AFP, Dec. 10, 2002
PARIS, Dec 10 (AFP) – France’s five million Muslims are for the first time to be organised within a single representative body authorised to press their interests before the government, under an agreement signed Monday by the country’s three main Muslim groups.
The deal was revealed in a television interview Monday evening by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who said it would give “our compatriots of the Muslim confession the right to live out their faith just like Catholics, like Jews and like Protestants.”
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According to the minister, the structure of the new body will be finalised by the end of the year. It will include women, but all influence from foreign countries or governments will be strictly prohibited, he said.
The announcement is the culmination of several years of efforts to establish a proper line of contact between successive governments and the country’s second largest religious community, with the clear if unspoken aim of encouraging a homegrown, liberal version of Islam.
The urgency of formalising relations was underlined after the September 11 attacks when it became obvious that many young Muslims of north African origin had been radicalised in prayer halls and meetings that escaped any official supervision.
But the task has been hampered by the diversity of the Muslim community, the haphazard way in which it has grown up through successive waves of immigration, and the close grip that many foreign governments and donors retain through financial subsidies.
France is a rigidly secular state, and it regulates its relations with the other main religions through official bodies of the type it now wants to create for Islam.
Monday’s agreement was signed by what Sarkozy described as the “three major groupings of Muslims in France”: the Paris mosque, the National Federation of Muslims in France and the Union of Islamic Organisations in France.
However the representatives of five mosques, including the main mosques in France’s second and third cities Lyon and Marseille, said they had been cut out of the arrangement in secret talks conducted “in order to allow Sarkozy a quick success.”
The minister said the new body’s statutes would “conform to the rules of the republic,” and its leadership would be part elected and part appointed. This is to ensure that minorities, and especially Muslim women, are fully represented.
“What we should be afraid of is Islam gone astray, garage Islam, basement Islam, underground Islam. Not the Islam of the mosques, open to the light of day,” the minister said.
Despite the size of its Muslim population, France has only eight large-scale mosques, and most worshippers make do with small and sometimes insalubrious prayer rooms, leading to widespread complaints by Muslims about discrimination.
In setting its relationship with the community on an even footing, part of the government’s aim is to wean it from the foreign governments and institutions which have until now subsidised many mosques and prayer rooms, and which ministers believe exercise undue influence.
Algeria for example funds about 200 religious centres, while Saudi Arabia provided 90 percent of the money for the main mosque in Lyon.
If the issue of mosque building can be easily resolved by a more positive response by local authorities, the government is concerned that the vast majority of imams who preach in French mosques and prayer halls – more than 90 percent – are foreigners.