Monday, October 31, 2011

France: "This Mosque Is a Direct Obstacle to the Integration of [Muslims]"

Soeren Kern
October 31, 2011

A French court has annulled the construction permit for a mega-mosque in the southern city of Marseille, home to the largest Muslim community in France.

The court ruling represents a major setback for proponents of the mosque, which has long been touted as the biggest and most potent symbol of Islam's growing place in France -- and Europe.

The move comes as a French newspaper published the contents of a leaked intelligence report about the rise of Islam in Marseille. The document states that "even if the number of individuals who have been radicalized to the point of supporting the Jihadists is relatively low, Islamic fundamentalism has progressed to the point where it has won over the majority of the Muslim population" who live in the city and who now number over 250,000. The Administrative Tribunal of Marseille ruled on October 27 that the mega-mosque project would have to be cancelled because of failures to meet urban-planning requirements. The court raised particular concerns over the project's failure to finalize a deal for a 450-space parking lot and to reassure planners that the mosque would fit in with the urban environment.

The tribunal noted "a lack of graphical material permitting the evaluation of the project's integration with neighbouring buildings, its visual impact and the treatment of access points and land."

The 22-million-euro ($31-million) project would have seen the Grand Mosque -- boasting a minaret soaring 25 meters (82 feet) high, and room for up to 7,000 worshippers in a vast prayer hall -- built on the north side of the city's old port in

the city's northern Saint-Louis area, an ethnically mixed neighborhood that suffers from poverty and high unemployment.

Several decades in the planning, the project was granted a construction permit in November 2009. At the time, city officials said the new mosque would help the Muslim community better integrate into the mainstream and foster a more moderate form of Islam.

The first cornerstone of the 8,300 square meter (92,000 square feet) project was laid in May 2010. The elaborate stone-laying ceremony was attended by Muslim religious leaders and local politicians, as well as more than a dozen diplomats from Muslim countries.

Full-scale construction of the Grand Mosque -- which was also to have included a Koranic school and a library, as well as a restaurant and tea room -- was scheduled to begin in February 2012.

But the project has faced stiff opposition from local residents and businesses. Opponents of the Grand Mosque have argued that it would be out of harmony with the neighborhood's economic and social fabric.

Local residents also pointed to potential parking problems surrounding the building. Authorities have estimated that the number of people attending Friday prayers at the mosque could reach 1,500, a figure that could rise to up to 14,000 on Muslim holidays.

The court decision comes as the French newspaper La Marseillaise on October 24 published extracts of a leaked intelligence report about the state of Islam in Marseille, France's second-largest city, where the Muslim population has reached 25% of the total population.

The confidential seven-page document, drafted by domestic intelligence in the French administrative department of Bouches-du-Rhône in March 2011, focuses on the phenomenon of Muslim street prayers in Marseille, but also provides a more general assessment of Islam in the city.

The document also addresses a specific mosque on Gaillard Street in the 3rd district of Marseille that is associated with Muslim immigrants from the Comoros Islands, an archipelago island nation in the Indian Ocean that gained independence from France in 1975.

"Far from being Comorian, this mosque promotes Islam marked by tribalism. It is clear that this mosque is a direct obstacle to the proper integration of Comorians in the Marseilles area, a kind of voluntary marginalization," the document states.

The Koranic school associated with this mosque is also criticised: "Far from awaking spirituality and minds, it locks them even further into a cultural loop and thus increases their communitarian inwardness."

The report describes the Muslim population of Marseille as a "marginalized population, poorly informed, uncultured and with a limited understanding even of their own religion, finding themselves in the hands of self-proclaimed imams, barely more competent than their flocks but sufficiently charismatic to obtain their blind obedience."

The document also calls for fewer mosques in Marseille. It states: "The abundance of prayer rooms in Marseille is largely a reflection of divisions of all kinds: obediential as well as nationalistic, ethnic and even business strategies that set Muslims in Marseille against each other."

The proposed solution is to "refocus the places of worship" which would "permit a professionalization of the imams, achieve economies of scale and force the Islamic federations and sects to reach a consensus. It would marginalize extra-national interests and also facilitate relations and observations with our institutional partners. Not more mosques but better mosques."

Nevertheless, the report warns against the construction of a grand mosque: "This building would dominate an entire part of the city which is not very elevated. It would be visible from most of the surrounding main roads and would perform the call to prayer by using a massive beam of light that would be seen across Marseille. The mosque is generally considered aggressive to the point where a local referendum on the matter would give results at least equivalent and perhaps more emphatic than the voting organized in the Swiss confederation last year [the Swiss vote to ban minarets]."

The report says that building new mosques is only a solution if their architecture is "discreet" in order to "limit their visual impact on the urban landscape."

The document concludes by stating that Muslims in France appear to want the state to intervene in religious matters: "It is interesting to note that the majority of Muslims find it natural for the state to organize religious practice, even by force if necessary, and that many of them even declare that they do not understand the neutrality of France in this matter."

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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