PARIS—Since an Islamist radical beheaded a French schoolteacher this month, authorities have detained dozens of suspected extremists, moved to disband Muslim civic groups and shut down a mosque where thousands worship, escalating a long-simmering conflict over the place of Islam in French society.
Those measures are part of a campaign by the government of President Emmanuel Macron to counter what it calls “Islamic separatism,” which senior officials describe as the dominance of religious rules over state authority in some Muslim communities. Authorities say their moves reflect a new determination to ensure France’s Muslims comply with the country’s strict laws separating religion and state, known as laïcité.
Yet French Muslims see the measures as an attempt to stigmatize them and strip their identity. In remarks that resonated across the Muslim community, French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin said this week he was shocked that supermarkets had halal sections.
“What I don’t like are the aisles,” Mr. Darmanin said. “Why have a different aisle?”
Muslims in countries from Asia to Africa have called for boycotts of French goods. International terrorist groups have called for attacks targeting France.
Underlining the security threat, on Thursday a Tunisian-born extremist who arrived in France this month stabbed three people to death in Notre Dame Basilica in Nice, after a group affiliated with al Qaeda called for “individual jihad” against France and said churches should be targeted.
Muslim leaders have denounced the recent killings. Some have also rejected the premise behind Mr. Macron’s campaign against separatism: that resistance to assimilation by French Muslims has allowed extremist ideologies to flourish.
France has Western Europe’s largest Muslim population, most of whom are descendants of people from the country’s North African colonies. The country’s political leaders have for years demanded that believers set aside religious symbols and garb when in some public settings, rejecting U.S.-style multiculturalism in which politicians openly embrace different ethnic and religious groups.
The French constitution guarantees freedom of worship but gives authorities the power to impose tough restrictions on personal religious expression in schools, government buildings and even on the street.
The schoolteacher’s beheading pushed the government to intensify its campaign against Muslim groups, aimed not just at challenging extremism but also politically active Islamic associations.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the measures suggested Mr. Macron was mentally deranged. France recalled its ambassador to Turkey over the comment.
In what has become a litmus test for views on free speech in France, officials noted that some Muslim groups have criticized the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo—which was attacked by Islamist gunmen in 2015, leaving 12 staff dead—for publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad. Samuel Paty, the schoolteacher who was killed, was targeted after showing those caricatures in a civics class.
One such association that the government has already disbanded is BarakaCity, a Muslim nonprofit that says it does charitable work in dozens of countries. When Charlie Hebdo decided to republish the cartoons in September, BarakaCity’s founder, Idriss Sihamedi, wrote in a
post, “May Allah curse Charlie and LIGHT their graves in the heat of the sun.” The government cited this line and others in its official order published Wednesday dissolving BarakaCity, saying the group encourages Islamist extremism.
Mr. Sihamedi said his comment was intended as satire of Charlie Hebdo.
“I have provoked like they have provoked,” Mr. Sihamedi said. “Does liberty of expression stop with Charlie Hebdo?”
Mr. Sihamedi says his group is appealing the government order before France’s highest administrative court. He said he also plans to seek political asylum from Turkey.
Muslim groups the government is now moving to disband have long opposed the country’s restrictions on religious garb and symbols in public. They say France’s enforcement has been a pretext to target Muslim practices, such as the wearing of the hajib, the head scarf worn by observant Muslim women.
“Today, authorities are trying to impose a dress code, a language code,” said Jawad Bachare, director of the Consortium Against Islamophobia in France, known as the CCIF. “They are trying to assimilate Muslims, who just want to be free.”
For the French establishment, the refusal to assimilate is a form of communautarisme, the term used to describe the threat to the republic of dividing the country by ethnicity and religion.
“In France, there is only one community, that’s the national community,” Mr. Macron said Thursday.
The CCIF has been threatened with closure by the government. The group was established in 2003 to provide legal representation to Muslims who say they have been the victim of racism. Mr. Darmanin last week called the CCIF an “enemy of the republic” and said that it was “manifestly implicated” in Mr. Paty’s death. He said the government would move to dissolve it.
Mr. Darmanin has cited the CCIF’s legal representation in 2014 of the families of members of Ana Muslim, a collective of radical Islamists that was helping French youths go to Syria, when the French authorities froze some of its members’ assets. CCIF says its decision came before foreign fighters returned to Europe from Syria to launch large-scale terrorist attacks in Western Europe.
Most recently, the CCIF angered interior ministry officials when it represented a religious school in the Paris region that the government has ordered shut for allegedly operating without authorization, where young girls were wearing the veil and courses were given exclusively in Arabic.
A video denouncing Mr. Paty made by the parent of one of his students claimed that the teacher had asked Muslim students to leave the classroom before showing them Charlie Hebdo cartoons. The parent appealed to the CCIF for help challenging what he described as discrimination by Mr. Paty against Muslims. Before his death, Mr. Paty told officials investigating the incident that he didn’t single out Muslim students.
As the video went viral, Mr. Bachare said he called up the parent and told him to take the video offline immediately. The consortium’s lawyers would then examine his complaint against Mr. Paty, Mr. Bachare says he told the parent, who faces preliminary charges for complicity in a terrorist act.
“If you create an uproar on social media, that creates noise and pressure, and puts people in danger,” Mr. Bachare said. “I told him that in such cases, we have to work calmly.”
Mr. Bachare condemned the killing of Mr. Paty. Since Mr. Darmanin’s comments, the CCIF has been inundated with threatening messages, he said.
The government has also shut for six months the Great Mosque of Pantin, a working-class suburb northeast of Paris, for posting the parent’s video on the mosque’s Facebook page, which has tens of thousands of followers. The mosque has a congregation of around 2,000.
M’hammed Henniche, the president of the association that runs the mosque, says he had no problem with a teacher showing the caricatures in class, but he was shocked to hear a father say that children in his daughter’s class were asked to raise their hands if they were Muslims. So he posted the video on Facebook.
“Does that make me an accomplice?” said Mr. Henniche.
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