FaithWorld

After long delay, French Muslim council may get down to work

Things seem to be looking up at the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM). The first round of elections for its new national leadership went off well on Sunday — the second round is due on June 22 — and several leaders of member groups expressed confidencethe council can finally get down to work. This will be a revolution in itself. Since it was created in 2003 under heavy pressure from the then Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy (now M. le Président), the CFCM has been almost completely paralysed by internal rivalries. Grand Mosque Rector Dalil Boubakeur, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanThe reason for hope this time around is that the government didn’t choose winner in advance, as it did in the 2003 and 2005 elections. Instead of naming Paris Grand MosqueRector Dalil Boubakeur the next CFCM president before the vote no matter what his mosque network’s result was, the government let the Muslims decide for themselves who should run the council. The Moroccan-backed Rally of French Muslims (RMF) mosque network came out clearly ahead and its candidate for CFCM president, Mohammed Moussaoui, looks set to win the top job on June 22. Here’s a post-election interviewwith Moussaoui (in French) where he lists his priorities as religious training for imams and chaplains, mosque construction, consumer protection for hajis, better conditions for Eid slaughterhouses and Muslim sections in cemeteries. Without ever mentioning the record of the CFCM to date, he shows all that has to be done. The back story to the CFCM election is fascinating. Back in 2003, Sarkozy insisted that Boubakeur be president in order to:- Ensure a moderate head of a prestigious mosque headed the CFCM rather than the supposed “radicals” of the Union of French Muslim Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood and Work closely with Algeria, which supports the Grand Mosque and its network, the main mosque network for Algerian Muslims in France.

The Grand Mosque network came in third in the 2003 and 2005 elections, so the UOIF and the Moroccan mosques — first represented by the National Federation of French Muslims (FNMF) and now the RMF — had serious problems with this interference. Although Sarkozy is now president, it seems he did not bring the same priorities into the Elysée Palace. The current approach shows less worry about the UOIF, which is not really all that “radical” after all, and a tilt towards Morocco. Press reports say Rabat has also become more interested in influencing its emigrants in Europe after Moroccans were implicated in the Theo van Gogh murder and the Madrid train bombings. Anyway, back to the CFCM elections. Once Boubakeur pulled out of the race in supposed protest against the voting mechanism accepted in the two earlier elections, the vote was free for the winners to be the group that actually won the most votes. The Moroccans came in a strong first at 43.2 percent, far ahead of the UOIF at 30.2 percent. This satisfied the Moroccans and smaller groups that will probably ally with them, but left the UOIF very dissatisfied. Now it is clear they are stuck in second place and they don’t like that. So they’re calling for a rotating presidency to let them get the top job some day. Rhone-Alpes CRCM chairman Azzedine GaciJudging from what RMF President Anouar Kbibech said after the results were in (RFI audio here in French), the RMF plans to actually tackle practical problems for Muslims in France. The regional council (CRCM) in Rhône-Alpes, the region in and around Lyon, showed up the national council by producing a 74-page report on its progresson such practical issues over the past three years. The pragmatic regional leader there, Azzedine Gaci (picture at left), has set a high standard for the new boys in Paris to meet. One of the first would be to set up their own website … One fly in the ointment is that the election confirmed the influence of what the French call “consular Islam” — the influence that the so-called countries of origin have on French Muslims. The switch in leadership from the Paris Grand Mosque to the RMF also means a shift in influence from Algeria to Morocco. Turkey has a similar link to ethnic Turks in France, but they are a smaller group (12.7 percent in the election). For all the government’s talk of creating an Islam de France, it persists in fostering this consular Islam.When it was launched, the CFCM aroused interest around Europe because it seemed to be the most developed form of official representation for Islam in a European country. It looked like some kind of answer to the question ‘who speaks for Islam?’ But its immobility over the years made it drop off the radar screen.Representatives attend the ‘Conference on Islam’ in Berlin, 2 May 2007/Tobias SchwarzThere are a mixed bag of efforts to create or maintain Muslim councils in other countries, such as the “Islam Conference” in Berlin pictured at right. Here’s a roundup of them by H. A. Hellyer. Each country has a different approach and there doesn’t seem to be any one-size-fits-all solution.How do you think a Muslim council in a European country should be organised?

Uncertain future for France’s Muslim council

2003 launch of French Muslim Council with Nicolas Sarkozy (l), then French interior minister, 3 May 2003/Jacky NaegelenThe future of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), the state-backed body meant to represent the country’s second-largest religion, is once again shrouded in uncertainty. The Grand Mosque of Paris (GMP) announced on Saturday it would boycott elections next month for the CFCM leadership. Although the Grand Mosque and its national mosque network rank third in size behind rival organisations, a CFCM without it is a rump organisation that cannot really claim to represent Islam in France.

The CFCM has been paralysed by internal rivalries for most of its five years of existence. Back in 2003 when he was interior minister, France’s current President Nicolas Sarkozy engineered an agreement among the country’s main Islamic groups to create a council to speak for Muslims similar to the way the French Bishops’ Conference speaks for Catholics or the Consistory speaks for Jews. His ministry’s Religious Affairs Bureau kept close tabs on the Council and influenced its operations behind the scenes. But the CFCM could not overcome the divisions within the Muslim community itself. It rarely acted as a single body and member groups continued to compete with each other.

That competition now threatens the June 8 election.

Grand Mosque of Paris courtyard, 3 May 2008/Tom HeneghanWhile the Grand Mosque of Paris is the symbolic centre of French Islam, the main Muslim group are the Moroccan-backed Rally for French Muslims (RMF) and the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood. The RMF has been steadily gaining ground and has strong backing from Rabat (it even held a conference of 250 leaders in Marrakech in February). Moroccan immigrants in France tend to be more observant than the Algerians close to the GMP (which is directly supported by Algiers). They have opened many mosques and prayer rooms around the country, often in suburbs or small towns where they can get ample prayer space.

Sarkozy wants French pupils to ‘adopt’ Holocaust child victims

Nicolas Sarkozy and Richard Prasquier at CRIF dinner, 13 Feb 2008/Gonzalo FuentesThe “Sarko & secularism” story takes on ever new twists. French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already kicked up lively debates in France by praising religious faith whenever he can, defending his country’s Christian roots in a Roman basilica and complimenting the Saudis in Riyadh for fighting against fanaticism and fundamentalism. After the Catholics and the Muslims, France’s Jews were in line for some presidential stroking. It came on Wednesday evening, at the annual dinner of the leading Jewish organisation here, the Representative Council of Jewish Institutions in France (CRIF).

Always good for a surprise, Sarkozy unexpectedly announced he wanted each 10-year-old pupil to study the life and death of one of France’s 11,000 child Holocaust victims. The president also announced he would visit Israel in May to mark its 60th anniversary and “won’t shake hands with people who refuse to recognise Israel” — a remark apparently ruling out any face-to-face meetings with Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

File photo of children survivors of Auschwitz showing their tattooed ID numbersOne of Sarkozy’s remarks at the CRIF dinner seemed to go too far even for his hosts. He said: “The drama of the 20th century was not due to an excess of God, but to his awesome absence. There is not a line in the Torah, the Gospel or the Koran, when seen in its context and the fullness of its meaning, that can put up with the massacres committed in Europe during the 20th century in the name of totalitarianism and a world without God.”

Sarkozy and France’s Jews

Nicolas Sarkozy and Lyon Chief Rabbi Richard Wertenschlag, 28 Nov. 2002/poolWe’ve had several news stories and blog posts about President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan to modify France’s policy of laïcité, that almost untranslatable term for secularism. The focus in the discussion here is usually on what that would mean for Muslims and Christians. But what about Sarkozy and France’s Jews? Before I got the chance to look into that, my former Reuters colleague Bernard Edinger produced a very informative piece on this for the Jerusalem Report . I’ll let him tell the story right here.

A Tale of Two Secularisms

French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Taj Mahal, 26 Jan, 2008/Philippe WojazerFrance and India are two countries that proudly proclaim the secular nature of their democracies. The principles of church-state separation and state neutrality towards religion are the same. But somehow the accents were different when French President Nicolas Sarkozy visited India last week. While they both were dealing with the concept called “secularism” in English, it was clear that Sarkozy’s thinking was based on the French word laïcité while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh clearly had the Hindi term dharmanirpekshta in mind.

The visit focused mostly on expanding investment and defence cooperation, with much gossip on the side about whether the freshly divorced president’s new flame Carla Bruni would join him at the Taj Mahal (much to the chagrin of the paparazzi, she didn’t).

Hidden behind the headlines, though, was a fascinating disagreement about Sarkozy’s plan to present Taslima Nasreen, an exiled Bangladeshi writer living in India, with the “Simone de Beauvoir Prize For Women’s Freedom.” This prize sponsored by CulturesFrance (part Muslim protesters burn effigy of Taslima Nasreen in Kolkata, 20 Jan. 2004/Sucheta Dasof the French Foreign Ministry) and a Paris publisher went this year to Nasreen and Ayaan Hirsi Ali, two women of Muslim background who have been threatened with death by Islamists because of their forceful criticism of the religion.

Has Sarko gone too far praising God, faith and the Saudis?

French President Nicolas Sarkozy giving a speech, 17 Jan 2008/Charles PlatiauNicolas Sarkozy’s serial taboo-breaking is getting him into hot water. Anybody following the news these days knows about his roller-coaster love life, which has hurt his popularity ratings in a country where Monsieur le Président is supposed to be more discreet. Now his challenge to France’s laïcitéa word signifying both the separation of church and state and the taboo against bringing religion into public affairs — is provoking a backlash. What especially seems to have got his critics going is the fact that he not only praised religion in a speech in Riyahd on Monday but also counted his Saudi hosts among those Muslims “who struggle against fanaticism and terrorism, those who appeal to the basic values of Islam to combat the fundamentalism that negates them.” The fact he was also trying to sell nuclear power plants and other big-ticket French export items to Muslim countries during the same trip did not go unnoticed in his detractors’ comments.

The issue came up during parliamentary questions in the National Assembly on Wednesday (click here and search for Glavany for the exchange in French). Now criticism is coming in from the left and the right of the political spectrum, as well as in editorials. Jean Bauberot, a professor of the history of laïcité, told the Catholic daily La Croix he was worried that Sarkozy was pursuing a “lay Catholic civil religion” that might define France as a Catholic nation rather than a secular one.

True to form, Sarkozy broke with the presidential tradition of staying above the fray and shot back at his critics in an aside during a speech on Thursday about economic policy: “I know people accuse me of being much too interested in religion … I am not questioning the secular system.”

In Riyadh, Sarkozy praises God, Islam and Saudi Arabia

France’s President Sarkozy speaks with Riyadh Governor Prince Salman Bin Abdul Aziz, 14 Jan 2008Nicolas Sarkozy does not do things by half. After being criticised for highlighting his country’s Christian roots during a speech in Rome last month, the French president went a step further in a speech in Riyadh on Monday. He praised “the transcendent God who is in the thoughts and the hearts of every person” and described Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.” Addressing Saudi Arabia’s Shura advisory council, he stressed he was speaking of “the one God of the people of the book … God who does not enslave man but frees him“.

We have to watch Nicolas Sarkozy when he travels,” the outspoken left-wing magazine Marianne commented. “Outside our borders, our president can reveal himself to be a passionate missionary for Christ, as he did during his papal visit. Travelling in Arab lands, Nicolas Sarkozy has transformed himself into a fanatical zealot for Islam.”

In a more moderate tone, the Paris newspaper Le Monde commented that the “God who does not enslave man” quote was “surprising for a head of a secular state“. Laïcité, the legal separation of church and state imposed on the traditionally Catholic country in 1905, is a key concept of modern French democracy and presidents before Sarkozy never challenged it. Public attachment to laïcité has actually strengthened in recent years as religious demands by the growing Muslim minority upset the quiet consensus against allowing faith a role in public life.

Faith, hope and love, Sarko style

Carla Bruni and Nicolas SarkozyNicolas Sarkozy is the president of faith, hope and love. The French elected him in May in the hope of change, which he doesn’t just call le changement (“change”) but la rupture (a “break” with the past). Love? Just take a look at the latest Parisian soap opera starring “President Bling-Bling,” pouting ex-wife Cécilia and new flame Carla Bruni. As for faith, we’ve been reporting and blogging about his plans to remodel laïcité, France’s trademark separation of church and state, and expect more to come this year.

For anyone following issues of faith in France, the bilingual blogger Sébastien Fath is a must-read (along with this blog, of course!). A leading French specialist on evangelical Protestantism, he has been blogging for a while en français at Sébastien Fath, commenting on the news in France, the United States and elsewhere. I’ve just discovered he took a bold leap over the language barrier a few months ago and launched an English-language blog called French Windows. In his latest posts there, he discusses in religion and politics in France and the U.S. and asks whether Sarkozy understands laïcité at all.

“Sarko the American” does Godtalk French-style

President Sarkozy attends a ceremony at Saint John Lateran Basilica in Rome, 20 Dec 2007Nicolas Sarkozy likes to talk about religion in public life, even though many French don’t think it has any role there. He never misses the opportunity to tell religious leaders how important faith is as a moral guide for modern societies. Every now and then, he goes public with it in a provocative way. He could not have been more provocative than he was on Thursday when he met Pope Benedict XVI and was inducted as the honorary canon of the Basilica of Saint John Lateran (a centuries-old tradition for French heads of state). He delivered a long speech praising faith’s role in public life and urging believers in general and Catholics in particular to play a more active role in French public debates.

“There has probably never been a French president who defended his country’s Catholic heritage so vigorously,” the French Catholic daily La Croix wrote approvingly.

We’ve covered the visit and done a story on the reactions in France (which continued to roll in after our story ran). One typical reaction was Le Monde‘s front-page cartoon showing Sarkozy dressed as a bishop while George Bush, who has a cross and a U.S. flag with crosses instead of stars), tells Pope Benedict “I think this guy’s stealing my job.” The French almost instinctively contrast their reticence about bringing religion into politics to the way U.S. politicians display and debate their faith in public.

Why we don’t call them “Muslim riots” in Paris suburbs

A burning car in Villiers-le Bel, 28 Nob 2007As soon as a riot starts in one of the poor suburbs around Paris, we get emails from readers and see comments on blogs accusing the media of hiding the supposedly key fact about the unrest. That fact, they tell us without providing any proof, is Islam. Why don’t we call this violence “Muslim riots?” they ask. What are we trying to hide by not identifying the rioters as Muslims? Do the MSM have a hidden agenda? Don’t we have the courage to “tell the truth?”

We’ve had rioting this week and the same questions came again. This blog has discussed this issue already in a post last month called “Smoke without fire – there was no Paris intifada in 2005.” That dealt with the 2005 riots in detail. This latest unrest is a good opportunity to explain why we don’t write “Muslim riots” — and ask in return why readers so far from the events are so convinced that we should.

We mention race and religion in Reuters news stories when they are relevant to the event being covered. It would be absurd to write “Presbyterian second baseman XYZ…” in a baseball story. He may be a Presbyterian, but he is not at second base as a Presbyterian, but as a baseball player.