His spoken French is halting and at odds with his otherwise elegant appearance, but the gist of his sentences is as clear as glass. He speaks out "against sinister Islam," against the hate, the violence and the Muslim Brotherhood that seeks to foment unrest among young people in the poor suburbs, the banlieues, and against extremists and Salafists. "We must brighten up once again the catastrophic image of our religion," he says.
Many feel that Chalghoumi is going too far. On Fridays, in front of the mosque in Drancy, seemingly moderate, clean-shaven men wearing Western clothes accuse him of being a puppet of the powerful. They say he shouldn't get involved in politics but should interpret the Koran; that he should settle the affairs of Muslims "among Muslims," and not in a broader forum; and that he should not kowtow to the Jews as much as they say he does.
The Jews. They play an important role in Chalghoumi's story. It is clear that many Muslims in France have problems with the Jews. Many in places like Drancy and Bobigny are sharply opposed to Israel, thousands of kilometers away, and many feel a vague sense of solidarity with the Palestinians. When there is trouble in the Gaza Strip, the number of cars torched in the banlieues of Paris rises. "In the minds of many of my fellow Muslims," says Chalghoumi, "the Jews are still the billionaires, the usurers. It's time to finally put an end to that." This sentence makes perfect sense in France and elsewhere in Europe, but not in his community.
In January 2009, when the Israeli offensive was underway in the Gaza Strip and was responsible for disturbing images on French television, Chalghoumi, once again, demonstratively took an unexpected side. He didn't condemn Israel. Instead, he said that Israel and the Gaza Strip were far away, and that the French had nothing to do with the Palestinian conflict. He said: "Where will we be if we import the entire world's conflicts to France?" It was a position that closely resembled that of the Elysée Palace but was well removed from that of the Muslim community.
He made himself even more unpopular among Muslims when he said, four years ago in May, that the Holocaust was a "crime without comparison." At the time, he was the first imam in France who dared to take such a radical position. He did so at one of the scenes of the crime, in Drancy itself, where, in the midst of a sea of gray buildings, there is still a large, gloomy U-shaped apartment building that the German Nazis and their willing French helpers used as a central internment camp for Jews before they were shipped to Auschwitz. After a number of large-scale raids on Jewish communities in Paris and elsewhere, more than 60,000 people, including 6,000 children, were sent from Drancy to the death camp.
An old railroad car still stands there as a reminder today, with stone monument erected in front of it. The apartments that once served as prison cells are occupied again today, and pigeons strut across the lawns. During a ceremony there, Chalghoumi spoke of his sadness over the crimes of the Holocaust. In closing, he said that the Jews and the Muslims, "the children of Israel and Ishmael," are from the same family and are cousins. The courage of his remarks became clear a few days later, when his apartment was vandalized.