France’s Confrontation with ISIS: A Religious and Political Perspective

France’s Confrontation with ISIS: A Religious and Political Perspective

Monday, 15 January, 2018 - 10:15
French security forces rush in as people are evacuated in wake of the ISIS attacks in Paris in November 2015. (AFP)
Rabat – Khaled Yamout
Religious traditions and practices have become a prominent part of the modern world. Talk about modernism and post-modernism is no longer related to the defeat or death of religion. More so, the diversity of extremist terrorist organizations and their ability to recruit members and develop its ideology raises fundamental questions on theories on the anthropological and social roles played by religion in the Middle East and Europe.

Religion and religious institutions play an important role in the national unity of countries that oppose terrorism. This decisive role played by religion however is not limited to Arab and Islamic countries, but it goes beyond them to reach Europe, where France, Belgium and Spain are built on secular foundations.

In France, successive terrorist attacks, such the 2015 Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks, spread fear throughout the country. Marking the three-year anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo attack, former President Francois Hollande said on his Facebook page: “France can be proud that it acted with dignity when it rallied with world powers on January 11 under the slogan of human rights and freedom.”

Professor at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes (Paris-Sorbonne) and Director of the Group Societies, Religions and Secularism, Philip Portier said that the traditional vision of the role religion can play in society should be abandoned in this modern age. He explained that Islamic and Christian religious institutions in France played a central role in preventing divisions in local societies in diverse French cities. They succeeded in thwarting the spread of the clash based on religious bases.

This tolerant religious approach has become a support for national unity and no longer a passing practice in the battle against extremism. Portier pointed to prominent religious organizations in France that had held joint rallies to protest the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Even though they may be symbolic, the participation of clergymen alongside politicians in these rallies represents an important starting point for religion to act as a main backer of diversity and peaceful coexistence in the secular France.

This approach was reinforced by President Emmanuel Macron, who on the Charlie Hebdo anniversary, urged various religious authorities to continue their cooperation against terrorism. He also thanked them for their contributions towards national unity.

It is true that terrorist organizations have terrorist cells in France and other countries. These cells are comprised of extremist Muslim youth and may carry out terrorist attacks. Tackling this reality, said Portier, should take place away from Islamophobia. Furthermore, reality has demonstrated that extremism and the inclination towards terrorism exists in all religions. This inclination is linked to the nihilist radical ideology adopted by al-Qaeda and later ISIS.

Italian religious social scientist Enzo Pace said that Islam in Europe has created social and political tensions when issues of religious freedom and practice were brought up. Escalating tensions over this issue sparks strong reactions that fuel charged ideological clashes, he added.

Seeing as the situation is in constant change, then fortifying religious diversity and tolerance has become a public issue, linked to official and civil policies.

The social religious situation in Europe is rapidly changing, demanding that all of its countries review the rules of the game in order to organize relations between the churches, religious minorities and the state, he said. Islam did not suddenly appear on the scene, but it has existed before and become a part of the western European system and it therefore should not be ignored.

At this, Portier underscored the danger of considering Christian Catholicism as the main characteristic of the French identity. ISIS terrorist operations in the past three years demonstrated the wide religious resistance to terrorism.

They also showed a kind of negative resistance linked to how some Catholic groups view national unity from a narrow perspective and in a way that recalls the historic role Catholicism played in France.

This is taking place simultaneously with the rise of Islamophobia among secularists, said Portier.

Former President Jacques Chirac had in the past described France as the “oldest child of Catholicism.” Former President Nicolas Sarkozy had strongly defended the idea of the republic’s “Christian roots”. Moderate former Prime Minister Alain Juppe quoted Sarkozy in a book as saying: “We are Christians, why should we be ashamed of that?”

Portier remarked that since the 1960s, there was almost never any talk of “Christian roots”. This issue has been brought up in the public in the confrontation against Islam. Terrorist attacks may bolster the idea that France and Europe as a whole are strictly Christian.

Pope Francis spoke moderately of these “Christian roots” in Europe. He believes that many cultures formed Europe, adding that migrants should not be rejected under patrimonialist excuses that allege to protect the Christian culture in Europe. The pope believes that these “Christian roots” cannot justify a situation, dictatorship or colonization.

Portier also believes that ISIS has been able to influence the Muslim French youth because they do not feel as if they belong to a group and country. The ISIS cultural system acts on marginalizing the individual and it views France and the West as a Christian cultural bloc in confrontation with Islam. ISIS also recalls Crusader ideology that demonizes alleged non-believers. It is clear that this strategy turns the liberal and Christian West into an enemy that should be killed.

In the Middle East, this approach is not only a strategy, but a prevalent culture linked to sectarianism. This culture has a difficulty in recognizing an individual who lacks a sectarian affiliation.

In order to preserve the effective cooperation between religious figures and the state, Portier suggested that lessons be derived from the history of the clash between Catholics and secularists in France. This conflict eventually led to establishing equality between the religion and the state. Today, and even though religious organizations have been essential and fundamental for the state, Portier remarked that the gap between secular and Catholic circles remains wide.

This reality does not only threaten national unity and the battle against terrorism, but it also hampers efforts to build new examples of secularism that take into consideration general changes in Europe and France’s transformation into a religiously diverse country.

At times of crisis, rapprochement is made between religion and politics, said Portier. This was the case in World War I and today’s developments are not much different that those days. Jewish, Christian and Muslim leaders are strongly committed to the values of the republic because it protects all sects. The values of the state are what prevent society from falling apart.

*Khaled Yamout is a visiting political science professor at Mohammed V University in Rabat, Morocco.

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