In researching an article on what lay behind government plans to develop France as a European hub for Islamic finance, I was struck by the uneasy atmosphere surrounding the subject. On the one hand, the government sees it as a way to attract Middle Eastern money and wants to push the idea. But on the other, there is a clear sense of apprehension over how Islamic finance would fit into French society, where the policy of laïcité – the strict separation of church and state — tries to keep anything religious out of the public sphere as much as possible. (Photo: Eiffel Tower in Paris, 20 Nov 2007/Mal Langsdon)
The bankers, lawyers, government officials and Islamic finance specialists trying to get Islamic finance off the ground in France speak publicly about the bright prospects they see for the market. France has the biggest Muslim population in Europe at over five million. The government is pushing the idea hard. There is a huge need for financing of future projects.
But privately, many admit that French companies and banks may hesitate to do anything that uses the label Islamic as this could highlight sensitivities over social and cultural divides. Ever since the French Revolution, France has upheld the idea that its people are all individual and equal citizens and not members of regional, ethnic or religious minorities. Stressing membership in a sub-group is considered divisive. The French frequently point to the multicultural approach taken in Britain and the United States as the source of political and social problems — such as ethnic or religious “ghettoisation” and “identity politics” — that they want to avoid.
Given this outlook, some French fear the Muslim community here is seeking to nurture its own identity in a way that sets them apart from ordinary French citizens and undermines the unity of the nation. The way in which Muslims openly speak about religion, rather than keeping their faith to themselves, looks to these French as a challenge to the principle of laïcité. (Photo: Employee at an Islamic bank in Malaysia, 13 Jan 2009/Bazuki Muhammad)
Not every charge of laïcité violation is necessarily valid. As one analyst put it: “You can see in so many papers that Islamic finance is a threat to laïcité , which is a complete nonsense. It proves that the people who write about this know nothing about Islamic finance. It has nothing to do with religion. It is making financial transactions according to a set of rules … these rules are ethical because they are Islamic.”