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French Muslims Fight for Recognition and Respect

French Muslims Fight for Recognition and Respect



 SPIEGEL ONLINE By Stefan Simons  

After generations of living in France, Europe’s largest Muslim community is still struggling for recognition amid widespread stereotypes and suspicions. Despite the presence of some Muslim ministers in the French cabinet, most Muslims in France have to fight discrimination daily. 

Finding their voice and their vote: France has Europe's biggest Muslim community of 5 million.

The piercing sound of screeching metal in the Rue Linné startles the neighbors when Moheddine Raies raises his corrugated iron shutters every morning at 10:00 a.m., and again, 14 hours later, when he closes his shop after midnight. 

Every day, Raies, 48, stands behind the cash register, between the water bottles and the ice cream freezer, as the radio drones at his side. Canned goods, biscuits and toilet paper are piled up as high as the ceiling. The thin shopkeeper squeezes through his tiny crammed shop, packs fruit and vegetables into shopping bags for his elderly customers, and gives the neighborhood children the occasional sweet. Raies,

 who covers his balding head with a woolen hat during the cold winters, has been an integral part of the Parisian quarter near the Jussieu metro station for the past 20 years.

His daily routine only changes on Fridays, when he has someone stand in for him at the shop. That’s when Raies takes time off to attend prayers. The father of two teenage children -- who feels more at home in Paris than in Tunis -- has retained his religion and still adheres to its practices, such as the fasting month of Ramadan. The shop owner is a shining example of successful integration -- especially in the eyes of his fellow citizens.

Contributing to France's Multicultural Image  

At least five million Muslims -- over 8 percent of the French population, and one-third of all the Muslims in Europe -- have left their mark on the demographic spectrum across France, from Lille to Cannes and Strasbourg to Biarritz. French Muslims include street hawkers, cab drivers, restaurant owners, researchers and managers. Muslim clergymen work in prisons, hospitals and the armed forces. 

A minority of this minority has even managed to reach the upper echelons of power. The Minister of Justice is called Rachida Dati, the Secretary of State for Urban Policies is Fadela Amara, and her cabinet colleague for human rights is Rama Yade. Although critics might argue that they serve as figureheads in the government of President Nicolas Sarkozy, they also act as strong role models for Muslim women and girls in France. 

Islam has long been a part of everyday life -- even if only 10 percent of France’s Muslims still practice their faith. In large cities like Paris, Lyon and Marseille, their restaurants, butcher shops and bookstores make a major contribution to the multicultural image of France, and across the country, a Muslim infrastructure meets the demand for food, headscarves and other articles of clothing that are in accordance with Islamic traditions. Radio stations broadcast Koran lessons, halal chansons and Islamic rap. French businesses have also targeted the country’s rising number of well-heeled Muslim consumers: Manufacturers of gourmet foods produce foie gras according to ritual slaughtering practices and travel agencies organize pilgrimages to Mecca. 

France has 1,685 Muslim houses of worship. The Great Mosque of Paris was inaugurated in 1926 and ranks among the leading attractions in the city. Paris is also home to one of leading Islamic museums and research centers in the world -- the Arab World Institute. And Paris Mayor Bertrand Delanoe is just one of many city leaders across the country who invite prominent members of the Muslim community to large annual banquets to mark the end of Ramadan. In Paris alone this event draws crowds of over 5,000 people. 

Nevertheless, the veneer of cultural harmony across the French political landscape is extremely thin. In October, 2005, when two youths aged 15 and 17 were accidentally killed by electrocution in a power substation while reportedly fleeing from police, angry protests erupted within hours in Clichy-sous-Bois, near Paris. Three days later, after security forces had been sent into the area, a tear gas grenade exploded in a mosque, further fueling tensions, and unrest spread from the Parisian suburbs to the entire country. Over 9,000 cars and a large number of schools, businesses and warehouses went up in flames. 

The troublemakers were quickly branded as “anti-democratic” rabble who were “primarily black or Arab with a Muslim identity”. The French weekly news magazine Le Point went on to write that these were youth “with an uncontrolled immigrant background” that allowed them “to operate far beyond the boundaries of our religion, our rules of conduct and our laws.” Many French see their country’s social consensus threatened by religious infiltration and suspect that the unrest represents a calculated attack on the secular principles of French society, which have guaranteed the separation of church and state since 1905.


Anti-Muslim Slogans Score Points with Electorate 

Others disagree: “The unrest in the suburbs has absolutely nothing to do with faith,” says Kamel Kabtane, 65. The head of the Great Mosque in Lyon blames ethnic and religious discrimination against immigrant youth, social exclusion and extremely high unemployment for the explosive violence in the banlieues, as the poverty-stricken, largely immigrant French suburbs are called. “There are young people who have never seen their fathers go to work,” says Kabtane, “so how are they supposed to learn about role models, values and social behavior?”

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati with President Sarkozy. The inclusion of a number of Muslim women in the cabinet has provided girls and women in the Muslim community with role models.

French Justice Minister Rachida Dati with President Sarkozy. The inclusion of a number of Muslim women in the cabinet has provided girls and women in the Muslim community with role models.

This kind of reasoning falls on deaf ears with many politicians -- especially when anti-Muslim slogans score points with the electorate and bring in votes. Sarkozy, who likes to portray himself as a friend of the Muslims (“I’ve done a lot for them”), openly played on simmering resentments during the presidential election campaign when he denounced the uncivilized behavior of Muslim immigrants who “slaughter sheep in their bathtubs.”  

France’s Muslim minority has rarely been so crudely stigmatized. Muslims experience discrimination on a daily basis: when their tickets are checked on the metro, when they have to meet the bouncer’s approval to enter a disco, when they go in for a job interview and when they apply for a bank loan. “We live half an hour from Charles de Gaulle Airport where there are plenty of jobs available,” says a member of a local council in the Parisian suburb of Villiers-le-Bel, “but when a youth named Hakim, Mohammed or Bashir applies for a position, his application is thrown straight into the wastebasket.”


'How Can You Characterize People According to their Religion'  

This unequal treatment is not even really an integration problem, says Christophe Bertossi, of the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. He sees it as a question of identity. The descendants of immigrants have long been French citoyens --- yet they often remain second-class citizens: “Today, they are inevitably characterized by their ostensible religious affiliation: the ‘Muslims.'” 

“How can you characterize people solely according to their religious affiliations or even according to their background?” asks Kabtane in his office above the prayer hall. “This totally overlooks the historical contributions of entire generations.”

World War II was not the first occasion when North Africans heeded the call of the motherland “and died for France,” says Kabtane -- Muslims also fought alongside the colonial power during World War I. Starting in the 1950s, citizens from Algeria were recruited to work in France. According to Kabtane, during the “30 glorious years” that followed, foreign workers from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia toiled to build the foundation of economic success of the postwar years. Afterwards, they were followed by Turks and immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa. “Back then, religion wasn’t an issue,” recalls the head of the mosque, who came to France during this period with his parents. “Prayer remained a private matter.” 

Muslims did not see themselves as a single religious community or lobby. Every ethnic group pursued its native traditions, organized by country-related associations -- and financed and supervized by the relevant embassies and consulates. Even today, these political and national influences divide France’s Muslims. The governments in Algiers and Rabat, for example, still jealously guard the leadership over their mosques and prayer houses. 

It wasn’t until the children of the first generation of guest workers remained in their new homeland, and retired workers increasingly began to stay in France, that these associations transformed into organizations that made demands such as having their own cemeteries. In the early 1980s, slang terms like “black” and “beur” were recast as positive characteristics by a new generation of activist immigrants -- particularly students -- who launched a political movement.


Islam Is Regarded with Suspicion in France  This put the authorities on their guard. They suspected foreign agitators were behind the movement, particularly since some of the groups maintained contacts with the radical Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Then came the fatwa against British-Indian author Salman Rushdie -- a crisis that divided the nation. Muslim intellectuals opposed the translation of the "Satanic Verses" and condemned the “Frenchification of views and customs.” 

Paris is now pursuing a dual strategy: It is expelling extremist imams, yet seeking a dialogue with the faithful. In 2003, the French Council for the Muslim Faith was created, giving the French state a much sought-after direct contact with the Muslim community. For the first time, the “second religion of France,” as Islam is called, had a place “at the table of the Republic.”

French youths rioting in the Paris suburbs in 2005. Many of those involved had immigrant backgrounds and some were Muslims.

Compared with the positions of Catholics, Protestants and Jews, this still remains a modest place setting at a small side table. Due precisely to its increasing popularity, Islam is widely regarded with suspicion among the French population.


Wherever mosques are built, there is resistance. Local citizens and mayors are afraid of the influence of rich sponsors from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, and even view Islamic houses of worship as a breeding ground for fundamentalism. And there is cause for a certain amount of concern: Roughly 50 mosques are categorized by domestic intelligence services as meeting places for radical agitators or terrorist organizations.  

The suspicions of the general population are also linked to the origins of the imams. Two-thirds of the more than 1,000 prayer leaders are recruited abroad, and many of them cannot speak a word of French and have little idea of the customs in their new home. Backed financially by their home countries, a large number of these imams have a conservative and anti-progressive interpretation of the Koran. Some rail against the foreign culture around them, where they all they see are the decadent excesses of the West. 

The Muslim Council has done little to resolve these problems. This organization remains plagued by incessant quarrels between its Algerian and Moroccan factions and is ill-equipped to weather political storms. Only 23 of its 64 members are appointed. The remainder are determined according to an obscure proportional system based on the amount of floor space in mosques. 

The fundamental dispute over the ban on Islamic headscarves sparked particularly antagonistic debates among the opposing North African factions in the Muslim Council. Following years of intense controversy, the French parliament voted in 2004 by an overwhelming majority to ban the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in state schools. “I regret this decision, it doesn’t fit with my understanding of the separation of church and state,” complains Kabtane in Lyon. “The freedom of a Muslim woman to decide for or against the veil becomes irrelevant when the state forbids her from wearing one in the first place.”

A Muslim voter (L) casts her ballot for the presidential elections 1st round in Paris, France, 22 April 2007. Although some 5 million Muslims live in France it is not considered their vote as a 'Muslim one'. According to recent pools favorites to get into 2nd round are Nicolas Sarkozy and Segolene Royal, but Francois Bayrou appears as also being a serious contender. EPA/LUCAS DOLEGA +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++

However, Kabtane doesn’t interpret this dispute as a basic contradiction between Islam and the secular French Republic. He also sees aversions toward other religions as misinterpretations of Islam by Muslim dogmatists: “We are a minority in France, but thanks to the separation of church and state, as a Muslim, I have the right to freely practice my religion,” says the religious leader, who holds a law degree. And he regards his Algerian background “just as my Christian neighbor sees his origins in (the French region of) Auvergne.”

 Monsieur Raies, the hardworking shopkeeper in the 5th arrondissement of Paris, also takes a pragmatic approach to his life as a practicing Muslim. Clearly, Islamic law prohibits Muslims from consuming or selling alcohol. “But,” says Raies as he places a few new bottles of Bordeaux on the wine rack, “you also have to make a living.”


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