French City Embraces Muslims ; A Less Rigid Secularism Cuts Tensions That Afflict Other Parts of the Country

Article excerpt

Roubaix is one of just a handful of cities in France that have broken with a rigid interpretation of state secularism. The city stands out for its effort to promote an active Muslim community.

Wearing head scarves and long skirts, the women glide along the faded back streets of this poor French city as they make their way to the mosque to hear the last prayer of the evening.

Like their husbands and brothers, fathers and sons, they feel at home here. That is in large part because Roubaix, a small city in northeastern France, has made a point of embracing its Muslim population, estimated to be one of the largest in the country proportionally.

"I am comfortable in these clothes here in Roubaix," said Farid Gacem, the bearded president of the Abu Bakr mosque, who was wearing a nearly ankle-length loose brown tunic on a recent afternoon.

In a country where Islamic head coverings are regulated by law and many Muslims say they have been made to feel like outsiders, Roubaix is one of just a handful of cities that have broken with a rigid interpretation of the country's state secularism. The city stands out for its effort to take discreet but pointed steps to promote an active Muslim community, and in doing so it has diminished the ethnic and sectarian tensions that have afflicted other parts of France, evident again during the holy month of Ramadan this summer.

In Trappes, a heavily Muslim suburb of Paris, an altercation between the police and a woman wearing a niqab, a veil that covers the face except for the eyes and is illegal to wear in public, turned violent two weeks ago. In another suburb of Paris, the mayor refused a request by Muslims for a prayer room to use during Ramadan. The Interior Ministry says crimes targeting Muslims have increased 28 percent this year.

Yet here in Roubaix, the mood is different. That is despite one of the worst unemployment rates in the country, 22 percent, with the figure far higher among young people, according to the mayor's office. Nearly half of households have incomes that put them below the poverty line, and many areas are troubled by petty crime and drug trafficking.

The question is whether Roubaix's approach to multiculturalism will become a model for other French cities, or whether, in a country in which the Muslim population finds itself at the center of a continuing debate over racism, religious tolerance and national identity, it will remain an exception.

"Roubaix is a cradle, a symbol of immigration," said Muhammed Henniche, secretary general of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, a department bordering Paris, who has looked at the approaches taken by different municipalities. "Roubaix is representative of living in harmony in terms of immigration," he said.

The reasons Roubaix is different are hard to pinpoint, in part because of a reluctance by French officials to talk about religion. But among its special circumstances is a long history of immigration, which has included not just Muslims but also Buddhists from Southeast Asia among other groups.

The mayor's office has taken steps to offer assistance to Muslims, including finding places to worship. That contrasts with the approach of many French cities that strictly follow the national ethic of laicite, or state secularism. …