SHAFAQNA – The French Council of the Muslim Faith (Conseil français du culte musulman, or CFCM), France’s main Muslim interest group, announced the creation of a “theological panel” on Sunday to fight jihadist propaganda on the Internet.
The CFCM, which represents many of France’s estimated 4.7 million Muslims, said the panel would seek to come up with effective counter-messaging to the jihadist propaganda that has seduced so many young people, especially online.
“It gives a new dimension to our organisation, which now no longer positions itself exclusively at the administrative or management level,” CFCM president Anouar Kbibech told FRANCE 24, hailing what he described as “a historic day”.
To ensure the panel is as inclusive as possible, Kbibech said the 25-member body will reflect all the different sects of Islam, with the exception of the ultra-conservative Salafist movement. Those represented will range from the conservative Union of Islamic Organisations of France (L’Union des organisations islamiques de France) to Tablighi Jamaat, a revivalist movement that proselytises a return to orthodox Sunni Islam.
The panel will “develop counter-messaging based on solid theological arguments in response to the rhetoric that is circulating on social media, particularly among young people”, the CFCM said in a statement.
“When it comes to questions about jihad or hijra (emigration to Muslim countries), it’s important to have a clear stance that has been established by competent and trusted individuals,” Kbibech explained.
The move came a day before French Prime Minister Manuel Valls unveiled a new €40 million ($45.5 million) anti-terrorism plan, which is also aimed at fighting radicalisation on the web and beyond.
A matter of ‘opinion’
Also among the panel’s 25 members will be Tarq Oubrou, an imam in the southern city of Bordeaux known for his progressive views.
“I accepted because I’m generally in favour of this sort of initiative,” he told FRANCE 24.
Oubrou said, however, that he still didn’t know very much about how the panel will work. “It’s pretty unclear,” he acknowledged.
According to Kbibech, the new body will hold at least two meetings a year at which they will tackle the fight against radicalisation, as well as discuss other important issues such as the practice of Islam inFrance.
He said that the CFCM will choose which issues the panel discusses by drawing from questions submitted by members of the Muslim community. The panel will then issue an “opinion” on each matter. Kbibech was careful to avoid the word fatwa, which he said was often “misused and employed out of context”. He went on to specify that a fatwa was a stance rooted in Islamic law that is taken on a particular issue, whereas the “theological panel will give its opinion on general issues that concern French Muslims”.
A lack of credibility?
But it remains to be seen how the Muslim community in France will receive the panel’s “opinions” and what weight they will carry in reality.
“We shouldn’t disillusion ourselves. The panel is not a magic wand that will resolve all of Islam’s problems over the past 10 years,” said Oubrou.
The imam added that he doubted very many people would respect the panel’s “opinions”.
“There is already a lot of hesitation regarding the CFCM; it’s not very credible in the eyes of many young Muslims,” Oubrou said. “They think it’s at the beck and call of the government, and too dominated by first-generation immigrants.”
Tariq Ramadan, a professor of contemporary Islamic issues at Oxford University, echoed Oubrou’s comments. “Seeing how the CFCM has little credibility, the panel [will have to rely] on its diverse and varied voices to establish its legitimacy,” he said.
The representation of Islam in France is a recurring issue within the Muslim community. The CFCM, members of which are elected by representatives from different mosques across the country, has often been criticised in the past for failing to take concrete action on issues of interest to Muslims.
“I agreed to participate in the panel to defend my ideas against others,” Oubrou said.
He added, however, that he did think the panel had the potential to help the fight against radicalisation.
“But we have to be realistic: It’s a phenomenon that has developed on the fringes, outside of traditional institutions,” he said, in reference to the Internet. “In other countries, there are influential theological organisations [that have already addressed the issue of jihadist propaganda] – like the Al-Azhar Mosque in Egypt, for example – but it hasn’t prevented extremist rhetoric from developing there.”