France's top Muslim leader seeks doubling of country's mosques to 4,000
PARIS // France's most prominent Muslim leader has called for the number of mosques in the country to be doubled to 4,000, sparking fresh debate on the secular status established in French law a century ago. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris and formerly president of the French Council for Muslims, believes a sharp increase in facilities for worship is necessary to give Europe's largest Muslim population a chance to pray in dignity and comfort.
In a revealing interview in the daily newspaper France-Soir, the contents of which were confirmed by his office, the Algerian-born cardiologist stressed the social benefits of easing the "pressure, frustration and the sense of injustice" felt by many French Muslims. "Open a mosque and you close a prison," said Dr Boubakeur. If this seems a colourful way of justifying a major programme of mosque-building, he can point to a powerful ally: the president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
France jealously guards the principle of separation of religion and state set down in the 1905 law. This legislation, the bedrock of French secular society, expressly forbids the official recognition or state funding any faith. But in 2004, when he was the finance minister, Mr Sarkozy argued in a book entitled The Republic, Religions, Hope for an updating of the law to meet modern challenges. He said the provision of a mosque in every sizeable town would help counter the extremism fostered by self-styled, usually untrained imams holding prayer meetings in tower block basements and garages.
France is estimated to have at least five million Muslims among a population of 63 million, and Islam is the most commonly practised faith after Roman Catholicism. Since becoming president, Mr Sarkozy has maintained his theme that "negative" secularism should make way for a positive brand. In 2008, while visiting Riyadh, he hailed Islam as "one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known".
For French groups such as Riposte Laïque (Secular Response), which fiercely defends the church-state separation, Mr Sarkozy has defeated the spirit of the 1905 law by allowing it to be circumvented. There are now various ways, from tax advantages to the leasing of land or property at peppercorn rents, in which the public purse can contribute to the cost of building mosques. Riposte Laïque claims loopholes in the law mean a new mosque for Barbès-Rochechouart, a Muslim quarter on the fringe of central Paris, will receive subsidies of up to ?20 million (Dh90m) from taxpayers.
This is because authorities have the freedom to give direct aid to Muslim groups if the new buildings are designated, as in Barbès-Rochechouart, as cultural centres or Islamic institutes, which qualify for funding even if they also contain prayer rooms. This week, opponents of any dilution of secular law were dismayed when François Fillon became the first French prime minister of the Fifth Republic, created in 1958, to officiate at the inauguration of a new mosque - a building for up to 2,500 worshippers at Argenteuil, on the outskirts of Paris.
Secular and anti-Islam lobby groups strongly criticised his presence. Writers at more than one website, including that of Riposte Laïque, expressed "shame" that Mr Fillon was photographed cutting the tape while standing alongside a small girl wearing a veil. However, the child's face was not fully covered and would therefore be entirely legal under France's intended ban on the head-to-toe burqa, a form of dress described by Mr Fillonas a "caricature of Islam" to which he remained implacably opposed.
In his France-Soir interview, Dr Boubakeur said secular principles represented a "safeguard against abuse" but should not prevent a fair response to Islam's need to express itself. He pointed out that the law had not prevented the Grand Mosque of Paris being built in 1922 with substantial financial state aid given with parliament's blessing. The gesture was made in recognition of North African Muslims who fought and died for France in the First World War.
In one glaring contradiction of opposition to public funds being used towards the building of mosques, such criticism is often accompanied by anger at the closure of city streets - in areas lacking proper facilities for worship - for Friday prayers. Nabila Ramdani, a French writer and academic of Algerian background, believes it would be hypocritical to deny funding for mosques. "Other faiths, including Christians and Jews, all infringe the 1905 law, as they receive funding from the state," she said. "So there's no reason whatsoever why Muslims shouldn't enjoy the same kind of funding, even if the money is passed off as cultural money. They should have the same opportunities as other faiths."
Dr Boubakeur said it was "not normal for our faithful to have to pray in the streets or in the gutter". He acknowledged the unease caused in some areas when plans for new mosques included minarets. But while a minaret in the French countryside may "stick out like the nose on a face", he had heard nothing but praise for the minaret of the Grand Mosque of Paris. "The French are no more racist and no less welcoming than any others," he said. "There are no people in Europe more welcoming of Muslims. But because of extremists, people have a poor perception of these buildings." @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated: July 3, 2010 04:00 AM