The French dispute over the mosque is not simply about state funding, it is deeply rooted in French Islamophobia and secularism.

The French dispute over the mosque is not simply about state funding, it is deeply rooted in French Islamophobia and secularism.

A man prays inside the Rennes Islamic center, which was subjected to racist graffiti two days ahead of the holy month of Ramadan.
Jean-Francois Monier/AFP via Getty Images Construction of what is slated to be the largest mosque in Europe – and especially the state’s role in its financing – has sparked controversy for many reasons. French Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin has condemned Strasbourg’s decision, citing the potential of “foreign meddling.” His concerns relate to the future mosque’s leadership – the French branch of the Turkish-based Milli Görüs Islamic Confederation, an Islamic political organization for the Turkish diaspora across Europe.

The vote and its backlash also come on the heels of a series of measures imposed in France under the guise of reinforcing secularism and stamping out radicalization – ones that critics say unfairly target the country’s Muslim population and contribute to a climate of Islamophobia. This includes the French Republican principles bill that was passed by the French Senate on April 12, 2021, with stricter regulations on Muslim dress and prayer locations added to the text. One contributing factor to the controversy over the Strasbourg mosque is the confusion over French laws restricting the funding of places of worship.

Funding religious buildings Notably, laws about the separation of church and state, or “laïcité laws,” do not apply equally to all French territories.

My research surrounding the politics of religion, secularism, Islam and pluralism in France over the past 10 years suggests that it is most likely a mix of all of these factors. So where does the Strasbourg mosque controversy fit into all this? Is it motivated by geopolitical concerns and fears of an Islamist threat? Does it merely reflect confusion over state funding for religion in France? Or is it simply an extension of broader debates over how Islam fits into French secularism?

As such, officials in Strasbourg are well within their rights to finance the mosque or any other house of worship, so long as they adhere to local laws that limit funding to 10% of construction costs. In 1905, when church and state were officially separated, certain territories were exempted, such as Guyane, where the Catholic Church remains the only recognized religion. At that time, the now-French region of Alsace-Moselle – in which Strasbourg is situated – was part of Germany. When France recovered the territory in 1918, the region negotiated an exception to the 1905 law, instead choosing to remain under the Concordat of 1802, which officially recognizes certain religions – though not Islam – and allows for direct state subsidizing of places of worship.

Geopolitical fears In a 2021 poll by the French Institute of Opinion and Marketing Studies (IFOP), more than two-thirds of respondents said they opposed all public funding of religious buildings or ministries. That number rises to nearly 79% when it comes to Islamic centers. Specifically, 85% of the overall French population said they oppose state funding for the Strasbourg mosque, with 79% of Alsace-Moselle residents against the move. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean the move is popular.

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