In secularist France, where a Muslim schoolgirl's veil can spark
fears that the Republic is in danger, there have long been
suspicions that Islam and French democracy just don't mix.
But some of those concerns dissolved when representatives of the
country's Muslim community agreed to take part in the election of a
government-sponsored council that would work toward better
integration into French society.
The need for dialogue between the state and its resident Muslims
has become even more apparent since the 9/11 attacks on America by
Islamic extremists. A key issue is whether France can foster a form
of Islam that is compatible with its secular, democratic society.
But after 2 1/2 years of talks, France still does not have its
council. And the real conflict appears to be not between French
democracy and Islam - but among France's Muslims themselves.
Elections leading to the creation of the Muslim Council of France
were twice postponed this summer because of bickering between
conservative and more liberal imams and between more established and
newer mosques. The internal power struggles are undermining both the
government's desire to create an Islam a la francaise, and the hope
of bringing millions of North African immigrants into France's
cultural and political mainstream.
France has Europe's largest Muslim community - about 5 million.
Many of them live in rundown suburbs and complain that they suffer
Emmanuelle Mignon, the civil servant in charge of the talks, says
the vast majority of France's Muslims practice a peaceful, moderate
form of Islam but adds that fundamentalism remains a danger: "If we
fail to integrate Islam and Muslims into French society, people will
act on the basis of their identity, and radical Islam will
flourish," says Ms. Mignon, who hopes to set up elections to the
council by November.
The council is meant to be an important symbolic welcoming of
France's second most professed religion, along the lines of bodies
already existing for Catholics, Protestants, and Jews.
"Up until now the French have considered Islam to be outside the
history of the Republic," says Malek Chebel, an Islamic studies
specialist. He says that Islam has had trouble being accepted
because it is linked to painful memories of the eight-year war
between France and its former colony Algeria, and also because of
France's secularist tradition.
"The real dominant religion in France is really secularism," says
Malek, explaining a fear dating to the revolution that religion may
influence politics, education, or social life. In many nations where
Islam is dominant, the lines between state and religion are blurred.
In its efforts to create the Council, the previous Socialist
government excluded a handful of radical Islamic organizations. But
some leading delegates say this was not enough.
Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Grand Mosque, and one of the
representatives trying to create the Council, accuses some fellow
delegates of fundamentalism and recruiting for terrorist causes. …