A Muslim in the Middle in France



PARIS, April 20 — Dalil Boubakeur is the official face

of Islam in France.

A 62-year-old doctor who leads the Paris Mosque, Dr.

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


But Dr. 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 out

of the council's 41 seats.

The Moroccan-dominated National Federation of the

Muslims of France, based in the working-class suburb

of Évry, came in first, with 16 seats. What was more

alarming for Dr. 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 other

five 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 Dr.


That means that the Algerian-born Dr. 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, Dr. Boubakeur has argued that the two

other main Muslim groups promote 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 Dr. 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,' " Dr. Boubakeur said in an

interview last week in his office at the Paris 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. 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?"

Dr. Boubakeur's discomfort underscores the problem

France faces today in coming to grips with its Muslim

population. Its five million Muslims are divided by

ethnic origin, class, socioeconomic status, politics

and level of religiosity. Personal rivalries among the

Islamic leaders — some of whom are trained religious

scholars and others of whom, like Dr. Boubakeur, are

administrators of mosques or prayer centers — fragment

the picture even more.

In fact, Dr. 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 in the interview, 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


Dr. Boubakeur holds his position because of his

father, Sheik Hamza Boubakeur, a Koranic scholar who

translated the Koran into French and who ran the Paris

Mosque for a quarter century. Since Dr. 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 Mr. Sarkozy.

Mr. 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 with boos and whistles.

The tight embrace of the French government in general

and Mr. Sarkozy in particular probably cost Dr.

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 Mr.

Sarkozy, in giving Mr. Boubakeur the presidency of the

new council, gave it to Algeria.

But Khalil Merroun, the aeronautical technician who

heads the Évry mosque affiliated with the National

Federation of the Muslims of France, which won the

most seats, pledged full cooperation with Dr.

Boubakeur. "I don't want to be a triumphalist," Mr.

Merroun said in an interview. "Today he is among us as

a brother because he represents the most symbolic


The results of the election were not at all

surprising, Mr. 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 Dr. 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 Dr. Boubakeur will enjoy the full support of his


"Even if he doesn't have many seats in the council, we

don't go back on our word," Mr. Breze said in an

interview at his organization's headquarters and

mosque. "We respect him because he's older than we


He added, "We don't play with fire; we don't play with

the French Republic."

But it is this group that Mr. Boubakeur is most

worried about, and the contrast between him and Mr.

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. It 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.

Mr. 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, it aims to have an

impact 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, Mr. 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 bandana, a ribbon, to hide their hair a

little, not to wear a whole scarf," Mr. 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 Dr. Boubakeur, by contrast, private Islamic

schools should not be allowed and wearing the

headscarf in public is nothing more than a show of

"hyper-identity, frustration, suffering and making


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. "I would love it if we were treated like

Notre-Dame," he said.

Mr. Breze, by contrast, proudly asserts that his

organization is moving toward total financial

self-sufficiency. "The faithful," he said, "are very



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