French Muslims promote ‘cool Islam’

I met Medine in the coastal town of Le Havre, in a scaled-down version of France’s notorious banlieues.

Medine was here – hunched into a parka against the chill sea breeze – to practise in the municipal dance hall.

He was brought up in the bleak tower blocks that overshadow the place, and was once a member of the disenchanted Muslim youth who preached to French society about its decadence and immorality. He was named after the Muslim holy city of Medina.

Now his CDs and live performances send a different message – the offer of a new deal, and full participation in a secular society, and of a readiness to compete for success in a free market and liberal democracy.

We reached the dance hall up a stained concrete staircase, off a plain of concrete slabs, designed to engender a sense of community but today empty and colonised by weeds.

The community centre’s grey walls are decorated with thin lines of yellow tiles and the mirrored hall is light and warm. But the whole place seems to belong to a long-abandoned social strategy, its occupants half-way through moving out.

‘Common values’

Medine – whose rap is more pleading than angry – is also part of a generational shift.

Burly, crew-cut and bearded, Medine faces Mecca to pray at the set hours and sticks to a regime of Muslim clean-living.

His raps set out to “sell” Islam to French society. But he doesn’t emphasise Islam’s religious dogma, stressing instead what he says are the universal principles it shares with Western society.

“I think that in all religions today, there are common human values”, says Medine.

“I don’t think that sharing is unique to Islam, or that generosity is unique to Catholicism, or love is unique to Judaism.

“I’ve decided to talk about some of my values in my album, but it’s not to say that my religion is best or to say ‘join my religion’. Not at all.”

Marketing Islam

Economic competitiveness and artistic success are the hallmarks of the new Muslim elite.

Medine’s office in the ground-floor flat of another tower-block is equipped with computers and stuffed with merchandise, mostly clothes.

Amel Boubekeur, of the School of Social Studies in Paris, has named the movement “cool Islam”.

She says it combines business and performance to promote Islam, but on French society’s terms.

Making money is now an important mark of success to a generation whose parents were suspicious of wealth.

But their businesses and performances, whether rap, song, theatre, television or comedy, also promote Islamic ethics.

“They are trying to promote an Islamic identity, but also an ethic of solidarity, charity, responsibility for each other,” Ms Boubekeur says.

“They use products in order to make a positive contribution to society.”

Ms Boubekeur says “cool Islam” is being led by a generation which, unlike their parents, have accepted that they are in France to stay.

But for all their willingness to contribute, to participate, there is friction with an aggressively secular state.

‘Proud to be Muslim’

The leaders of the new Islam want to be acknowledged as both French and Muslim.

That certainly goes for the staff of Unicite – a Muslim company whose name underlines the oneness of God.

Three young Muslim men distribute clothes from a chilly garage in a house on the outskirts of Paris.

The clothes – T-shirts, shorts, baseball caps – bear Islamic symbols, classic Arabic script, a childlike depiction of a hand making a Muslim blessing.

But more importantly, the messages they bear emphasise the need for values – not so much Muslim values, but any values in an increasingly godless society.

“Those values we want to show are coming from Islam. They are human values that everyone – a Muslim and a non-Muslim can recognise,” the company’s director Thierry Roseau says.

“Values such as friendship, charity, justice and so on. So, the first thing we want is for Muslims to stop hiding and to be proud of what they are.”

Embracing the West

There’s nothing furtive about Zahya, a young Muslim woman trying on wedding dresses, among the profusion of dress shops in the streets around the Gare du Nord in Paris.

Zahya’s marriage will be conducted by an imam, but the rest of her wedding will be as Western as her everyday life.

“We go to the cinema, we go to night clubs, we party”, Zahya says with an edge of defiance.

“We do the things everyone else does – and more and more openly. Now in the year 2008, we live according to the moment.

“Everyone wears white dresses for their marriage. Just like all other women, I want to wear a white dress.”

But perhaps more significant than young Muslims’ embrace of secular French society is that the religion itself may also be moving towards Western liberalism.

Imams such as Tariq Oubrou are thinking the unthinkable – and suggesting that only by becoming a Western religion can Islam allow its followers to thrive in European culture.

He presides over a conventional-looking mosque, rows of men, mostly Arab in origin, listening silently as he preaches, and moving to pray in unison.

But in an upstairs office dominated by books heavily embossed in classic Arabic, what he says is revolutionary.

The new Islam needs to take account of Western philosophy and theologians, even Catholic and Protestant thinkers, he says.

He accepts that it will mean revisiting Islamic texts – including the Koran – and reinterpreting them in a way that fits the modern era.

“We’re living in an evolving geopolitical climate, therefore we have to have a dynamic approach towards our texts”, says Imam Oubrou.

“We can’t afford to read our texts to the letter in a static way. We have to take a fresh approach, and ask how the Koran would have revealed itself in this time and place, in this culture – and then apply this new model to our everyday lives.”

The idea is being echoed elsewhere in the Muslim world, especially in Turkey.

A formal revision of the Hadith – the sayings of Muhammad – is well advanced in Turkey, and Muslim women in the West have been pushing for equal status with men.

It doesn’t mean giving up on faith, or abandoning a Muslim identity. In France that much is evident from the wild applause live audiences give Medine when he demands a religious identity for French Muslims.

People such as Imam Oubrou and Medine insist that however radical Islam’s adaptation to contemporary culture, it will preserve a kernel of uncompromising, permanent Muslim belief.

They say European societies need to let it flourish if they are to win the bigger prize of a renewed, reinterpreted Islam no longer at odds with a secular West.

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
Mar. 5, 2008
Robert Pigott

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This post was last updated: Thursday, March 6, 2008 at 11:07 AM, Central European Time (CET)