The French interior minister, Dominique de Villepin, said yesterday that the country must urgently begin training Muslim clerics in a moderate Islam that respects human rights and the republican code.
Addressing a meeting of local prefects a day after he deported an Algerian imam who was in favour of stoning women, Mr De Villepin said they should not think twice about expelling any foreign preacher who advocated violence, hatred, racism or human rights abuses.
But he said France had to “face the issue of training imams. I ask you to help the Muslim faith get organised better and more quickly so that a real ‘French Islam’ can emerge.”
The problem of radical Islamic clerics preaching a message contrary to French law and values is a pressing one: government figures show 27 Muslim prayer leaders have been deported on public order or human rights grounds since 2001 – more than half of them since last July.
Abdelkader Bouziane, the 52-year-old imam of a Lyon mosque, said in an interview that the Koran authorised husbands to hit their wives, that polygamy was right, that women were not men’s equals and that music was a sin.
Asked whether he approved of the stoning of unfaithful wives, he replied: “Yes.”
He was deported on Wednesday, a week after Abdelkader Yahia Cherif. The self-proclaimed imam of Brest in Brittany had asked his congregation to “rejoice in the Madrid bombings” that killed 191 people.
According to the interior ministry, France’s 5 million-strong Muslim community, Europe’s largest, is ministered to by between 1,000 and 1,500 imams. Only 10% of them are believed to be citizens, less than half speak French, and “probably a majority” are illegal immigrants.
Most hail from abroad – 40% from Morocco, 24% from Algeria, 16% from Turkey and 6% from Tunisia – where any advanced religious training they receive is increasingly likely to be in fundamentalist Islamist views that clash with secular French laws.
“The majority of imams preaching in France are self-taught or have had no formal religious education,” said Abdellah Boussouf, an imam from Strasbourg who is working on a training scheme to be run by France’s moderate National Muslim Council.
He said Muslim imams in France should have a modern education – ideally a university education in both social sciences and Koranic studies – as the best guarantee of the religion’s “harmonious future existence within a modern and secular western state”.
Dalil Boubakeur, chairman of the Muslim Council and rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, condemned the Lyon imam’s comments.
“Islam is not a religion that beats its women, kills its babies, and wants the west dead,” he said.
He acknowledged it was up to the Muslim community to take responsibility for training “homegrown” imams who were familiar with French life.
But he said little would be achieved without state aid – which could contravene France’s strict laws on the separation of church and state.
In the meantime, many experts warn that fundamentalist Islam is making increasing headway in France’s still overwhelmingly moderate Muslim community. A report by undercover police said 32 imams in the Paris region could now be considered radical.
One expert on Islam in France, Antoine Sfeir, said radical foreign imams often found an all too willing audience in France’s rundown immigrant suburbs. “The kids there already watch Arab stations on satellite TV, with their bloodthirsty slogans and anti-western propaganda,” he said. “They’ve already been totally radicalised.”