Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Toward an 'Islam de France'

Nidra Poller

Muslim prayers in the streets of Paris? Row upon row of worshippers under the eyes of uniformed French policemen? Hundreds of men chanting "Allahu akbar" in open-air mosques? A series of videos posted online over the past two years, depicting all of the above, by a journalist using the pseudonym "Maxime Lépante" have provoked a mixture of shock and disbelief. For at least 15 years, local officials have been collaborating with the police department to tacitly authorize the obstruction of a few narrow streets in Paris's 18th arrondissement—Rues Myrha, Léon, Polonceau, Poissoniers—to accommodate overflowing crowds for midday prayers on Fridays. Similar "tolerance" is exhibited by several other French towns and cities. Illegal street prayers became a national political issue last December when Marine Le Pen—who in January replaced her father, Jean-Marie, as president of the National Front party—denounced them as an "occupation without tanks or soldiers." Since then, the question has broadened to a critical examination of Islam's role in French society, becoming a major issue going into the 2012 presidential campaign. Ms. Le Pen's rising poll numbers place her neck and neck with President Nicolas Sarkozy and likely Socialist candidate Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and the weak performance of Mr. Sarkozy's UMP party in this weekend's local elections have laid further ground for a shake-up at next year's polls.

That is why Mr. Sarkozy has worked intently not to let the National Front monopolize the issue. He announced last December that the UMP would hold a debate to clarify the rights and responsibilities of Islam in a republic based on the principle of laïcité , or secularism, to culminate in a convention scheduled for next week. Pointedly rejecting the prevailing notion of "Islam en France"—of Islam as an alien body within the state—the president called instead for an "Islam de France"—a Frenchified Islam, respectful of French values and mores.

The Socialist opposition has reacted with its own declarations in defense of laïcité while nonetheless rejecting the debate as a divisive measure that stigmatizes Muslims. Socialist Party spokesman Benoît Hamon has called the obstruction of streets unacceptable, as has Daniel Vaillant, the Socialist mayor of the 18th arrondissement—the same man who had facilitated such street prayers for 15 years. Elaborating on the hardships endured by his Muslim citizens, the mayor has promised that the problem would soon be resolved by the construction of a spacious mosque. Poking one more loophole in the 1905 law that prohibits public funding of religious edifices, the city council has already approved funding for a multimillion-dollar Islamic cultural center in the 18th arrondissement.

Benoît Apparu, the Sarkozy government's undersecretary for housing, goes one step further, suggesting that the 1905 law could be modified to facilitate an ambitious program of mosque construction that would solve the problem of street prayers. It remains to be seen whether Mr. Apparu's proposal will be viewed favorably or rejected as a transgression of the principle of laïcité at the very center of the debate.

Tolerance for illegal street prayers is but one example of a general failure to clarify the relationship between mosque and state in France. The UMP debate has led to a nationwide re-evaluation of this crucial problem, one that has been barricaded behind a wall of taboos. Previously, every attempt at restating and clarifying national values had been rejected as an attack on Muslims. But since December, the public discourse on these issues has been reanimated. UMP General Secretary Jean-François Copé promises a forthright discussion at next week's convention, with concrete measures to be enacted to prevent political Islam from contravening the laws of the Republic.

Critics, meanwhile, have cut across party lines in their opposition to even raising questions about the relationship between Islam and the République . Earlier this month Abderrahmane Dahmane, the president's special advisor on diversity, urged Muslim members of the UMP not to renew their party membership should the debate go forward as planned. In a sign of the Sarkozy government's determination to take a strong stand on the issue, Mr. Dahmane was summarily dismissed. Socialist Party chief Martine Aubry had been a signatory to an anti-debate petition until last week, when she withdrew her name after it emerged that Tariq Ramadan, the controversial Swiss scholar, had also signed it.

Former journalist Anne Sinclair, whose comments are closely watched for what they might suggest about the views of her husband, Mr. Strauss-Kahn, has accused the UMP and National Front of using the issue to foment fear and distrust ahead of next year's election. In a post on her blog last month, she lashed out at those who "play with fire" by calling for a debate on Islam's role in a secular society at a time when the Arab world is at last standing upright to shed autocratic rule.

This objection in particular seems to miss the point. What is to be feared from clarifying the founding principles of the République ? If the Arab uprisings are a contest for democracy and self-governance, then an open debate about the way in which a population wishes to govern itself would only honor the demonstrators. The alternative would be a great shame for the citizens of France.

Mrs. Poller is an American author living in Paris.

Nidra Poller

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