France's Most Famous Muslim Cleric Supports Burqa Ban

At the time, he publicly acknowledged the horrors of the Holocaust, he reached out to France's Jews, and he spoke of reconciliation and rapprochement -- things that were unheard of for a Muslim cleric at the time. Chalghoumi soon came to be known as the "imam of peace." Meanwhile, there was growing unrest within his own congregation. The tires of Chalghoumi's car were slashed, and strangers ransacked his apartment. The imam of peace was sowing disagreement and reaping violence -- in all likelihood from within his own community.

He had already completed his religious training when, in 1996, he arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in nearby Roissy, an immigrant like so many who had come before him and who would follow. At first, he lived in Bobigny, in the Seine-Saint-Denis district, which has some 100 mosques. There was plenty of work for someone like Chalghoumi, who had studied the Koran for four years at schools in Syria and Pakistan, and had already made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Until 2002, he worked half the day as an imam in Bobigny and the other half earning money as a FedEx warehouse worker in the turmoil of Charles de Gaulle Airport. This is where the contradictory versions of his life begin.

'Unusually Radical Positions'

At the time, French intelligence classified him as an Islamist to the core, "who took unusually radical positions." Informers told the authorities that Chalghoumi was calling on the faithful to engage in jihad and, during Friday prayers, was announcing that anyone who died in jihad would undoubtedly reach paradise. As if to prove these conclusions, Chalghoumi's access card for Roissy Airport was confiscated "for security reasons" in August 2003. But this can mean a lot or nothing at all.

It was the time of the nascent Iraq war, not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a time when many of those who prayed to Allah were considered vaguely suspicious. Many Paris airport workers lost their access cards at the time, simply because they were Muslims, because their beards were too long or because their passports contained Syrian stamps or visas for Algeria.

Chalghoumi doesn't wear a beard, only a goatee. He denies the accusations that relate to his past, and he says that he was confused with other imams who delivered the hate sermons in Bobigny. He insists that he never called upon people to engage in jihad, and if he did, it was only in the way the concept was preached by the Prophet Muhammad: that every devout Muslim is called upon "to engage in perpetual jihad with himself." And what about Roissy and his airport access card? "They took it away from me because I had traveled to Mecca several times," says Chalghoumi, "but believe me: I have never had any problems with the police since my arrival in France." Never? "Never."

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