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France’s dealings with Islamists should set an example

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In July 2021, the imam Mmadi Ahamada preached in a mosque near Lyon how women should behave. They should obey their husbands and observe Islamic prohibitions on their sex. Ahamada quoted from Surah 33 of the Koran: “Stay in your houses and do not flaunt yourself like women did in pre-Islamic times.”

The French interior minister saw this as a violation of the equal rights of women and men enshrined in the French constitution and ordered the imam’s deportation, which was confirmed by a court. A month ago, Ahamada was deported to the Comoros with his wife. Upon arriving in his native country, he said he had no regrets, having merely quoted the religious scriptures.

In France, there has been a sometimes heated debate about religious extremism and possible government responses for years. Even before the attacks in 2015, imams were deported because of hate speech, after the attacks further measures were considered.

The then President François Hollande agreed on a tolerance training program for French imams with a Moroccan theological training institute. Ahamada also claims to have completed this program. Apparently, this has not led him to any insight regarding human rights for women.

The question of where tolerance ends was answered by current French President Emmanuel Macron in a lengthy speech in October 2020. Any attempts to undermine the French constitution should be viewed as socially divisive separatism and prosecuted by the state, especially any violation of equal rights.

Although Macron’s speech was against any form of extremism, the examples of violations of equality came mainly from the Islamist realm: the refusal of conductors to take “indecently” dressed women on public transport, calls for gender segregation in swimming pools, the refusal to allow children on the mixed physical education classes, mothers in niqabs taking their children to private religious instruction instead of school, and seven-year-old girls who are already being fully veiled.

The speech prepared a law that would allow action against separatism. Despite protests, the Law “Reaffirming the Principles of the Republic” was passed in August 2021. Since then, for example, it has been a punishable offense to carry out virginity tests. Medical staff who still carry out such tests face a fine of 15,000 euros and a year in prison.

Critics complain that a virginity test against the will of the woman concerned could have been punished beforehand. So the law is superfluous. This critique ignores the fundamental problem in countering initially nonviolent extremism. As long as those affected can be pressured to “voluntarily” undergo such procedures, there is little to protect women.

Because Islamists use social pressure to the point of threats that are difficult to prove in order to isolate entire communities from mainstream society. This pressure hits girls and women in particular who “voluntarily” wear a veil, let their parents marry them off or “voluntarily” only “stay in their homes”.

The law is a reaction to the realization that certain groups are using state-guaranteed freedoms to deprive others of that freedom. And a lesson for neighboring countries to take action against the disenfranchisement of women with a migration background, instead of allowing extremists power until only drastic sanctions can help.

Rebecca Schönenbach is an economist, specialist in Islamism and board member of Women for Freedom. She advises international companies and authorities on measures to counter extremism. The column appears every 14 days.