France and Algeria have signed an agreement that would see French universities provide non-religious social schooling to visiting Algerian imams, in an effort by the French government to prevent the spread of radicalized Islamist views and uphold French secular traditions.
The treaty, which was signed by French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve and Algerian religious affairs minister Mohamed Aïssa in the Algerian capital of Algiers, will oversee the training Algerian imams heading to France to preach for a few years, before returning to their home country.
At a press conference Thursday, Cazeneuve said that the agreement will ensure imams are trained "in line with the requirements of the [French] Republic, which are in place to protect from the subversion and debasement [of Islam]."
France is home to about five million Muslims — Europe's largest Muslim population — and concern is growing in the country over the number of nationals leaving to join Islamist militants in Syria and Iraq. August figures released by The Economist showed that France has produced more jihadists than any other European nation.
France has a storied history with visiting Algerian imams. According to the AFP, around 100 Algerian imams in France are affiliated with the Grand Mosque of Paris, which was built by the French in 1926 as a token of gratitude for the Muslim soldiers who lost their lives fighting for France in WWI. Initially sponsored by Morocco, the mosque was reassigned to Algeria in 1957.
The new curriculum will be coordinated by the Al-Ghazzali imam institute, which is affiliated to the Grand Mosque, but will be carried out by a dozen French universities around the country.
In a September interview with Algerian news site TSA, Aïssa announced plans to reform the theological training of imams, and maintained that Algerian mosques were "immune" to extremist ideologies.
The fight against radical Islam has pervaded Algerian politics and society for decades. In December 1991, the National Liberation Front party cancelled elections that were widely predicted would be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Amid concerns that the FIS would form an Islamic State if they took the ballot, the country's military effectively seized the government, setting off a bloody civil war, which pitted the Algerian army against various Islamist rebel groups.
Franck Fregosi, a political science professor and Islamic studies expert at the institute of Aix-en-Provence, told VICE News that the "majority of [Islamic] religious leaders in France have trained in Algeria, Morocco, or Turkey."
Fregosi said he believes the French government is trying to put pressure on these countries to train imams in a way that better reflects French societal norms.
"France is trying to make the Algerian government aware of the fact that imams need to undergo specific training for their time in France, which has a strong secular tradition," says Fregosi. "The French government wants to make sure that imams are properly equipped, and that they preach a form of Islam, which is adapted to the multicultural society in which they now live."
Fregosi added that imams may in the future be required to receive further training in areas like French law and sociology, before they are officially recognized by the State.
According to Fregosi, the recent treaty is part of a broader government strategy to establish a framework for Islamic preaching in France. In October 2013, Manuel Valls, then the interior minister of France, attended the graduation ceremony of the first class of Muslim leaders trained at universities in Lyon, in central-east France. During the ceremony, the imams were presented with diplomas validating their knowledge on secularism, and Valls called for the formation of an "Islam of France."
After Thursday's signing, French interior minister Cazeneuve took the opportunity to reiterate France's position on terrorism and Islam, declaring that, "abject and barbarian terrorist attacks have nothing to do with the Muslim religion."
When contacted by VICE News, Algerian authorities said they were unable to comment at this time.
News of the agreement comes a few days after Cazeneuve revealed the number of French nationals that have joined or are planning to join the Islamic State (1,200) had doubled within a year.
But Fregosi says there is no proven link between radicalization and mosque attendance.
"More often than not, radicalization happens outside of the mosques in online forums and through parallel networks," he said. "There is a tremendous mistrust of radicalization among the [Muslim] community itself."
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Image of Grand Mosque in Paris via Flickr.