France’s most prominent Muslim leader has called for the number of mosques in the country to be doubled to 4,000, sparking fresh debate on the secular status established in French law a century ago.
PARIS Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Grande Mosque of Paris and formerly president of the French Council for Muslims, believes a sharp increase in facilities for worship is necessary to give Europe’s largest Muslim population a chance to pray in dignity and comfort.
In a revealing interview in the daily newspaper France-Soir, the contents of which were confirmed by his office, the Algerian-born cardiologist stressed the social benefits of easing the “pressure, frustration and the sense of injustice” felt by many French Muslims.
“Open a mosque and you close a prison,” said Dr Boubakeur. If this seems a colourful way of justifying a major programme of mosque-building, he can point to a powerful ally: the president, Nicolas Sarkozy.
France jealously guards the principle of separation of religion and state set down in the 1905 law. This legislation, the bedrock of French secular society, expressly forbids the official recognition or state funding any faith.
But in 2004, when he was the finance minister, Mr Sarkozy argued in a book entitled The Republic, Religions, Hope for an updating of the law to meet modern challenges.
He said the provision of a mosque in every sizeable town would help counter the extremism fostered by self-styled, usually untrained imams holding prayer meetings in tower block basements and garages.
France is estimated to have at least five million Muslims among a population of 63 million, and Islam is the most commonly practised faith after Roman Catholicism.
Since becoming president, Mr Sarkozy has maintained his theme that “negative” secularism should make way for a positive brand. In 2008, while visiting Riyadh, he hailed Islam as “one of the greatest and most beautiful civilisations the world has known.”
For French groups such as Riposte Laïque (Secular Response), which fiercely defends the church-state separation, Mr Sarkozy has defeated the spirit of the 1905 law by allowing it to be circumvented. There are now various ways, from tax advantages to the leasing of land or property at peppercorn rents, in which the public purse can contribute to the cost of building mosques.
Riposte Laïque claims loopholes in the law mean a new mosque for Barbès-Rochechouart, a Muslim quarter on the fringe of central Paris, will receive subsidies of up to €20 million (Dh90m) from taxpayers.
This is because authorities have the freedom to give direct aid to Muslim groups if the new buildings are designated, as in Barbès-Rochechouart, as cultural centres or Islamic institutes, which qualify for funding even if they also contain prayer rooms.
In one glaring contradiction of opposition to public funds being used towards the building of mosques, such criticism is often accompanied by anger at the closure of city streets – in areas lacking proper facilities for worship – for Friday prayers. The National H/T TROP