France Envisions a Citizenry of Model Muslims


PARIS, May 6  The French interior minister, Nicolas

Sarkozy, was booed and whistled at when he said at the

annual conference of one of this country's most

important Muslim groups last month that Muslim women

would have to go bareheaded when posing for pictures

for their identity cards.

He did not seem to notice  or perhaps chose to ignore

 that a vast majority of the women in the audience

were wearing head scarves. A few of them had even

swathed their faces in black and hidden their hands

under black gloves.

And perhaps the law-and-order interior minister can be

forgiven for overlooking the shopping bags on sale at

a score of kiosks, the ones with the silhouette of a

woman wearing a veil and the phrase "I love my veil"

in English and Arabic.

In a largely secular continent still trying to come to

grips with Islam, France, with its large Muslim

population and long colonial history with Algeria, is

something of a bellwether. But even here, it is

unclear how  or even whether  the tensions between

secularism and Muslim piety will be resolved.

In a sense, France's center-right government is trying

to create a model Muslim citizenry. President Jacques

Chirac has spoken about his vision of a "tolerant"

Islam. Mr. Sarkozy said recently, "There is no room

for fundamentalism at the Republic's table."

For them, model Muslims would be French-speaking and

law-abiding. They would celebrate the 1905 French law

that requires total separation between church and

state. They would attend mosques presided over by

clerics who are French-trained and avoid politics in

their sermons.

Model Muslim women would not try to wear head scarves

in the workplace; model Muslim girls would not try to

wear head scarves to school. Most important, model

Muslims would call themselves French first and Muslim


The thinking goes something like this: Muslims must be

integrated into French society to avoid a culture

clash that could contribute to terrorism. So the

French government has embarked on a two-pronged

strategy that will give Muslims what French leaders

call "a place at the table," but monitor and regulate

their activities at the same time.

This strategy lay behind Mr. Sarkozy's campaign to put

together an official Islamic council led by a

"moderate," suit-and-tie-wearing mosque rector to

interact with the French state. It also underlies Mr.

Sarkozy's belief that the only way France can stop

radical foreign clerics from preaching on French soil

is to create a home-grown variety that identifies more

with French culture and tradition. It is the reason

French intelligence has assigned operatives to monitor

sermons in mosques and prayer centers every Friday.

The idea of the French state regulating a religious

community is rooted in Napoleon's bold concordat

concluded with the papacy in 1802. While the concordat

recognized Catholicism as the "preferred religion" of

France, it also forced the pope to accept

nationalization of church property in France, gave the

state the right to appoint bishops, police all public

worship and make the clergy "moral prefects" of the


A few years later, the French state sought to

transform the Jewish population into better French

citizens by controlling their behavior, going so far

as to propose briefly that every two marriages between

Jews be matched by a marriage between a Jew and a


But in an era in which the French state enjoys less

and less direct control over its citizenry,

transforming a Muslim population into an ideal

citizenry may be too much of a stretch.

"It is very difficult to say it openly but this is a

very troubling situation, a crossroads," said Pierre

Birnbaum, professor of politics and philosophy at the

Sorbonne and author of "The Idea of France."

"The state, which is no longer the center of the

nation, may not be in a position to rule on religion

from above," he said. "It may not have the power to


France is home to about five million Muslims, about 7

percent of the population. But that figure is

hopelessly unreliable because under French law, people

are not officially counted, polled or classified

according to religion.

Officials say they do not know whether there are any

Muslims among France's 577 members of the National

Assembly, although a Muslim cultural organization

affiliated with the Paris Mosque says there are none.

There are no Muslim ministers, although there are two

Muslim state secretaries, one for long-term

development, another for veterans affairs.

The driving force behind France's campaign to make its

Muslim citizens more French is to curb political

radicalism and terrorism, both inside and outside the

country. The problem is that mainstreaming Muslims

into European society does not necessarily translate

into an embrace of European ideals.

France  like the rest of Europe  was stunned when

the perpetrator of a suicide bombing in Israel late

last month was identified as Asif Hanif, a 21-year-old

middle-class Briton of South Asian origin. Another

Briton, Omar Khan Sharif, the 27-year-old son of a

successful businessman originally from Kashmir,

reportedly fled the scene. Both came from comfortable,

Westernized suburban neighborhoods.

The French are aware as well of the power of a protest

leader like Dyab Abou Jahjah, the Lebanese-born son of

university teachers, who speaks five languages and

founded an Arab pride movement for immigrants in

Belgium. He demands affirmative action in schools, the

workplace and housing, and calls assimilation

"cultural rape."

So even as France struggles to "integrate," as French

officials call it, its Muslim population, the

nightmare is that the strategy may fail. Radicalism

and terrorism sometimes may have less to do with

religion and more to do with an overwhelming sense of

alienation and rage linked to economic and political

realities, like discrimination, joblessness and the

open-ended war between Israel and the Palestinians.


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