A search for Islam a la française

This fall, Paris hopes to launch a council to foster dialogue between the state and its Muslim population.

In secularist France, where a Muslim schoolgirl's veil can spark fears that the Republic is in danger, there have long been suspicions that Islam and French democracy just don't mix.

But some of those concerns dissolved when representatives of the country's Muslim community agreed to take part in the election of a government-sponsored council that would work toward better integration into French society.

The need for dialogue between the state and its resident Muslims has become even more apparent since the 9/11 attacks on America by Islamic extremists. A key issue is whether France can foster a form of Islam that is compatible with its secular, democratic society.

But after 2 1/2 years of talks, France still does not have its council. And the real conflict appears to be not between French democracy and Islam – but among France's Muslims themselves.

Elections leading to the creation of the Muslim Council of France were twice postponed this summer because of bickering between conservative and more liberal imams and between more established and newer mosques. The internal power struggles are undermining both the government's desire to create an Islam à la française, and the hope of bringing millions of North African immigrants into France's cultural and political mainstream.

France has Europe's largest Muslim community – about 5 million. Many of them live in rundown suburbs and complain that they suffer discrimination.

Emmanuelle Mignon, the civil servant in charge of the talks, says the vast majority of France's Muslims practice a peaceful, moderate form of Islam but adds that fundamentalism remains a danger: "If we fail to integrate Islam and Muslims into French society, people will act on the basis of their identity, and radical Islam will flourish," says Ms. Mignon, who hopes to set up elections to the council by November.

The council is meant to be an important symbolic welcoming of France's second most professed religion, along the lines of bodies already existing for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.

"Up until now the French have considered Islam to be outside the history of the Republic," says Malek Chebel, an Islamic studies specialist. He says that Islam has had trouble being accepted because it is linked to painful memories of the eight-year war between France and its former colony Algeria, and also because of France's secularist tradition.

"The real dominant religion in France is really secularism," says Malek, explaining a fear dating to the revolution that religion may influence politics, education, or social life. In many nations where Islam is dominant, the lines between state and religion are blurred.

In its efforts to create the Council, the previous Socialist government excluded a handful of radical Islamic organizations. But some leading delegates say this was not enough.

Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, and one of the representatives trying to create the Council, accuses some fellow delegates of fundamentalism and recruiting for terrorist causes. "We cannot accept Islam as a political movement, or an ideology of powermaking trouble among our young people," he says.

Boubakeur's Mosque claims the second largest number of followers in France. His rival is the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), which preaches a more conservative form of Islam. Its leader, Lhaj Thami Breze, says that 600 of the 1,000 participating mosques are on his side, and that Boubakeur is simply worried that he will lose influence in such a council. "Instead of saying 'I am afraid of democracy,' Boubakeur says, 'I am afraid of fundamentalism,' " Breze says.

Much of the bickering is fueled by the governments of Algeria and Morocco, which provide financing to the organizations of Boubakeur and Breze, respectively. They see placing their men as a chance to keep control of France's Muslims, half of whom are not French citizens.

The losers in this situation will be the faithful, says Mr. Chebel: "Muslims of France just want to live here in peace, to choose their imams and not have them imposed by foreign governments, as is the case now," he says.

Chebel says there are many concerns Muslims need addressed on a national level, something only the Council could do, such as making sure public school cafeterias offer non-pork dishes, organizing the market for Halal meat, or ensuring Muslim burial practices are respected in municipal cemeteries.

"For the delegates much is at stake: being able to interface with the government, having the power to give permits to build mosques, to train imams, to take part in many political decisions," he says. But, says Chebel, they are bound to their foreign masters by money.

The 1905 French law separating church and state forbids government financing of religion. So mosques are built with cash from Morocco, Algeria, and Saudi Arabia. The financial arrangement presents a delicate situation for the French government.

France's Interior minister, speaking on national television, urged progress in creation of the council. "We have to create an Islam of France, and not just have Islam in France,"said Nicolas Sarkozy, adding that fundamentalism "had no place at the table of the Republic."

Boubakeur says he believes those words signal a shift in his favor and a move toward a voting system that would favor older mosques, like his. "The criteria chosen by the Socialist administration would have given fundamentalists the majority," he says.

Mignon would say only that "we can imagine a process that is 100 percent democratic, or a mix, giving extra weight to bigger mosques which have a lot of cultural activities, for example."

UOIF President Breze says that the rules shouldn't change just because his organization may dominate. "We ask the government to respect the values of democracy. When the Socialists knew they were going to lose the last election, they didn't say: 'Let's cancel the vote, we're going to lose.' "

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