Saturday, 19 June 2004

Vatican City (Fides Service) - In less than 40 years France has become the western European country with the largest number of Muslims. According to statements issued in 2003 by the Internal Affairs Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy (presently Minister of Economy and Finance), there are 5 million Muslims in France and Muslims form the second largest religious group after in the country after Catholics (43 million, 75% of a population of 58 million) other Christians (800,000), Jews (700,000) and Buddhists (400,000).

Since 1913 the number of Muslims resident in France rose from 5,000 to the 5 million of today. Of these almost 3 million are French citizens. However their political influence is still quite weak. How many ministers, members of parliament, prefects, ambassadors, mayors are children of immigration? Very few. And this is a first signal which reveals difficult integration which the recent law banning the ostentation of religious signs in schools only goes to underline.

Every January 5 for the ceremony of New Year wishes at the Eliseo, the French President receives representatives of the three largest religious groups in France: Catholics, other Christians and Jews, the Muslim community is not represented. However on 13 January 2000 for the first time the President, Jacques Chirac invited a small delegation of Imam and rectors of mosques including the rector of the Paris Mosque Dalil Bubakeur to a separate meeting.

However if the French state has done little to update the old machine of integration, for years many French Muslims never wanted to consider France as their country but only as a land of transit. In 1950s immigrants from the colonies in North Africa would send all the money they earned back to their families. Not even the law of family-reunion in 1974 made them change their conviction that the real life was on the other side of the Mediterranean. Then this tendency began to change but a problem arose: how to remain Muslim in culture and religion in a secular country and not betray one’s origins? It is necessary to take into consideration these note prompted by surveys on religious practice of Muslims in France published the Le Monde daily newspaper (see attached).

In fact the change occurred gradually over the past 10 years when the immigrant population came to realise that it was French to all intents and purposes. This is demonstrated by a fact which did not escape official statistics: since the early 1990s the number of Muslims requesting burial in French cemeteries has increased. This means putting aside all hope of return and adapting to French laws, values and life style. But can this be done without disowning one’s Arab Muslim identity?

This is a difficult challenge in a France which still bears the scars of the Algerian tragedy and is now shaken by the new fear of Muslim terrorism. Today between 60 and 80 per cent of Muslims in France including many TV stars, artists and intellectuals, can be considered integrated. One out of every ten couples is said to be mixed and of these, French-Maghreb marriages are the most numerous. An increasing number of Maghreb women are marrying non Muslim Frenchmen. All this is changing the social panorama in France. However it should be underlined that happy marriages are individual cases and they do not derive from integration policy at the national level, which is lacking. There are many cases of north African men who have returned to their country of origin after a divorce and after taking from their former French wives the children who, according to the rules of Islam, are always under the authority of the father.

A deep fracture is dividing the Arab Muslim community: on the once hand there are those, the great majority, who have “prix l’ascenseure”, as they say in France, and on the other those left to themselves, mostly young people without education or work. The most vulnerable to all the temptations and trends, often towards delinquency or Islamic fundamentalist, especially in ghetto-cities built in the 1960s, which successive ministers have failed to eliminate. One often follows the other. Delinquency, damaged cars, aggression, gang riots, armed robbery. The logic is almost simplistic: society ignores us? We will show them we are here !

Before September 11, the Israel-Palestine war, amplified by the media, aggravated these attitudes in some sectors of the population. The 11 September changed a lot of things. Some of these young people on the margins felt the need for a credo, a cause. Today, the French secret services know that Bin Laden’s network had already taken root and was active in France and that French Taleban had chosen the initiatory path of Afghanistan and then ended up in prisons in Guantanamo.

For the government there was only one path: to take note of the presence of Islam and organise it. In 1999 Jean Pierre Chevenement, Minister for Internal Affairs and Religions, started a process of consultation of Islamic authorities. The situation immediately showed itself to be catastrophic because Islam in France was fragmented, it had no united community and places of worship had developed without any plan. In 1978 there were 72 mosques, in 2002 there were hundreds. Muslims were praying in garages, in cellars; anyone could call himself an Imam and improvise sermons more or less inflammatory. In this anarchy extremist groups, the most organised, took the upper hand in a good number of places of prayer.

One of these groups known as Tabligh movement was born in India in 1927, it arrived in France e 1970s and preaches the return of original Islam hard and pure. This group, considered Islam’s greatest missionary movement followed an impeccable technique: at the beginning it started door to door with a simplistic but effective re-Islamisation, then it started organising meetings of families in homes. Each new member had to spend three days in another town to preach Islam. After three trial years the brothers were sent on mission to another country for 40 days. First in Britain then Pakistan or Afghanistan. And then? Mystery, they were lost from sight, impossible to find out, top secret. pp

Alarmed by this cellar proselytism which made good ground in the local communities with the push from various governments the building of censured mosques was facilitated to offer Islam dignity and visibility. But the state of France is not allowed to build or finance places of worship. Who was to pay for these very costly mosques?

Muslim believers in France? No they are too poor. The Arab states intervened. Today the eight largest mosques in France were funded completely or partly by Saudi Arabia, Morocco or Algeria which appoint Imam for mosques where moderate or more often radical Islam is preached. After the prayers we are even beginning to see women wearing the Afghan burqa. A recent note from the French secret service signalled the presence in the Paris region of extremely violent preachers connected with the Algerian GIA.

In this context the Ministry of Internal Affairs, after 11 September 2001, accelerated steps to election of a French Council for Muslim Faith and to have at last an interlocutor able to channel and if possible control the Muslim world in ebullition. However the consultation was limited to practising Muslims and approved places of worship which reduced its real impact. The French Council for the Muslim Faith deals with cultural and religious aspects of Islam. But secular or non practising Muslims, 80% of the Muslim community in France, refuse to be represented by what they call “bearded” who have no idea of what it means to live in a country like France and they call for the social plan to be separated from the religious one and that a Secular Council be elected to discuss problem of integration with public authorities.