PARIS – The cement skeleton of the unfinished Eyyub Sultan Mosque in the city of Strasbourg in eastern France has become the repository for a myriad of grievances, ranging from local partisan feuds to long-standing friction between the Islam and the resolutely secular secular belief of this country.
The grievances also reflect growing fears within the European Union about Turkey’s growing international influence.
Expressing concern about foreign and specifically Turkish interference, a senior French official this week launched legal proceedings against a decision by the left-wing Strasbourg government to subsidize the construction of the mosque, designed to be the largest in Europe.
The move coincided with a rare visit by EU leaders to Ankara, where efforts to correct long-standing differences were overshadowed by a row over seats.
Analysts say the EU’s dependence on Turkey as a bulwark against another massive influx of refugees underlies both of these issues, a reality that underlies a multibillion-dollar deal. with Turkey in 2016, which limits the block’s muscle flexing options today.
EU countries need Turkey if Turkey opens its borders, what will happen? Asked Muslim scholar Erkan Toguslu, professor at KU Leuven University, even as he warned of Ankara’s growing influence in the region, which was spreading through his nationalist brand of Islam.
This warning seems to resonate with French President Emmanuel Macron. He has built up a particularly bitter and personal feud with his Turkish counterpart, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, arguing over issues ranging from conflicts in Libya and Syria to Turkey’s exploration for oil and gas in eastern China. Mediterranean.
More recently, Macron’s accent has shifted closer to home. He warned Ankara last month against meddling in France’s presidential elections next year, and his government is targeting Turkish groups he considers suspicious.
Foreign interference or partisan politics?
Last year, for example, France decided to ban a Turkish ultranationalist group called Gray Wolves, after its members were accused of degrading an Armenian genocide memorial near Lyon. Other European countries, including Germany, are considering similar measures.
French lawmakers are also debating anti-extremism legislation, which would ban foreign funding of religious groups. Among those potentially in his sights: the Turkish association Milli Gorus, main funder of the mosque of Strasbourg.
In an interview with French radio on Tuesday, Macron’s intransigent Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin threatened to dissolve Milli Gorus and others he deemed “enemies of the Republic”, noting the refusal of the Turkish association to sign a new government charter against extremism.
Darmanin also targeted the mayoress of the Greens of Strasbourg, Jeanne Barseghian, finding it unfortunate that she supported the funding of nearly $ 3 million for the mosque, or about a tenth of the total cost, “given what we know about political Islam and sometimes foreign interference on our soil. “
Berseghian rejected Darmanin’s suggestions. Another prominent Green Party mayor said he was outraged by Macron’s suggestion of Turkish interference. Strasbourg city council has yet to vote to release construction funds, a decision that could be jeopardized by the new legal proceedings launched against the funding.
Milli Gorus officials did not respond to a request for comment. But in a recent statement, the group denied being fundamentalist and described itself as a resolutely French association “which has always acted in full transparency, with respect for the values of the republic”. The Strasbourg mosque, with a total price of around $ 38 million, has been under construction for several years, but was shut down for lack of funding.
For some analysts, the dispute over mosque funding and Macron’s warning of possible foreign electoral interference may primarily target French voters, as critics point to the president’s turn to the right ahead of next year’s vote. .
“That Mr. Erdogan supports Islamist fundamentalism today and acts as the enemy of French security today is certain,” Marine Le Pen, far-right leader and main opposition candidate, said at the Anglo-American Press Association in a recent interview. “But does it have the capacity to interfere with the (French) elections? No more than any other influential country within its own diaspora.”
Yet the controversy hollows out long-standing fears about the role of Islam in France, home to Western Europe’s largest Muslim community and battered by a series of terrorist attacks, as well as new concerns about the influence. from Turkey here.
“Strasbourg’s green mayor subsidizes political Islam,” the right-wing magazine Valeurs Actuelle recently headlined. “Collaboration or submission?”
“Should we be afraid of Turkish Islam?” The French newspaper La Croix asks in an analysis of the evolution of the controversy.
The Turkish government wants to use this (Strasbourg) mosque and Milli Gorus as a kind of soft power, “said Erkan Toguslu of KU Leuven University, describing Ankara’s goal as nationalist rather than religious.” He uses Turkish mosques, Turkish associations and the Turkish diaspora. in Europe for its own policy, not to defend Muslim interests. “
The dilemma of foreign funding for local mosques is old in France, where many local Muslim communities are too poor to fund construction, and a 1905 law separating church and state prevents public funding of places of worship. The Strasbourg Mosque does not fall under these restrictions as the larger region of Alsace where it is located has a different set of rules.
Past funding issues and fears of foreign influence have often focused on countries in North Africa or the Middle East with large ethnic populations in France, and less on Turkey. The roughly 700,000 Muslims of Turkish descent here represent a fraction of the nearly 6 million members of the French Muslim community, and its geographically diverse factions are often at odds with one another. Like several other countries, Turkey is also sponsoring imams in France, thus making up for the shortage of locally-sourced imams.
Additionally, the Turkish religious community here is fragmented, experts say. Milli Gorus is one of several Muslim groups in France, including those who strongly criticize the Erdogan government.
Yet, according to observers, the French Turkish community is increasingly influential and ambitious. Last year, its representatives won the majority of seats on the French Council for Muslim Worship, the main representative body, for the first time since its creation in 2003.
“The threat is not about religion,” analyst Toguslu said. “The threat concerns nationalism. Turkish nationalism.”
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