measure of unity on France's Muslims, this giving them some political clout. But it could harm their rich diversity and strengthen the position of the fundamentalists who have always emphasized uniformity.
The Sarkozy project also has a security subtext. This is understandable. Since the Sept. 11 attacks against New York and Washington, many politicians in the West believe that "the Islamic dimension" of terrorism must be brought under control. There is no doubt that many terrorist organizations, especially those operating in Algeria, have been able to exploit the Muslim community in France, and a number of other European Union countries, for fund-raising, propaganda and logistical support. These are activities that have to be monitored by the police and stopped in accordance with the law. The creation of an artificial, but officially approved, French "church of Islam" is unlikely to do the job.