France's Most Famous Muslim Cleric Supports Burqa Ban

His current fame peaked at the end of January, when he said in a newspaper interview that he approved of a burqa ban. He and his small congregation have had no peace since then. Within days of the interview, 20, 30 or perhaps even 40 people loudly interrupted a sermon in Drancy and jostled for the microphone so that they could talk about the "imam of the Jews," as they called him, and about an "imam who speaks in our name and betrays us," and they demanded Chalghoumi's resignation.

Commitment to France and its Values

The incident caused a stir after associates of the imam, perhaps even his personal advisors, of which he has several, wrote a press release in which they claimed an "Islamist commando" had stormed and desecrated the mosque, and had threatened the imam. It was, on a small scale, the scenario France has feared for years, in which Islamist cells form in its cities, Koran fanatics fill the heads of Islamic youth on the cities' outskirts with their messages of hate, a significant portion of immigrants want nothing to do with the French republic and Arabs begin attacking Arabs.

Chalghoumi fueled such fears even further when he said publicly that he was in mortal danger and had received death threats, a fear he continues to voice today. He says that the charge that he is an "imam of the Jews," an imam who is losing his faith and betraying Muslims is tantamount to a death threat. His two bodyguards sit with us in his office during the interview. Later on, they accompany him to his Renault Clio parked in front of the mosque, and when they open the glass door, they glance quickly to both sides, as if they were expecting snipers on the railroad embankment or in the parking lot.

Chalghoumi's enemies now gather in front of the mosque every Friday. They bring along big loudspeakers and collect signatures for his dismissal. Because the local authorities have forbidden them from agitating on the Carrefour parking lot, they now stand on the lawn directly in front of the mosque. On one occasion, they even staged a rally in front of the Drancy town hall where, speaking to 30 or 40 protestors, they raged against the mayor, Chalghoumi and Zionism.

Their leader, a sullen man named Abdelhakim Sefrioui, always wears a gray herringbone coat and a Palestinian scarf around his neck on cold days. He has called Chalghoumi and the mayor liars and said that "Islam is being attacked in the land of secularism" and accused the government of "secretly establishing mosques to destroy Islam from within."

The Burqa Debate in an Agitated Climate

In a conversation on the bleak, cold square where a young Charles de Gaulle is immortalized in bronze, Sefrioui made even more claims. He said that because France is a friend of Israel, it is a friend "of terrorists who massacre children," that Chalghoumi is a useful idiot who is helping to turn the Muslims into the "scarecrows of the republic," and that that very republic has become "Jewified." Jewified? "Oh yes, Monsieur, and that's putting it far too mildly." The young, bearded, shivering men in ankle-length robes standing around nodded in agreement.

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