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France: Government, Muslim Leaders Agree To Form Council To Combat Misunderstandings

By Sarah Martin

France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population. And with a recent spate of arrests, the country is being portrayed as one of Europe's new hotbeds for Islamic terrorism. Negative media coverage has sparked angry sentiment toward the country's Muslim population. In an effort to correct misunderstandings, the French government and Muslim leaders have agreed to create the first nationally elected council to represent the country's 5 million Muslims.

Paris, 4 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- More than 25 suspected terrorists have been arrested in France since last spring. The county's new center-right government says it believes the threat from radical Islamic groups is much more deeply rooted than it had first imagined.

Such news has left many in France's Muslim community particularly concerned, worried that their faith will be questioned and that they will be looked at with greater suspicion.

Nine suspected Islamic militants were arrested recently in a raid in a northern Paris suburb. One of the men, Menad Benchellali, is the son of Chellali Benchellali, an Algerian-born imam, or prayer leader, who runs the Abu Bakr mosque in suburban Lyon. Last year, another of Benchellali's sons, Mourad, was arrested by U.S. forces in Afghanistan and imprisoned at the U.S. base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

The Benchellali arrests have people like Fouad Immarin nervous. He is the head of the Tawhid Cultural and Prayer Centre in the Paris suburb of Saint-Denis.

Immarin said that when young Muslims become implicated in terror rings, it supports the image of mosques as meeting places for extremists fuelled by fundamentalism rather than as places of faith and community in France. "When do we speak about these young Muslims? We only speak of them when it has something to do with terrorism. In fact, it's a message to society that says, 'Be careful. These young people who discover Islam by themselves, who learn Islam by themselves, can become dangerous,'" he said.

Immarin said it's natural for young people to discover faith on their own. But he says it's the responsibility of religious and community leaders to notice when someone is struggling in isolation. He said religious leaders must be attentive to when a young person is cutting himself off from society and twisting their faith to serve radical ends.

Immarin said young Muslims in France's urban suburbs are struggling with issues of culture and identity and that innocent youths sometimes get caught up in the pursuit of terror networks by French police. "The police arrested a young man. They found this young man's phone number in the address book of somebody who had been arrested. So they kept him for several days. The young man was extremely scared. It traumatized him psychologically and his parents began to doubt him. It was difficult for him because his manner of praying -- his manner of believing -- was not the same as his parents. For them, his manner of believing is the cause of his problems. So when he was released, he had many questions. Should he be angry with French society because the police had arrested him? Should he be angry with his parents, who had doubted him? This is just one example, but there are many like that," he said.

France is home to Western Europe's largest Muslim population. Most are first- and second-generation immigrants from North Africa and represent roughly 7 percent of French society.

Farhad Khosrokhavar is the director of studies at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (School of Advanced Studies in Social Sciences, or EHESS) in Paris. He is the author of "Les Nouveaux Martyrs d'Allah," which was published last fall.

Khosrokhavar said the culture of secularism in France actually makes it harder for Muslims to integrate their faith while living in French society.

The French principle of laicite, understood in the sense of neutrality toward religious convictions, means that signs of religious observance should not be displayed in state educational institutions. Religious education is not allowed, and crosses or other religious symbols, including the wearing of Muslim head scarves, are banned in public schools. "In England, if you are a kind of hyper-orthodox Muslim, it's not a real problem for the society, inasmuch as you are just a Muslim who lives in his own world without being against society. Whereas in France, the laicite, you know, pushes towards some kind of public attitude which might be detrimental to what might be called orthodox religious behavior," Khosrokhavar said.

Khosrokhavar said Muslims in France are often misunderstood. "The problem is that of fear. Many Frenchmen are fearful towards Muslims. They don't know what they do, how they use their living in France within the French society -- as a tool toward terrorism or whether they accept the rules of the French society," he said.

The French government recently made a significant step toward repairing the misunderstanding that exists toward Muslims in French society. In December, under pressure from Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, French officials and Muslim leaders agreed to create the first nationally elected council to represent the country's 5 million Muslims.

The goal of the new body is to encourage a liberal version of Islam and for the council to advise the government openly on issues like education, dress, employment, and the administration of the more than 1,500 mosques and prayer houses in France.

An equivalent council exists for France's Jews: the Council Representing Jewish Organizations in France (CRIF). There are also similar councils for Catholics and Protestants in France.