PARIS (AP) — France's interior minister said Monday that the country is at war with an enemy trying to pit Muslims against non-Muslims, making it urgent to create a strong bond between the nation and citizens of the Islamic faith.
Bernard Cazeneuve also said it was crucial to tailor the religion to the values of secular France, "a pillar of the republic."
He spoke after a day-long conference with Muslim leaders, professionals and some lawmakers to try to mount a project meant to bind Muslims to the nation, a task given new urgency after deep divisions surfaced over burkini bans in 30 French beach towns and after extremist attacks that also stigmatized Muslims.
A high court struck down the burkini bans Friday, but the high-pitched debate that quickly seeped into France's political sphere revealed raw tensions between the secular establishment and sectors of France's estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest Muslim population in Western Europe.
Cazeneuve, speaking to reporters, said a "strong and calm" relationship with Muslims is "urgent and particularly necessary."
"France is at war with terrorists, at war with an enemy trying to divide it and pit the French against each other, fracture the nation's body, sap the republic," Cazeneuve said.
"We must not fall into this mortal trap."
The July 14 attack on revelers in Nice, the killing of a priest in Normandy on July 26 and the June killing of a police couple in their home — all claimed by the Islamic State group — have focused tensions on Muslims.
A French prosecutor opened an investigation into suspected racial discrimination after two Muslim women said they were ordered out of a restaurant over the weekend with the owner heard saying on an iPhone video, "I don't want people like you in my place. ... Get out."
Cazeneuve warned in an interview with France's Roman Catholic newspaper La Croix that if the political class cannot unite all French "the dynamics of division may prove dangerous." However, he ruled out on Monday drafting a national law banning burkinis.
The daylong conference is the latest step in creating an "Islam of France" that respects French secular values. Muslims must be "committed to a total defense of the Republic in the face of terrorism, in the face of Salafism," Cazeneuve told the paper, adding French values must "transcend all others."
In France, the interior minister's responsibilities include maintaining good relations with religious denominations.
Authorities plan to create a Foundation of Islam of France and an association working with it to train imams in the history of the nation and its secular values — and better track foreign influence on French Muslims, and ultimately try to keep it at bay. Doing away with foreign financing is tricky because France by law cannot directly fund houses of worship, nor can it provide theology courses for imams.
The goal is to formally launch the foundation and association by year's end or early next year, an official, not authorized to speak publicly on the issue, said on condition of anonymity. Courses on Islamology are also to be offered to French to acquaint them with the religion.
"What is at stake is very important," said Abdallah Zekri, who heads the Observatory Against Islamophobia. "Firstly, we must end the arguments over the burkini, which make no sense."
He told reporters that some people wanted to use burkinis to stigmatize Muslims, while politicians looking to France 2017 presidential race seized the issue "for vote-catching reasons."
He also contended that humiliating Muslims "has facilitated the work of Daesh (Islamic State) recruiters" of vulnerable Muslim youth.
More French Muslims have joined the ranks of IS militants than from other European nations — with at least 600 French citizens in Syria or Iraq, 160 killed and 1,800 either considering or en route.
Cazeneuve listed some security measures to counter the encroachment of extremists: so far this year, France has expelled 15 foreigners considered a threat — six in August and more than 80 since 2012. Some 20 mosques or prayer rooms considered imbued with radicalism have been closed in recent months.
Jeffrey Schaeffer and Sylvie Corbet contributed to this report.