France's Most Famous Muslim Cleric Supports Burqa Ban

A Gift from Drancy's Mayor

The meeting with Chalghoumi takes place on a cool working day at the mosque in Drancy. The mosque, built in 2008, stands on the edge of a large shopping mall called Avenir, the French word for "future." When the faithful bow toward Mecca, there is a Carrefour hypermarket behind them, the shopping center's large parking lot on one side and a railroad embankment in front. On Fridays, there are such large numbers of worshippers at the mosque, upwards of 1,500 people, wearing every conceivable North African traditional costume, that the prayer room becomes too small to contain the congregation. Volunteers place carpets on the ground outside for the countless faithful, who then worship under the open sky.

Inside the mosque, the floor in the large prayer room is covered with red wall-to-wall carpeting. Without the bookshelves in some of the corners and the mihrab, the prayer niche with its cheap arabesques, the space could just as well be a gymnasium or the lobby of a German administrative district office.

The building was a gift of sorts, from the new mayor of Drancy. He is a man of the "new center," who accomplished the feat of driving the Communists out of town hall after they had been in power for more than 40 years, a pragmatist who flatly ignored France's ironclad principle of the separation of church and state when he had the €1.8 million ($2.39 million) mosque built for the many Muslims in his city. It was also for the imam of peace, who had said that he wanted to shine a light on "sinister Islam."

Chalghoumi meets with visitors in his small office on the upper floor of the mosque, a room furnished with a desk and upholstered furniture, its walls adorned with small rugs covered with surahs in gold lettering. His staff serves sweetened tea. Chalghoumi, a man with sad-looking eyes and wearing a white fez, shakes our hands and says: "I don't have much time. Would you like to take a picture? If so, we should do that right away."

Hardly waiting for an answer, he stands up, bounces out of the office and walks down to the prayer room. He knows what photographers want. Images are important to him -- images of himself. They can't be taken out of context as easily as words. And Chalghoumi is aware of his photogenic effect. He always appears in photos as a modest and unthreatening man, a good Muslim, the imam France has been waiting for.

'Imam of the Jews'

Chalghoumi has been in the news a lot lately, appearing on the front pages of Le Parisien and Aujourd'hui en France, the country's largest newspapers. There have been photos in Figaro and full-page portraits in Le Monde, Libération and the magazines. Chalghoumi also appears frequently on television, either as a subject on the evening news or as a guest on Grand Journal, a talk show on the Canal Plus channel that normally features cabinet ministers, Olympic medalists and Hollywood actors. Chalghoumi has become a star in his own right, a star of the republic: a good Muslim, one to be shown to the world and not one who constantly accuses and demands and challenges everything.

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