A studious quiet pervades the cool, intricately tiled courtyards of the Mosque of Paris in the heart of the Latin Quarter. Its rector, the portly and dignified physician Dalil Boubakeur, considers himself the avatar of Islam à la française, despite receiving official funding from his native Algeria. Before him his father, Hamza, was rector for 25 years in this edifice inspired by the Alhambra, completed in 1926 to honor the 25,000 Muslim North African soldiers who died for la patrie in World War I, many of them holding off the German siege of Verdun.
Now it is Boubakeur who feels besieged "like Rome by the barbarians," as he puts it by a more fundamentalist strain of Islam. The insurgents' camp is at the far reaches of the metropolis, amid the industrial detritus and soulless housing projects of La Courneuve, north of Paris. In an unmarked boxlike building there, above an expansive prayer hall with industrial carpeting, the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) has its modest offices. Its congenial president, Lhaj Thami Brèze, acknowledges that his organization is thought to be close to the Muslim Brotherhood (some parts of which have used terrorism) and that it gets some funds from "benevolent associations" in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf. But he insists that UOIF imams embrace "a moderate reading" of the Koran and are faithful to the principles of the French Republic. "We're the new generation of French Islam," says the Moroccan-born political scientist. "Boubakeur doesn't defend Islam here; we do."
This week those conflicting currents along with a few others will somehow flow together at the inaugural meeting of the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM, in its French acronym) at UNESCO headquarters in Paris. Members are striving for a dignified launch. After all, France's estimated 5 million Muslims, who make up the country's second-largest religion after Catholicism, have waited some 20 years to be accorded an official body like those that serve majority Catholics as well as Jews and Protestants. But after a genesis fraught with controversy, the council could present as many problems as it solves. "Everybody wants to make it look like it's working," says Fouad Imarraine, 39, spokesman of the Collective of Muslims of France, an advocacy group. "But for me the big question is, Who is going to quit first?"
Previous governments laid the groundwork for the CFCM, but its birth was finally midwifed by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Elections for representatives from 995 of France's mosques and prayer-houses, held in April, were put off three times since 2001 at the request of Boubakeur, who feared what eventually emerged: a clear victory for representatives of the UOIF and the Moroccan-controlled National Federation of the Muslims of France (FNMF ). While the exact outcome of the elections is still contested the UOIF says it got the most seats, challenging official results that put the FNMF ahead Boubakeur and his supporters were roundly defeated, earning just six of 41 places on the board. Under an agreement reached last year, Boubakeur becomes the president anyway, but he could find it tough sledding. His ally in Marseilles, the mufti Soheib Bencheikh, has already threatened to resign, saying the new body "is legitimizing obscurantist currents." And Boubakeur himself talks of his post more as a grim obligation than a singular honor. "It's my civic duty to stay," he says. "We can't leave place for the others."
Sarkozy has vowed that anyone who advocates positions "contrary to the values of the Republic" will be thrown off the CFCM. Brèze doesn't feel the least bit intimidated. "We want to transmit a message of cooperation with the state," he says. "We compel our imams to preach in French on Fridays; we want to see women play a role in all spheres of life. We want girls who want to wear the veil to be able to do so without worrying about the consequences." Brèze, whose own teenage daughter is veiled "by her own choice," says that if the government were to propose a law banning the veil altogether in public schools, he would fight against it, but if it were passed his people would honor it. The consequence, though, would be "an open door to private Muslim schools and that would happen with foreign money."
His moderate tone doesn't convince everyone. "The UOIF has endless money, great numbers of the faithful on their side, and they have time," says Malek Chebel, a prominent Muslim anthropologist and psychoanalyst in Paris. "Boubakeur will have to give them everything they want." His concern is that in chipping away at the line between the private sphere of religion and the public sphere of politics, the UOIF will end up scaring French voters into the arms of the radical right. Boubakeur has similar fears. "The fundamentalists are working toward a shock, one that is dangerous for the equilibrium of the state," he says. For Brèze, such apocalyptic visions amount to "a complex held by people who are still colonized in their heads." He says a Euro-Islam that amounts to quiet assimilation and self-denial "opens the door to extremists" by acquiescing to restrictions at which people are bound to chafe.
Sarkozy and the French government are trying to run that gauntlet by giving more fundamentalist Muslims a place at the table while insisting that not everything is negotiable. Sarkozy used a speech before more than 10,000 Muslims at an UOIF convention on April 20 to vow that women must remove their veils for the photographs on their French identity cards. He reaped jeers and whistles, of course, but Hakim El Ghissassi, editor of La Médina, a French-language Muslim monthly, says that was the point. "The UOIF gave him a chance to show his courage, and he took it," he says. While his statement may have put him in bad odor with some Muslims, it was meant to send a reassuring signal to the rest of France that he will vigilantly defend a secular Republic. Sarkozy and the government can claim credit for shepherding the CFCM into existence. But given their differences, France's Muslim leaders will have trouble making the council work as well for their people as it has, so far, for Sarkozy.
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