Muslims Recoil at a French Proposal to Change the Quran
Some of France’s most prominent figures, concerned about anti-Semitism, have signed a shocking manifesto aimed at curbing it.
KARINA PISER MAY 3, 2018 GLOBAL
A manifesto published in the French daily Le Parisien on April 21—signed by some 300 prominent intellectuals and politicians, including former President Nicolas Sarkozy and former Prime Minister Manuel Valls—made a shocking demand. Arguing that the Quran incites violence, it insisted that “the verses of the Quran calling for murder and punishment of Jews, Christians, and nonbelievers be struck to obsolescence by religious authorities,” so that “no believer can refer to a sacred text to commit a crime.”
Although it’s not entirely clear whether “struck to obsolescence” means wholesale deletion of verses, the manifesto was perceived as a call to abrogate Muslims’ holiest text. And although pushing for a theological reform of Islam in France is nothing new—everyone from leading imams to President Emmanuel Macron have made plans to restructure Islam—demanding that scriptural verses be deleted is another thing altogether. In Islam, the Quran is considered divinely revealed; because it’s deemed to be the word of God, altering or deleting any part of the text would be blasphemous.
The manifesto came a month after the grisly murder of Mireille Knoll, an octogenarian Holocaust survivor who was stabbed to death in her apartment in an act authorities are calling an anti-Semitic crime. Last year, Sarah Halimi, a 67-year-old, was beaten to death and thrown out of her window, in the same area where Knoll lived. Her attacker yelled “Allahu Akbar!” as he committed the act; Knoll’s reportedly did the same. It took judicial authorities nearly a year to label Halimi’s death an anti-Semitic crime.
France is home to the largest Jewish community in Europe. Since the early 2000s, French Jews have seen a rise in anti-Semitic acts, and although 2017 saw fewer overall incidents than 2016, those that did occur were more violent in nature. This wave of violence is part of what the manifesto’s signatories call a “new anti-Semitism”—new in that it is perpetrated not by the far right, but by French Muslims. The manifesto denounced what it characterized as the government and media’s refusals to recognize this “Muslim anti-Semitism.” It also labeled as “low-volume ethnic cleansing” the trends that have forced Jewish families to change neighborhoods, leaving suburbs, or banlieues, that are home to significant immigrant populations, and to pull their children from public schools.
The manifesto generated an immediate outcry among Muslims in France and beyond, with critics labeling its usage of the phrase “low-volume ethnic cleansing” hyperbolic and accusing it of homogenizing all Muslims. Days after the manifesto’s release, 30 imams signed a counter-letter in Le Monde. The Observatory for Islamophobia, an organization affiliated with the Egyptian government, described the manifesto as “hateful racism” that proves that “France is not a land that welcomes Islam.” The proposal to abrogate certain verses of the Quran was most controversial of all.
Tareq Oubrou, the prominent French imam who oversees the Grand Mosque of Bordeaux, called the characterization of the Quran “nearly blasphemous.” Viewing the scripture as anti-Semitic, he told me, is the falsified interpretation promoted by the very radicals France seeks to combat: “ignorant Muslims who remove texts from their historical context.” Furthermore, the notion that anti-Semitism is built into Islam is “theologically false,” he added. As monotheistic “People of the Book,” Jews and Christians enjoy a special status in Islamic law. Historically, they were considered protected dhimmi communities, which meant they were allowed to practice their own religions, although they were subject to a tax and various indignities that symbolized their subordination to Muslims.
Rather than calling for absolute violence, Oubrou said the Quran advocates for a “defensive combat, against aggressors, within a historical context.” For instance, one verse says, “Fight those who do not believe in Allah or in the Last Day and who do not consider unlawful what Allah and His Messenger have made unlawful and who do not adopt the religion of truth from those who were given the Scripture—[fight] until they give the jizya [tax] willingly while they are humbled.” The Quran, like many scriptures, is internally inconsistent on this and other matters. Oubrou argued that the problem is not religion itself—it’s that through radical, literalist interpretations of the Quran, “delinquents use the religion as a veneer for cheap crimes.” By demonizing the Quran as a text that contains anti-Semitism, he said, the manifesto casts a shadow on an entire religion, glossing over the role of interpretation and the other factors driving some young Muslims to develop hatred toward Jews.
That response didn’t sit well with the manifesto’s defenders. “The problem is that Islamists refer to the same texts as ordinary Muslims,” said signatory Pierre-André Taguieff, a research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research who has published extensively on anti-Semitism. Samy Ghozlan, a signatory who formerly served as police commissioner in the Paris banlieues and who founded a hotline for anti-Semitism, defended the manifesto’s willingness to “name the problem,” and its call for theological reform. “In Islam,” he said, “believers are instructed to respect the Quran—there’s no room for commentary.”
That’s not how many imams see it. “The text might be the same, but the way it’s understood varies, as is the case for any text,” Abdallah Dlioueh, the imam of Valence, told me. “The Quran doesn’t tell anyone to be racist or anti-Semitic—in fact it expresses deep respect for Jewish figures such as Moses. But a minority of Muslims fall into a misreading,” he went on. “By promoting one vision of those verses, the manifesto makes the same error as terrorists.”