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France: Paris Exhibition Highlights Diversity, Challenges Of Islam In Big Cities

There are different ways to live and practice religion. An exhibition in Paris is currently trying to show the complexity of the social and cultural transformations urban Muslims are facing in the context of globalization.

Prague, 4 June 2004 (RFE/RL) -- An exhibition currently taking place in Paris is trying to illustrate how Muslims are conducting their religious life in the context of big, modern cities.

In order to understand, one has to look and listen. Photos, plastic creations, and audiovisual documents follow one another through five stops from Cairo to Dakar in Senegal, passing by Istanbul in Turkey, the Iranian capital Tehran, and Paris.
"The children of Islamized parents who have worked in Saudi Arabia are 'globalized' and dress in a Western fashion. In some discos one can find a mother wearing a veil along with children dancing to modern music."

At each stop, visitors are invited to listen to testimonies from practicing and nonpracticing Muslims, who explain their relationship with religion and debate topical questions. At one point, young girls from Cairo are arguing about the headscarf; at another, an Iranian mother looking to divorce her husband explains her despair over the decision.

The exhibit includes interviews conducted by Radio France Internationale reflecting the different ways Muslims express their faith in an urban, changing, and multicultural environment. Olivier Roy, a noted specialist of political Islam, is the scientific commissioner of the exhibition.

"The border between [practicing and nonpracticing Muslims] is not clear. A lot of people consider themselves Muslims. At the same time, they don't specifically feel themselves to be believers, particularly when they are confronted by non-Muslim societies and cultures. Today we see, particularly in big cities, a process of separation between religion and culture. Believers are obliged, constrained from, or trying to live their faith independently from a given culture because this culture is in crisis, confused, or mixed," says Roy.

Roy explains that modern cities are made of multiple pressures that often conflict. Globalization, he adds, shuffles the cards, but can also "Islamize" itself. For instance, Roy says, the culture of food is changing, as many fast foods are now "halal," or permissible in Islam.

Alexandre Buccianti, a correspondent for Radio France Internationale in Cairo, says the Egyptian capital is an example of how urban behaviors adjust, disguise or recreate old traditions.

"More than 60 percent of people younger than 30 are unemployed [in Egypt]. So there is a huge frustration among them, particularly in the middle class. That is where we see extremism. Also in the middle class, the children of Islamized parents who have worked in Saudi Arabia are 'globalized' and dress in a Western fashion. In some discos one can find a mother wearing a veil along with children dancing to modern music. The explanation is that there is no alcohol, so it's 'halal,'" Buccianti says.

What about being a Muslim in Istanbul, a metropolis in a Muslim country that broke with its religious traditions in the 1920s, establishing itself as a secular republic? Turkish sociologist Nilufer Gole says the city is today vacillating between secular rituals and religious practices:

"The presence of Islam in the public sphere is accompanied by a sort of democratization and distancing [of Muslims] from the secular definition of Islam by [the policy of] Kemalism. Today, Istanbul is living the challenge of the cohabitation of Islam and democracy, and maybe another definition of secularism, too. In Istanbul, Islam is currently moving from the private sphere to the public space, like in France," Gole says.

As in France, Gole says, there is a debate in Turkey about how to reconcile a secular republic with Islam. Turkey is creating room for dialogue between secularists and those who are eager to mix modern life with religion and religious culture. The question for many Turks, Gole says, is how to be modern without losing one's identity.

Iranian researcher Mouna Saidi says women in Tehran, Cairo, and Istanbul are trying to assert their roles in society. This process of "autonomization" is most dynamic and visible in the Iranian capital. Saidi stresses that women's mobility in Tehran is now almost equal to that of men, and much higher than in the other two cities.

"The Islamic Republic has paradoxes for women. By imposing the Islamic veil, it has permitted access to certain spaces that were previously not occupied by women. [Women] wanted to go there and they are conquering the city pieces by piece. They took the floor. Women are free to hold discussions with men and authorities. There are always negotiating within the family and within society. They make the situation improve in both private and public spheres," Saidi says.

Still, Saidi points out, women in Tehran have to maintain a careful balance between their desires and the many restraints the Islamic Republic is imposing on women and the society as a whole.

Dakar is the capital of Senegal in western Africa, where religious beliefs span mysticism, popular Islam, and neo-fundamentalism. There, says Senegalese researcher Abdourahmane Seck, Islam is traditionally experienced through a system of religious brotherhoods that are tangible in all aspects of society.

"Someone arriving to Dakar is struck by the massive and recurrent presence of religion and saints, who are representatives of [Muslim] brotherhoods. In a context of economic crisis, brotherhoods bring to the populations of cities networks of social 'insertion,' a way to find a woman or a job. The phenomenon touches everybody, including great sportsmen and political figures. People have to show they belong in one way or another to a brotherhood to be inserted in the public space," Seck says.

Seck says 90 percent of Muslim Senegalese declare themselves to be a member of a brotherhood. However, urban Muslims are more and more seduced by warnings against growing secularism and what fundamentalists call Western domination.

(The interviews were conducted by Laurent Sadoux, Herve Guillemot, and Anne-Cecile Bras, and were used in this report with the permission of Radio France Internationale.)