France tries to soften local style of Islam

Officials there have deported two allegedly radical clerics, leading a Europe-wide crackdown.

As European governments crack down on radical imams as part of their battle against Islamic terrorism, they have laid bare a central problem for millions of their Muslim citizens: a lack of homegrown religious leaders to guide their integration into Western societies.

Overwhelmingly foreign, and sometimes speaking only Arabic, Europe's imams often have little understanding of their host countries, and their teachings run counter to modern European values and gender roles, say Muslim leaders and government officials. But there seems little chance of any change soon, they add.

"There is an abyss between the imams' vision of the world and that of young Muslims born here," says Dounia Bouzar, a member of the French Council for the Muslim Religion, a body established last year to lead the Muslim community.

France has taken the lead in a Europe-wide crackdown on radical clerics. French officials have deported two allegedly fundamentalist imams in recent weeks, and are threatening to expel three more. Italy expelled a Senegalese imam last November, and the British government is seeking to deport the Egyptian born radical cleric Abu Hamza al-Masri, accusing him of supporting al Qaeda.

"Under the cover of religion, individuals present on our soil have been using extremist language and issuing calls for violence," French Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin said Saturday. "These favor the installation of terrorist movements. It is necessary therefore to oppose this together and by all available means."

Since the Madrid bombing in March, European authorities are paying new attention to the possibility that fundamentalist preachers are sheltering and supporting jihadist bombers.

French authorities announced with great fanfare two weeks ago that they were deporting Abdelkader Bouziane, an Algerian imam, after he defended wife-beating and stoning adulterous women in a magazine interview. They expelled him before he had a chance to appeal the ruling, which a court later overturned.

Officials told reporters that Mr. Bouziane had ties to terrorist groups, and that the police were keeping a close eye on about 30 mosques whose preachers were suspected of fundamentalist leanings.

The hasty expulsion drew criticism. "You cannot fight an antidemocratic movement by using its own methods," complained opposition Socialist Party spokesman Malik Boutih on French radio Tuesday.

Some Muslim leaders fear the government has made political use of the affair. "They are dramatizing it so as to show that all imams are foreign," complains Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the influential Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF). "They are preparing the ground to set up a government institute to train imams, and we are against such government interference."

Ninety percent from abroad

An estimated 90 percent of imams in France are indeed foreign citizens, mostly from North Africa. Some "have not evolved in French society," says Mr. Breze, whose group is considered close to the Muslim Brotherhood. "Some adapt fast, but lots do not."

Dalil Boubaker, the head of Paris's Grand Mosque, is harsher. "There are 1,500 places of Islamic worship in France," he says. "Five hundred of them have proper imams. The other thousand are clowns."

Who chooses the imams?

While the Algerian government (which funds the Grand Mosque) sends 80 imams to France, and the Moroccan government sends dozens more, most prayer leaders are chosen by local groups that run their own mosques, often in the run-down, big-city suburbs where most of France's five million Muslims live.

Very few of them are paid for their services. Most live on welfare, supplemented by donations from the faithful.

The imams of the 250 mosques affiliated with the UOIF must meet certain criteria, says Breze.

"Our preachers must speak French,they must have been here for many years if they are not French citizens, and their sermons must strengthen social peace," he insists. "We don't want imams who rouse their congregations against their country or a government."

Authorizing imams

Breze would like to see the French Council for the Muslim Religion (CFCM) - set up last year at the urging of the government to provide the authorities with a representative Islamic body they could deal with - set similar conditions in drawing up a list of approved imams.

Dr. Boubaker, head of the CFCM, proposed such a scheme in a meeting Monday with Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin. "We must distinguish between real imams and subversives who call themselves imams," he says. "Imams in France should absolutely stop talking politics."

The CFCM, riven by internal divisions between different branches of Islam, would probably not able to draw up a credible list of "authorized" imams, however, and some members doubt it should try. "It might look like police-style management," worries Ms. Bouzar. "A lot of Muslims already think the government is trying to control them through the council, and this could revive the anxieties."

Some Muslim leaders look to the training of French-born young men as imams as the solution, hoping that they would be more moderate and nonpolitical, and better attuned to the realities of life in a secular Western nation.

The UOIF runs a small college in the French countryside that turns out about 10 new imams a year, but officials acknowledge that this is nowhere near enough to meet the demand. The problem is not only to find enough young Frenchmen attracted by the life of an imam; equally difficult is the question of financing a training institute.

In Muslim countries, governments generally subsidize such institutions. In secular France, with its strict separation of church and state, such an idea is anathema. "This is precisely the CFCM's mission and task. The ball is in their court," says Interior Ministry spokeswoman Veronique Guillermo. "The French state will have nothing to do with how a religion organizes itself."

But the Muslim community in France does not have the resources to fund four-year imam training courses, Muslim leaders say, and they are reluctant to turn to traditional donors, such as wealthy patrons in Gulf countries, for fear of the influence that would give them.

"The question of money is key," says Bouzar. "But the whole imam situation is a reflection of the state of relations between French society and Islam. Islam used to be seen as a foreigner's religion. Today we have a generation which wants to be Muslim and French. Before we can decide what we want from our imams we have to reflect on what it means to be a Muslim in a secular society, and we have a long way to go in that reflection."

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