CHRIS KUTSCHERA 40 YEARS OF JOURNALISM (Texts and Photos)

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FRANCE : Suburbs of Islam

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Gilles Kepel’s book on Islam in France (Les Banlieues de l’Islam, Editions du Seuil, Paris)  starts with an invitation: “Would you come and have dinner with us at home”? This question and a few others which Gilles Kepel and his fellow researchers asked from a selection of several dozen Moslems living in France permit a rough delineation of four groups of believers: those who would not sit at the table of a “kaffir” (non believer); those who would accept it provided the meat is “halal” (ritually acceptable); those who wouldn’t mind if they did not have to eat pork and drink wine; and a fourth group which accepted the invitation without a second thought.

With this simple question the author starts what is the most comprehensive study on the attitude of Moslems in France towards Islam and on the history of Islam in France. The first mosque was inaugurated in Paris 60 years ago by the Sultan of Morocco, but crowds of believers did not create a “Moslem quarter” in Paris. Although 100.000 Algerians were living in France between the two world wars, the big mosque of Paris was always considered as a “colonial showcase” and remained a deserted temple.

It took half a century for Islam to become a power in France: since 1970, more than 600 Islam-oriented associations and 1.000 praying precincts have been established in France. Some of the causes of this Islamic boom are definitely linked to specific French factors -- there are now between 2.5m and 3m Moslems in France -- but some of them are tied to the general situation in the Middle East, to petrodollar affluence, and to the Iranian revolution. For this reason Gilles Kepek’s book is of interest for all students of Middle eastern affairs.

Kepel remarks that at the beginning the French administration considered with a benevolent eye the creation of the first “mosques” in workers dormitories. Created in 1956 for the “French Moslem Workers of Algeria”,  SONACOTRA labourers’ residences were built to isolate the Algerian workers from NLF propaganda. Two decades later, when workers went on strike and stopped paying their rents to prtotest against bad living conditions, the press failed to take notice, writes Kepel. But one of the workers’ main demands was to get a place to pray. When this demand spread to factories, the managers were still quicker to satisfy it because it was easy and inexpensive, because it seemed to bring a measure of order and calm in the factories, and because it appeared to be a measure without political consequences.

Ripple effect

But ripple effect of events in the Middle East meant that the promotion of the so-called “cultural identiry” of the Moslem immigrant workers would have far-reaching consequences. First, the new wealth of the oil producing countries after 1973 allowed the Gulf states, Libya and Algeria to invest heavily in Islam in France. Six years later, the Iranian revolution was seen by all Moslems living in France as a demonstration of the triumph of Islam. Henceforth, there was a geometric progression of the number of praying precincts.

At first all the “mosques” created in France were bare rooms (sometimes basements, sometimes in a dilapidated workshop or a garage). They were clean, but they lacked everything, and self-styled “worker-imams” were aware of their shortcomings. Such fertile ground could not remain uncultivated for long. Gilles Kepel, the author of an excellent book on the Islamic movement in Egypt, is quite at ease in analysing the various Islamic trends from the Middle East and North Africa which would affect the birth of of Islam in France -- some of them for purely religious reasons, others because their influence on a potential mass of several hundred thousand people could provide precious political leverage.

Paradoxically, it was a purely religiously inspired organisation, Jamaat al Tabligh from Pakistan, which first became interested in the fate of the Moslems of France. Gilles Kepel devotes a revealing chapter to this little known but powerful “pietist” organisation which today controls one of the “cathedral-mosques” in Paris.

But very quickly two Arab states, each one having its own concept of Islam, began to act on behalf of Moslems living in France. The opening of an office in Paris by the Saudi-based World Moslem League marked, as Gilles Kepel relates it, a “turning point in the islamisation of France”. Granting financial assistance to various local associations the World Moslem League helped them to become owners of their mosques, which they had previously rented as “praying-precincts”. It assisted the associations to be independent from more or less benevolent “kaffirs”, but it also contributed to develop a growing number of conflicts with local townships which opposed the construction of too-visible mosques with highly controversial minarets.

The Paris director of the World Moslem League  told Gilles Kepel that through his office Saudi Arabia gave 6 million francs in 6 years to various local associations. But, as the author underlines, this represents only a small part of the flow of money arriving from the Gulf through official or unofficial channels during thse years.

Algeria, while less well-endowed with funds, began to put up a stiff and mostly successful resistance to Saudi attempts to control the Moslems of France. With a population of over 800.000 Algerians living on the other side of the Mediterranean, Algeria could not remain passive. Its network of consulates and its grass-root control of the workers through the Amicale des Algériens en France were powerful tools. Gilles Kepel tells in details how Algiers’ policy unfolded. First, the Algerian government succeeded in taking over the Grand Mosque in Paris which had been an object of dispute between various Arab states. Then, after President Chadli Benjedid succeeded to power in 1979, Algeria started a policy of reconciliation with the harkis. These militias, who fought during the Algerian war of liberation alongside the French army against the NLF had been considered for many years as traitors and prevented, in exile even, from visiting Algeria. Kepel claims that through its control of the Grand Mosque in Paris and its reconciliation with the harkis, Algiers could discreetly encourage Algerians living in France to become French citizens while keeping their islamic identity.

Saudi Arabia and Algeria were not (and are not) the only Middle East and North African states with a keen interest in the fate of the Moslems of France: Libya, Morocco (with as many as 450.000 citizens living in France) and Iran among others have been trying to involve themselves directly in the affairs of the Moslems living in France, on the side of Saudi Algeria or Algeria, or in their own interest.

But Gilles Kepel’s conclusion is that a decisive chapter is now beginning with the rise of a new force -- the Moslem citizens of France. Unlike the Moslems temporarily residing in France, these French Moslems have all the political rights of French citizens. Between the harkis, the French converted, and the French citizens born from North African or Turkish parents, they number altogether a little less than a million. But they could constitute an effective bridge between the mass of the foreign Moslems living in France and a French society which may have to reconsider its definition of nationality.

Written by an Arabic-speaking scholar, Les Banlieues de L’Islam (“The Suburbs of Islam”) is written in such a way as to be interesting reading both for the layman and for the student, the journalist or the politician. It includes fascinating documents, such as a first hand transcription of some of the khotbas (lectures) pronounced in different mosques of Paris. It includes a great deal of original material, statistics and interviews. Although it fails -- probably deliberately -- to describe certain “subversive” Islmic forces at work in France, Gilles Kepel’s book is the most comprehensive and objective study published so far on a very sensitive subject.

(The Middle East magazine, January 1988)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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