France's Most Famous Muslim Cleric Supports Burqa Ban

Imam Chalghoumi gets threats from his French congregation for being anti-burqa.

ByABC News
April 26, 2010, 6:33 AM

April 26, 2010 -- Hassen Chalghoumi is the best-known imam in France and easily the most controversial, even though he preaches peace instead of hate. Police cars are stationed in front of his mosque during Friday prayers, and he has two bodyguards with him at all times when he goes out in public. Sometimes, when it all becomes too much for him, he takes his wife and their five children and goes away for a week or two, in the hope that all the excitement over him and the ideas he preaches will calm down again. But the tactic hasn't worked so far, because the whole thing flares up again as soon as he returns home. Chalghoumi has led a hectic life in recent weeks.

There are 5 million Muslims in France, although there could even be as many as 8 million, no one knows for sure. Some have been there for a long time while others are recent immigrants. Within this population, there are believed to be 1,400 women who wear either the large full-body veil, the burqa, in black or blue, or the niqab, the full veil that covers the face apart from the eyes, although that number could also be as low as 400. In any case, Chalghoumi dared to publicly condemn the wearing of the full veil, and he welcomed the idea of outlawing it -- something that may have been ill-advised.

Chalghoumi's is a man who doesn't reveal much about himself, while others seem to think that they know everything about him. What is indisputable is that he was born in Tunis in 1972, immigrated to France in 1996 and became a French citizen in 2000, or perhaps it wasn't until two years later. Sometimes Chalghoumi contradicts himself, or he doesn't remember the details correctly, or he is quoted out of context. It isn't easy to figure him out, but it is easy to like him. He is a gentle person, a man with the grace of a professional dancer.

The imam lives in Drancy, a northern suburb of Paris with a population of 66,000, one of France's poorest municipalities. Although it's only a half-hour drive from downtown Paris to Drancy, it is a journey into a completely different world. The beauty of Paris ends on the Boulevard périphérique, the beltway surrounding the French capital. The drive soon passes through a completely different world of industrial estates, wasteland and cemeteries, past abandoned factories and railroad tracks covered with weeds. The first impression in Drancy is of the long lines forming in front of soup kitchens at midday.

It is from here that Chalghoumi has gradually become a figure of interest to the entire nation. The media, the government and even the president at the Elysée Palace first became aware of him when, in May 2006, he began saying pretty radical things. But that wasn't because he was preaching against the status quo, the republic and its values. Instead, Chalghoumi was saying things that could have been copied from right out of the French constitution, sentences that were in conformity with the system and advocated peace.

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.