France's Most Famous Muslim Cleric Supports Burqa Ban

Incongruously, the small rally, which also included as speakers veiled women and eyewitnesses of the alleged storming of the mosque, was repeatedly interrupted by wedding parties driving up to the town hall about every half hour. Algerian, Moroccan and Tunisian groups, in a loud, celebratory mood, accompanied by entertaining brass bands, marched past the ragtag group of angry protestors. North African women, dressed to the nines in Western clothing, including short skirts, and wearing red lipstick, danced across the square in front of the town hall, headed for the registry office, blissfully ignoring the shivering agitators.

Of course, the overwhelming majority of Muslims in France have about as much to do with Islam and the Koran today as French Christians do with Christianity and the Bible -- in other words, not much. But France also happens to be caught in the stranglehold of the global economic crisis, President Nicolas Sarkozy's government has fallen well short of keeping its promises, there are constantly new elections brewing and there is a lack of hot-button issues. The debate over the burqa and the fame of Imam Chalghoumi are products of this agitated climate.

A Communist member of the parliament launched the burqa debate last summer, and because he promptly found supporters in all parties in the National Assembly, a commission was formed and a new law was soon drafted. Supporters of the legislation invoked women's rights, the republic and everything that is holy in France. Politicians were not overly concerned about the fact that hardly anyone had even seen women wearing burqas on the streets, and that all the commotion was perhaps excessive in light of the very small number of cases.

Suddenly everything seemed to fit together in a disquieting manner: That the government stirred up a debate over "national identity" almost concurrently with the burqa controversy, and that the Swiss voted against minarets at the end of November. For a Muslim in Europe, it could easily feel as if someone were playing a dirty game against Islam, and as if France might even welcome the opportunity to use the Muslims as scapegoats.

A Puppet of the Powerful?

The burqa debate died down for a short time. There were regional elections in mid-March, but they were a disaster for the president's right-wing alliance, and now Sarkozy is personally leading the anti-burqa faction. Hoping to curry favor with the electorate as his popularity wanes, the president now wants the law against the veil to be "as strict as possible."

Instead of rising up against this France that is noticeably attacking his religion, and instead of protesting against politicians who strive to win elections with anti-Islamic slogans, Chalghoumi, the model imam, has voiced and continues to voice his commitment to this France, to the republic. Once again, he is loudly applauded for this, but for his fellow Muslims the applause is coming from the wrong quarter. Within Chalghoumi's own ranks, in Drancy and elsewhere, the applause subsided long ago.

"I want to be a republican imam," says Chalghoumi. His words reflect, roughly, the title of the book he plans to publish, in which he intends to argue for a "European Islam" and a "French Islam."

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