French Prime Minister Manuel Valls on Tuesday announced that the state would finance double the number of university courses on Islam in a bid to stop the influence of foreign funding of training of French imams.
In a speech in the eastern French city of Strasbourg, Valls said that improving home-grown Islamic education was essential to defeating the ignorance that makes “Islamist extremism and the far right feed off each other”.
His speech follows January’s Charlie Hebdo terrorist attacks and comes amid concern about the influence of radical foreign imams on Muslims in France, which has Western Europe’s biggest Muslim community.
The Socialist government is also worried about the increasing popularity of the anti-immigration and anti-Europe National Front party, which is coming top of the polls ahead of regional elections due to take place later this month.
“The rise of far-right populist politics, in Europe as well as in our own country, feeds directly off the rise of jihadism, terrorism and radical extremism,” he said. “It is a situation that puts our democracy, our society and our capacity to live together in extreme jeopardy.”
Valls said he wanted more imams and other religious figures, such as prison chaplains, who have been trained abroad to “undergo more training in France, to speak French fluently and to understand the concept of secularism” that is a core pillar of French Republican values.
There are currently six universities in France offering courses in Islamic studies and theology. Valls said he wanted to double that number to 12 and that the courses would be free.
“The only response to the dangers that we face is the French Republic,” Valls said. “This means the acceptance of the secular state, improving education, universities, understanding and intelligence.”
“But there will be no laws, decrees or government directives to define what Islam means,” Valls said. “The French state will never attempt to take control of a religion.”