French Islam Wins Officially Recognized Voice


ÉVRY, France, April 13 — For Karima Debza, an

Algerian-born mother of three and a volunteer in the

local mosque, casting her vote today is a symbolic

step toward promoting the rights of Muslim women in

the workplace.

For Djiba Aboubacar, a Senegalese-born accountant, the

election is a flawed but long overdue process that

will eventually give voice to France's diverse and

divided Muslim community.


The two were among 137 delegates who voted in the

modern city hall of this working-class suburb of

Paris, not for a school board or town council, but for

the first organization to represent the five million

Muslims of France.

It is part of an ambitious national project to create

what Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has called "an

official Islam of France." Mr. Sarkozy, who has spent

much time visiting mosques and Islamic centers to win

support for the council, told worshipers at a Lyon

mosque before the first round of voting a week ago

that organizing France's Muslims is the way to fight

"the Islam of cellars and garages that has fed

extremism and the language of violence."

At polling stations throughout the country last Sunday

and again today, more than 4,000 delegates from nearly

1,000 mosques and prayer centers voted for members of

the new council's general assembly and central

committee, as well as 25 regional bodies.

The council will deal directly with the French

government on issues as wide-ranging as the cutting of

meat according to Islamic standards, the need for more

Muslim chaplains and social workers in prisons, the

administration of France's mosques and prayer houses

and ways to prevent the radicalization of young


Muslim leaders say the council will also give them

greater authority to get building permits and

financing for mosques and designated space for Muslims

in cemeteries. They also seek paid time off to

celebrate Islamic holidays.

"This is the first time that Muslims are voting as

Muslims, that I don't feel like a foreigner in

France," said Muhammad Aziz Aziz, the Moroccan-born

liaison official between town authorities and the

grand mosque of this city, which he described as the

biggest mosque in Western Europe. "This is the first

time that Islam is considered a building block in

France's democracy."

That sentiment is not universal, however. About 20

percent of the mosques and prayer centers of France,

including some of the country's most conservative

Muslim groups, boycotted the election.

Critics have charged that the slate of candidates

guarantees that the council will be unduly influenced

by Algerian and Moroccan Muslims. And there is sharp

opposition to the deal cut with the three largest

Muslim federations, under pressure from the

government, to appoint Dr. Dalil Boubakeur, an

Algerian who heads the Paris Mosque, as the first

president of the council, even before the election.

They note that Dr. Boubakeur is not a theologian or a

student of philosophy, but a medical doctor, and that

his mosque is financed in part by the Algerian


Mr. Aboubacar, who is helping to raise money for an

Islamic culture center in the suburb of Corbeil,

shares some of those views.

"We don't want this council to look like a bunch of

marionettes who are there only to say, `Yes, yes,

yes,' to the government," he said. "But we can't do

combat from the outside. We have to get inside and

then we can fight to make this organization more


There are also complaints that the number of delegates

appointed by each mosque and prayer center was decided

by its square footage, not by the size of the


In France, anyone can declare himself the head of a

mosque or prayer room and preach to a congregation.

Among the government's goals is to educate a new

generation of French-speaking imams or prayer leaders

within France, and eventually replace those who come

from abroad.

The grand mosque here, for example, has three imams,

all of whom preach in classical Arabic every Friday.

Khalil Merroun, an aeronautical technician who serves

as director of the mosque, said he must translate

their sermons into French for the largely

French-speaking congregation.

In a recent interview on French television, Mr.

Sarkozy praised the French experiment as "setting an

important example," adding, "What I want is a training

college for imams who speak French, who know our

culture and respect our customs."

Then there are the women's issues. Ms. Debza, for

example, who covers her hair with two scarves, wants

the council to press the government to bend its 1905

law separating church and state, which forbids any

display of religiosity in schools or the workplace.

"I can't find work here because of my head scarf," she

said. "But my head scarf is a part of me. I won't take

it off. We have to educate the state about why the

scarf is so important and why there should be no fear

of it."

The creation of the council is part of a campaign by

successive governments since the 1980's to gain

control over a community that includes Muslims of

varying degrees of religiosity and political activism

from places as far-reaching as Algeria and Cameroon.

Only half of them are French citizens. Similar bodies

already exist for Catholics, Jews and Protestants.

The effort to organize the country's Muslims took on

more urgency after Sept. 11, which led to a rise in

anti-Muslim feelings among French citizens. Meanwhile,

the American-led war against Iraq and the conflict

between Palestinians and Israelis has fueled

anti-American sentiments among Muslims and Arabs in


According to a poll last month in the newspaper Le

Figaro, 72 percent of France's Muslims said they hoped

the United States would lose the war in Iraq.

Seventy-nine percent favor the creation of private

Koranic schools financed by the state and 55 percent

oppose the ban on head scarves for girls in schools.

Here, meanwhile where more than a third of the

population of 50,000 residents is Muslim, a huge

banner in red and black hanging over the entrance of

the city hall reads "No to the war." 


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