France's interior minister convened Muslim leaders Monday to discuss a French-style Islam that honors the nation's secular values, a task given new urgency after deep divisions surfaced over burkini bans in 30 French beach towns and after terror attacks that also stigmatized Muslims.
A high court struck down the burkini bans Friday, but the high-pitched debate that quickly seeped into France's political sphere revealed raw tensions between the secular establishment and sectors of France's estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
The July 14 attack on revelers in Nice, the killing of a priest in Normandy on July 26 and the June killing of a police couple in their home – all claimed by the Islamic State group – have focused tensions on Muslims.
Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve warned in an interview with France's Roman Catholic newspaper La Croix that if the political class cannot unite all French "the dynamics of division may prove dangerous." However, he ruled out drafting a national law banning burkinis.
The daylong conference bringing together Muslim leaders, civil society and others is the latest step in creating an "Islam of France" that respects French secular values. Muslims must be "committed to a total defense of the Republic in the face of terrorism, in the face of Salafism," Cazeneuve told the paper, adding French values must "transcend all others."
In France, the interior minister is charged with maintaining good relations with religious denominations.
Furor over the burkini debate has highlighted contradictions within France's strict secularism, The Christian Science Monitor's Peter Ford reported last week:
Laicité is a founding value of the French republic, intended to guarantee the state’s neutrality in religious affairs. It is meant to ensure there is no such thing as a state religion, nor any favoritism, allowing everyone to practice their faith freely so long as public order is maintained. It was born of a lengthy battle between the state and the Roman Catholic Church at the end of the 19th century.
But as jihadist terrorists have struck repeatedly in France, and as social tensions have mounted, political leaders on both left and right have used the principle to constrain Muslims.
Veils are banned in schools and in all public institutions such as hospitals; the niqab, covering everything but a woman’s eyes, is illegal everywhere; a number of schools that used to offer Muslim (and Jewish) kids alternative choices when pork was on the canteen lunch menu have stopped doing so.
"What is at stake is very important," said Abdallah Zekri, who heads the Observatory Against Islamophobia. "Firstly, we must end the arguments over the burkini, which make no sense."
He told reporters that some people wanted to use burkinis to stigmatize Muslims, while politicians looking to France 2017 presidential race seized the issue "for vote-catching reasons."
He also contended that humiliating Muslims "has facilitated the work of Daesh (Islamic State) recruiters" of vulnerable Muslim youth.
More French Muslims have joined the ranks of Islamic State militants than from other European nations – with at least 600 French citizens in Syria or Iraq, 160 killed, and 1,800 either considering or en route.
So far this year, France has expelled 15 foreigners considered a threat – six in August and more than 80 since 2012. Some 20 mosques or prayer rooms considered imbued with radicalism have been closed in recent months.
France is now looking to revive a foundation to promote an "Islam of France" that trains imams in the history of the nation and its secular values – and better tracks foreign influence on French Muslims.
"I think we're going to progress here in the next few weeks to build ... new institutions and new relationships between French Muslims and the government," Cazeneuve told the Associated Press.
Jeffrey Schaeffer in Paris contributed.