France and Islam
Gavin Hewitt - BBC, Monday, 4 April 2011
Even while French planes are bombing Gaddafi's forces in Libya France itself is debating Islam and its place in society.
Tomorrow Jean-Francois Cope, a rising star in the governing UMP party, will hold a debate on secularism and Islam. Its purpose will be to explore how to accommodate Islamic customs with France's secular traditions.
The very idea of the debate has sparked argument. Some Muslims say it will stigmatise them. A former diversity adviser to President Sarkozy has not only stood down but is calling for demonstrations against the debate. He says the UMP party is a "plague on Muslims".
Even within the ruling party there is division. Prime Minister Francois Fillon and Foreign Minister Alain Juppe don't like or want this debate.
Various religious groups have issued a statement saying they fear "the debate could add to the confusion in the troubled period we are traversing."
And yet, according to polls, the French are deeply troubled about how some Muslims behave in France. One poll suggests that 40% of people regard Islam as the enemy within.
Some see the debate as pandering to these fears, while others insist it is a discussion that must be had.
The whole subject is fraught with complexity. A 1905 law that separates Church and State is a central tenet of the French Republic. It underpins important French values.
President Sarkozy believes that if halal food, for instance, is served in a secular school canteen then that crucial separation between Church and State is compromised. Others argue that allowing Muslims to pray on the streets encourages religion to seep from the Mosque into the public space. Others say that parents banning girls from joining in mixed swimming sessions introduces religion into a secular activity.
And so the arguments flow.
Jean-Francois Cope suspects that many activities are less connected with religion and more with political Islam. "There are a certain number of extreme behaviours," he said, "led by fundamentalists who are using the religion for political ends and use extremist techniques."
And this touches on wider questions. It is widely accepted that it is fundamental to democratic society that all are equal under the law. All must obey it. That, in itself, guarantees religious freedom.
And yet in France - and elsewhere in Europe - there are those who say that some Muslim communities are arguing that they are a special case. A few influential figures have even argued there may be a case for allowing some form of Sharia law.
Only this weekend, in an interview with the Times, the ethnic Somali writer and former Islamist Ayaan Hirsi Ali said that "a society needs the rule of law. Islam is incompatible with the rule of law because it says only Allah is the law and not human beings."
There will be many Muslims who would challenge those views, but again behind the argument is a fear that separate, segregated communities will emerge, rather than integrated communities.
So to the question: Should all this be debated or not? If the discussions are not had there are others who will embrace it. That is for sure. Marine Le Pen, who leads the National Front, has made it a key plank of her campaign that religion should be kept out of the public space. Her stand on this partly reflects her current robust standing in
Then next week the French ban on the burka and the niqab comes into effect. There will be a warning initially, followed by a 150-euro (