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France: European Commission urged to investigate Paris over 'imam charter'

Civil society groups say a number of French laws disproportionally discriminate against Muslims, violating their fundamental human rights
French President Emmanuel Macron wears a mask after delivering a speech in October 2020 (AFP)

A coalition of civil society organisations on Monday urged European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to investigate France at the European Court of Justice over its controversial “imam charter”, saying that it violates Muslims’ right to free speech and religious freedoms.

Twenty-five NGO groups in 11 countries - including Australia, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands and Switzerland - called on von der Leyen to take “immediate action against France for its state-sponsored Islamophobia, and for imposing the discriminatory and human rights-violating imam charter”.

In January, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) adopted the imam charter, which sets out a framework for Muslim faith leaders to be certified as compliant with an “Islam of France”, at the behest of France’s President Emmanuel Macron.

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The charter had garnered increasing criticism for censoring free speech in Muslim communities and demanding them to show “loyalty to republican values”. A clause in a draft of the charter published in mid-December on French news site Mediapart stated that imams must acknowledge that there is no such thing as “state racism” in France.

Janina Rashidi of the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland said that the request to von der Leyen aimed to highlight measures taken by the French state against its Muslim citizens.

"It is time to recognise that Islamophobia is not only a widespread phenomenon in right-wing circles, but has arrived in the mainstream of society,” Rashidi said in a statement.

“Instead of the state taking countermeasures and preserving social unity, the case of France exemplifies how state actors institutionalise and ultimately legitimise this Islamophobia through their rhetoric and discriminatory measures violating basic human rights. This has to stop."

'Clear violation of basic rights'

In January, a group of 36 organisations wrote to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) to request that it open formal infringement procedures against France’s government for "entrenching" Islamophobia and structural discrimination against Muslims.

The organisations said that the imam charter showed a “clear violation of a number of basic rights that are protected in legislation that is ratified by Paris”.

Monday's letter to von der Leyen said that France has issued several laws to “limit freedom of belief and punish the manifestation of religion" in Muslim communities.

The signatories said that France has no “effective remedy” within its legal system to tackle and address the issue of Islamophobia and violations of Muslim rights.

“Thus the European Commission president must intervene to not allow a precedent to be set which will pose long-term damage to not only Muslims but other communities in France,” they said.

While France does not conduct national censuses on race or religion, the US’s Pew Research Center estimated in 2016 that some 5.7 million Muslims live in France, or 8.8 percent of the population, making France the European country with the largest Muslim community.

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