This week the burkini ban that has been implemented in a few French towns has been making headlines, in particular after armed police officers made a Muslim woman remove part of her clothing on a beach in Nice. However, this is not the only policy that has been proposed recently by French authorities following a summer of jihadist terror.
On 28th July, French Prime Minister Manuel Valls stated that he was “open to the idea that – for a period yet to be determined – there should be no financing from abroad for the construction of mosques”. There are fears within the country that the influence of funding from foreign countries, such as Saudi Arabia, is radicalising French Muslims. According to the World News Journal, “between 100 and 150 new mosques are at various stages of planning and construction across France” since 2011, and “US government sources suspect that much of the funding is actually funneled from Saudi sources through difficult-to-track chains of bank accounts and person-to-person cash transfers”.
Tension has been growing around the sources of funding for mosques in France. For example, in Nice – where 84 people were killed in July by a Tunisian lorry driver – a Saudi-funded mosque finally opened this summer following a 15-year dispute. The construction of the mosque had been fiercely contested by former mayor Christian Estrosi who has accused the Saudi owner of “advocating sharia” and wanting to “destroy all of the churches on the Arabian peninsula”.
It would seem perfectly reasonable for any country to be concerned about the influence of Saudi Arabia on its Muslim population. For decades the kingdom has been spending billions of dollars in an attempt to spread its extremely conservative and intolerant ideology known as Wahhabism around the globe, resulting in the growth of extremist organisations worldwide. The strategy has included funding mosques and madrassas – particularly in Afghanistan and Pakistan – as well as providing training and textbooks.
These tactics have also been used in European countries. A major example is Kosovo. The small Balkan country of just 2 million inhabitants has seen more people per capita travel to Syria to fight for ISIS than any other European nation. Traditionally, Kosovan Muslims follow the Hanafi school of Islam, described here in the New York Times as a “liberal version that is accepting of other religions”. However, as that article explains, in the period following the bloody Balkan civil war, the Saudis arrived offering millions of dollars in aid. This money was used to build new mosques, train Kosovan imams in Saudi Arabia and disseminate Wahhabi literature, sowing the seeds of intolerance and political Islam within the local Muslim community.
Belgium is another country that has seen parts of its previously moderate Muslim community gradually radicalised by external forces. In the 1960s, the then-king of Belgium actually gifted the land and building that currently houses the Great Mosque of Brussels to the Saudi king Faisal in return for oil contracts. The ultra-conservative Wahhabi ideology imported to Belgium from Saudi Arabia conflicts with the more tolerant version of Islam adhered to by immigrants who arrived from places like Morocco and Turkey in the 1960s and 70s. In combination with poor social conditions like those in the infamous neighbourhood of Molenbeek, the spread of Wahhabism has led to a small minority of residents being especially susceptible to radicalisation by groups like ISIS.
One European country has already banned foreign funding for the construction and running of mosques. In 2015, Austria passed its updated “law on Islam”, which the Austrian government believes should be a model for the rest of Europe. In addition to banning the external funding of mosques, the law also requires imams to speak German. However, the government attempted to strike a balance by strengthening protections for Austrian Muslims, allowing Muslims to take time off work to observe their holidays and extending other rights relating to Islamic graveyards and pastoral care in hospitals.
The Austrian law is both a reaction to the growing number of Austrian Muslims leaving to join jihadist movements abroad and an attempt to counter the influence of rivals Turkey and Saudi Arabia who have been competing to lead the Muslim community in Austria for decades. “What we want is to reduce the political influence and control from abroad and we want to give Islam the chance to develop freely within our society and in line with our common European values” says Foreign Minister, Sebastian Kurz.
There are, however, potential problems with the Austrian ban on foreign funding. Firstly, the ban may alienate Muslims as it only applies to them and not to other religious groups. Secondly, limiting funding might mean that moderate mosques are unable to survive or have to turn to illegal sources of funding, possibly pushing them towards more radical sources of financing.
This is an issue that France will also have to deal with if it goes down this path. Being a deeply secular state, it cannot intervene to provide funding for religious institutions. To get around this, the creation of a new foundation to provide “total transparency” of funding is being discussed. The idea would be to finance French mosques with fees from the halal food sector. It seems doubtful, though, that this would be enough to cover the costs of running the country’s mosques.
One critic, Senator Nathalie Goulet, has denounced the plans to forbid foreign funding, describing the idea of the ban as “absurd and impossible”. She claims that the proposals are “based on the assumption that radicalisation takes place inside mosques, which is not true”. In her opinion, the best solution is to make funding transparent by ensuring they are transferred via a dedicated foundation.
It’s true that mosques are not the only place where radicalisation takes place. For example, France’s prisons have been described as “factories for radical Islamists”. Meanwhile, the success of radical groups recruiting online is a major concern. As a Jordanian intelligence official says, “Even if I shut down every mosque, every person who supported ISIS in Jordan, there would still be YouTube videos recruiting young men with gun fights that look like they came out of a Hollywood movie. There would still be Twitter where men tweet about how they are living in paradise with three wives and a house, and there would still be WhatsApp and Telegram and every other network for them to communicate personally with whoever they want”. Remarkably, ISIS has even used dating sites for recruitment purposes.
Without addressing these issues, as well as the underlying social and economic conditions that leave previously tolerant European Muslims susceptible to radicalisation, a ban on the foreign funding of mosques may prove an ineffective way to combat extremism. A blanket ban would eliminate funding from moderate sources and could potentially result in the further alienation of the local Muslim population if the ban is only applied to them and not to other religious groups.
Like the burkini ban, the elimination of foreign funds for mosques may be driven by a desire to be seen to be doing something, even if that something is ultimately counter-productive. A more successful strategy might be to build relationships with Muslim organisations, cooperate in identifying extremism and, as has already been happening in France, shutting down mosques where radical ideologies are being preached.