PARIS: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stressed on Monday there was no link between extremism and Islam, as he opened a conference aimed at improving ties with France’s large Muslim community.
“We must say all of this is not Islam,” said Valls. “The hate speech, anti-Semitism that hides behind anti-Zionism and hate for Israel… the self-proclaimed imams in our neighbourhoods and our prisons who are promoting violence and terrorism.”
Five months after the jihadist attacks in Paris that killed 17 people and shocked the world, the government plans to hold a series of meetings with top officials from the roughly five million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe.
The first forum — expected to be attended by between 120-150 Muslim community leaders as well as top government officials and ministers — will debate security at religious sites, the image of Islam in the media and the building of new mosques.
There are some 2,500 mosques in France, with another 300 projects underway, but creating new Muslim places of worship has sometimes prompted fierce opposition from local residents.
In one case, the mayor of the Parisian suburb Mantes-la-Ville, who belongs to France’s far-right National Front party, has repeatedly tried to halt a project to turn a city-owned site into a mosque.
The president of a leading French Muslim organisation told the forum it was time for the government to act. France has seen a spike in reports of anti-Muslim acts since the Islamist attacks in January.
“Today the situation calls for renewed attention from public powers. This forum is an opportunity for us to express our discomfort with being lumped together” with Islamists, said Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM).
Those responsible for jihadist attacks “belong to a different world than we do”, he added.
Radicalisation, however, is not on the agenda for the half-day gathering at France’s interior ministry, which said putting it on the table would be “a bad message to the French and to the Muslim community.”
The gathering is a tricky exercise for the government because it is seeking an improved dialogue with the Muslim community while trying to avoid looking like it is singling it out.
When former French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s right-wing opposition party held an internal meeting earlier this month on the “question of Islam” in France, it drew criticism from Muslim groups and some members of the party for “stigmatising” the religion.
Valls aimed to strike a different note, telling the forum that Islam is part of French society.
“Islam still provokes misunderstandings, prejudices, and is rejected by some citizens,” the prime minister said.
“Yet Islam is here to stay in France. It’s the second largest religious group in our country.”