France’s interior minister has said the country is at war with an enemy trying to pit Muslims against non-Muslims.
Bernard Cazeneuve called for urgent action to create a strong bond between the nation and citizens of the Islamic faith in response.
He also said it was crucial to tailor the religion to the values of secular France, “a pillar of the republic.”
Cazeneuve spoke after a day-long conference with Muslim leaders, professionals and lawmakers to try to kick start a project aiming to bind Muslims to the nation, a task given new urgency after deep divisions surfaced over burkini bans in 30 French beach towns and after extremist attacks that also stigmatised Muslims.
A high court struck down the burkini bans on Friday, but the debate had already seeped into France’s political sphere revealing tensions between the secular establishment and sectors of France’s estimated five million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Cazeneuve, speaking to reporters, said a “strong and calm” relationship with Muslims is “urgent and particularly necessary.”
“France is at war with terrorists, at war with an enemy trying to divide it and pit the French against each other, fracture the nation’s body, sap the republic,” he said.
“We must not fall into this mortal trap.”
The July 14 attack on revellers in Nice, the killing of a priest in Normandy on July 26 and the killing of a police couple in their home in June — all claimed by ISIS — have focused tensions on Muslims.
A French prosecutor opened an investigation into suspected racial discrimination after two Muslim women said they were ordered out of a restaurant over the weekend with the owner heard saying on an iPhone video, “I don’t want people like you in my place. … Get out.”
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.
“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 stigmatise 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 (ISIS) recruiters” of vulnerable Muslim youth.
More French Muslims have joined the ranks of ISIS 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.