PARIS – In a bid to improve dialogue with the Muslim community, the French government has hosted a conference to show that Islam is a part of the French society and build ties with the country’s second largest religious group.
“Islam still provokes misunderstandings, prejudices, and is rejected by some citizens,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said during the meeting, Agence France Presse (AFP) reported on Tuesday, June 16.
“Yet Islam is here to stay in France. It’s the second largest religious group in our country.”
Valls was speaking during the half-day gathering held on Monday, June 15, at the interior ministry which was attended by about 120 Muslim community leaders and top government officials.
Making his opening speech at Monday’s conference, which was the first of a series of meetings between the government and Muslim leaders, the PM stressed that there was no link between extremism and Islam.
“We must say all of this is not Islam,” said Valls.
“The hate speech, anti-Semitism that hides behind anti-Zionism and hate for Israel… the self-proclaimed imams in our neighborhoods and our prisons who are promoting violence and terrorism.”
The conference comes at tense time for the country’s six million Muslims who have been facing increasing hatred since Paris attacks last January.
The National Observatory Against Islamophobia said over 100 incidents have been reported to the police since the Charlie Hebdo attacks of January 7-9.
The observatory also noted that more than 222 separate acts of anti-Muslim behavior were recorded in the first month after the January attacks.
In April, the National Observatory Against Islamophobia warned of an unprecedented increase in Islamophobic attacks in France during the first three months of 2015, rising by six-fold than in 2014.
Islamophobic actions soared by 500% compared to the same period in 2011, according to the observatory.
“Time to act”
Citing frequent calls by far-right French leaders to curb the activities of Europe’s largest Muslims community, Muslim leaders called on the government to act against these trends.
“Today the situation calls for renewed attention from public powers. This forum is an opportunity for us to express our discomfort with being lumped together” with Islamists, said Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Muslim Council (CFCM), AFP reported.
“Those responsible for jihadist attacks “belong to a different world than we do”, he added.
On his part, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve reassured the French Muslims about their safety, vowing to maintain mosques security protection.
“I want to provide you with my total commitment to protect your places of worship as long as threats exist,” said Cazeneuve.
For the time being, about 40% of France’s mosques are under some type of police protection.
Meanwhile, the Interior Minister estimated Islamophobic attacks at a larger number, noting that many victims choose not to report assaults.
He claimed that not reporting attacks result in underestimating the anti-Muslim violence in general in the country.
“I would like us to fight together against this feeling of resignation,” he said.
“Victims must report the acts and threats to which they are subjected.”
The conference came two weeks after a meeting held by France’s main opposition Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party was boycotted by Muslim groups in the country that deemed it as a part of a campaign to “stigmatize” their faith.
France is home to a Muslim community of nearly six million, the largest in Europe.
French Muslims have been complaining of restrictions on performing their religious practices.
Last May, a French mayor, who claimed that Islam will be banned from the country by 2027, was expelled from France’s main opposition conservative party after rightists rejected his calls as “unacceptable”.