Can new panel’s head serve France and Muslims, too?

Islam’s man in Paris: Delicate task
The New York Times, via The International Herald Tribune, Apr. 22, 2003
Elaine Sciolino, The New York Times

PARIS – Dalil Boubakeur is the official face of Islam in France. A 62-year-old doctor who leads the Paris Mosque, Boubakeur wears not only a suit and tie but also, on his jacket lapel, symbols of membership in the French Legion of Honor and the Order of Merit.

He is poised to become president of a council elected this month that will represent the country’s Muslim population before the French state for the first time in its history.

But Boubakeur is not a happy man.

He did not count on the way the election turned out. In a stunning setback, the group representing the Paris Mosque, France’s main mosque and a national landmark, came in a poor third, capturing only 6 of the council’s 41 seats.

The Moroccan-dominated National Federation of the Muslims of France, based in the working-class suburb of Evry, came in first, with 16 seats. What was more alarming for Boubakeur was that the Union of Islamic Organizations in France, which derives its inspiration from the banned Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and is based in the working-class suburb of La Courneuve, won 14 seats. Smaller groups won the five other votes.

But under an agreement signed in December by France’s three main Muslim organizations and the government, the council’s presidency automatically goes to Boubakeur.

That means that the Algerian-born Boubakeur, who calls himself a moderate and staunchly defends the enforcement of secularism by the French state, finds himself the man in the middle. He is caught between a group that will be dominated by Muslims whose view he does not share and Nicolas Sarkozy, the law-and-order minister of the interior who pressed Muslim groups to agree to the council in the first place. In his writings, Boubakeur has branded the two other main Muslim groups as promoting a “militant fundamentalist Islam,” adding that they “try to build a model of Islam that endangers the French model of integration, particularly among young people.”

He incurred the wrath of the two groups recently when he criticized the kind of Islam practiced in the suburbs as a religion of hotheads.

Now Boubakeur is threatening to quit his new post even before the council meets for the first time next month. “When I saw the results, I said to Mr. Sarkozy, ‘I cannot continue,'” Boubakeur said in an interview last week in his office at the mosque, in the heart of the Left Bank.

“I do not want to serve those who look good in a suit and behind them are the bearded ones and the fundamentalists,” he said. “I don’t want to be a window display, a facade. I plead for true Islam and I am going to play in a comedy? Why?” Boubakeur’s discomfort underscores the problem France faces today in coming to grips with its Muslim population. Its 5 million Muslims are divided by ethnic origin, class, socio-economic status, politics and level of religiosity. Personal rivalries among the Islamic leaders – some of whom are trained religious scholars, while others, like Boubakeur, are administrators of mosques or prayer centers – fragments the picture even more.

In fact, Boubakeur, who was educated in Algeria, Egypt and France, prides himself on his knowledge of French literature. The biggest setback to a modern Islam in recent decades, he said, was the overthrow of the monarchy in Iran in 1979 and the installation of the rule of the ayatollahs. He blamed the United States and France for what took place in Iran.

Boubakeur holds his position because of his father, Sheikh Hamza Boubakeur, a Koranic scholar who translated the Koran into French and who ran the Paris Mosque for a quarter-century. Since Boubakeur took over 11 years ago, he has forged close relationships with senior French officials, including President Jacques Chirac, and has traveled extensively to Muslim communities in France with Sarkozy.

Sarkozy ran into trouble on Saturday when he told the annual congress of the Union of Islamic Organizations in France that Muslim women must remove their veils for identity photographs. His remarks were drowned out by boos and whistles.

The tight embrace of the French government in general, and Sarkozy in particular, probably cost Boubakeur many votes. The Paris Mosque is also so closely identified with the Algerian leadership that an editorial in Le Monde last week complained that Sarkozy, in giving Boubakeur the presidency of the new council, gave it to Algeria.

But Khalil Merroun, the aeronautical technician who heads the Evry mosque affiliated with the National Federation of the Muslims of France, which won the most seats, pledged full cooperation with Boubakeur. “I don’t want to be a triumphalist,” Merroun said in an interview. “Today he is among us as a brother because he represents the most symbolic mosque.”

The results of the election were not at all surprising, Merroun added, because of the Moroccan connection to his organization. “Seventy percent of those going to mosques in France are Moroccans,” he claimed. “It is the community that practices its religion the most.”

Lhaj Thami Breze, the Moroccan-born political scientist who heads the Union of Islamic Organizations, also contends that Boubakeur’s fears are unfounded. He denies that his group is fundamentalist or wants to impose Islamic law and codes of conduct on the French state.

He also insists that Boubakeur will enjoy the full support of his organization.

“Even if he doesn’t have many seats in the council, we don’t go back on our word,” Breze said in an interview at his organization’s headquarters and mosque. “We respect him because he’s older than we are.”

He added, “We don’t play with fire; we don’t play with the French Republic.”

However, this group worries Boubakeur the most, and the contrast between him and Breze is evident in their mosques. The Paris Mosque, with its 85-foot minaret, was built in 1926 with elegant detail work in marble, tile, plaster and Lebanese cedar. The complex includes a tea house, garden, library, restaurant and a communal bathhouse open to the public.

The mosque of the Union of Islamic Organizations, by contrast, sits in a vast warehouse-like structure built two decades ago next to a highway and a paper-recycling plant in an industrial area of a suburb of Paris. Breze says his group does not have a national affiliation like either of the other groups. Stressing personal purification and grass-roots proselytizing, especially among poor Muslim youth, his group aims to have an effect on every aspect of a Muslim’s life. It organizes youth, women, doctors and labor associations and runs two religious training schools for prayer leaders in France, one in a working-class suburb of Paris and one in a chateau in Burgundy.

In a speech in 1997, Breze also called for the creation of private Muslim schools to improve the education of Muslim children.

He acknowledges that a primary goal of his organization is to educate the French about Islam and to make compromises on both sides to allow Muslims more freedom to practice their religion.

Take the issue of the headscarf, which, as a symbol of religion, is banned in French public schools.

“We ask our daughters to make concessions, to wear a bit of cloth, a bandanna, a ribbon, to hide their hair a little, not to wear a whole scarf,” Breze said. “We want to adopt a responsible citizen’s attitude.” As for his own daughter, he said, she wears “an unobtrusive scarf that doesn’t bother her professors.”

At the group’s annual conference over the weekend, all but a few of the women covered their heads.

For Boubakeur, private Islamic schools should not be allowed and wearing the scarf is nothing more than a show of “hyper-identity, frustration, suffering and making demands.”

He complains that, contrary to claims by his opponents that he is fully financed by the government of Algeria, it gives him only minimal money and that he does not have enough to run his operation.

Despite France’s tradition of secularism, he has asked for state money, arguing that his mosque is a national landmark.

Breze, by contrast, proudly asserts that his organization is moving toward total financial self-sufficiency. “The faithful,” he said, “are very generous.”

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Religion News Blog posted this on Tuesday April 22, 2003.
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