France's Most Famous Muslim Cleric Supports Burqa Ban

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

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.

'Unusually Radical Positions'

At the time, French intelligence classified him as an Islamist to the core, "who took unusually radical positions." Informers told the authorities that Chalghoumi was calling on the faithful to engage in jihad and, during Friday prayers, was announcing that anyone who died in jihad would undoubtedly reach paradise. As if to prove these conclusions, Chalghoumi's access card for Roissy Airport was confiscated "for security reasons" in August 2003. But this can mean a lot or nothing at all.

It was the time of the nascent Iraq war, not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a time when many of those who prayed to Allah were considered vaguely suspicious. Many Paris airport workers lost their access cards at the time, simply because they were Muslims, because their beards were too long or because their passports contained Syrian stamps or visas for Algeria.

Chalghoumi doesn't wear a beard, only a goatee. He denies the accusations that relate to his past, and he says that he was confused with other imams who delivered the hate sermons in Bobigny. He insists that he never called upon people to engage in jihad, and if he did, it was only in the way the concept was preached by the Prophet Muhammad: that every devout Muslim is called upon "to engage in perpetual jihad with himself." And what about Roissy and his airport access card? "They took it away from me because I had traveled to Mecca several times," says Chalghoumi, "but believe me: I have never had any problems with the police since my arrival in France." Never? "Never."

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.

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.

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."

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.

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."

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.

Since then, Chalghoumi has always been at the forefront when it comes to spreading a better, brighter image of Islam. There is no doubt that in doing so he represents the majority of practicing Muslims in France, just as it is clear that he has also stirred up a radical minority. "It will be a long battle," he says, "but we will wage it." It is a never-ending battle, and it already seems to have taken its toll on Chalghoumi.

He established a new conference of imams last summer, and the launch was attended by cabinet ministers, representatives of the Jewish community and diplomats from the US and other embassies. Chalghoumi has spoken at conferences of the European Parliament in Brussels, he gives toasts at dinners in the Jewish community, he has traveled through the Gaza Strip in the company of rabbis, he has been invited to champion his cause at the Elysée Palace, and both the president and later the prime minister have publicly taken him by the arm, praised him and said that they were proud of him and that he had their full support.

It's a little as if the republic would have to invent Imam Chalghoumi if he didn't already exist. This makes it easy for his enemies to spread malicious rumors about him and condemn him as an "agent of the system." Chalghoumi himself plays into their hands with his speeches and interviews, which are always a little too perfect, a little too zealous and a little too compliant. "I am a symbol," says Chalghoumi, not without a touch of pride. He likes to see himself in the role of the lonely pioneer. "The Drancy mosque is a symbol. And the enemies want to destroy us." These are big words, too big, perhaps for an imam in a small city. They only egg on the resistance instead of placating it. Chalghoumi, the imam of peace, disturbs the peace. Perhaps this is necessary and is exactly what the culture war needs right now. But the mosque in Drancy, whose ministry is now regularly accompanied by dispatches from the press agencies, has also become a place of vulgar behavior and wrangling, a place of discord.

Chalghoumi's enemies now appear at the mosque every Friday, and each time there are a few more than the last time. Some are now coming to Drancy from farther a field. They include skillful speakers who sometimes promote strange ideas, such as demanding that instead of Islam accommodating France, the country should accommodate Islam, because it is the one true faith. The protestors have recently taken to waving photos of the bodies of children in Gaza. They also claim to have collected more than 1,000 signatures supporting Chalghoumi's dismissal. Perhaps his days as imam are numbered.

If so, the republic will lose its good Muslim, the model imam. Is he afraid? For himself? His family? "I'm just afraid for my congregation, for this mosque," he says. Once again, his words are a little too perfect, even a little peculiar, because Chalghoumi says them in passing, as he hurries back out into his small world surrounded by the Carrefour supermarket, the parking lot and the railroad embankment, which is blocking the view toward Mecca.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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