SHAFAQNA – The French government wants to send imams to classes in secularism and religious freedom in an attempt it claims to prevent radicalism to spread in the country. But critics have understood the move as yet another attempt to sanitize Islam and hamper on Muslims’ freedom to exercise their beliefs in peace.
Muslims, Imams and community leaders have now been enrolled as the unlikely foot soldiers of a national campaign for greater religious tolerance and to help shape a moderate, Western-oriented “Islam a la Francaise.” At least that’s the story officials have been selling the public. In reality this program aims to transform and westernize Islam and Qu’ran.
“If things are going to change, they need to change in all directions,” says Michel Younes, co-director of the initiative at Lyon’s Catholic University. “That means not only training imams about secularity, but also civil servants – because the subject of religion in public spaces has almost become a taboo.”
“Living together has to be more than an idea,” he adds. “It’s being able to be together, think together, exchange ideas together.”
France has always had an uneasy relationship with Islam, the country’s second biggest religion. Clashes over issues like wearing headscarves in public schools – now banned – to Halal butchering practices and religious burial grounds have deepened divisions and misunderstandings between the state and the five million-strong Muslim community.
It doesn’t help that many imams are foreigners; few French Muslims are interested in a job so poorly paid. So the clerics are imported from North Africa and Turkey, countries which often finance their salaries and even the construction of the French mosques they preach from. Many only have a sketchy idea of the country’s laws and customs. Some cannot even speak French.
“These imported imams are not efficient,” says Hacene Taibi, who heads the Muslim teaching institute at Lyon’s Great Mosque and helps run the civics training. The mosque’s own imam, who is Tunisian, now says prayers in both Arabic and French.
“Sometimes the faithful here won’t even accept imams who don’t preach in French,” Taibi says. “This training program helps them understand how this country functions.”
The 24-week program includes classes on law, religion and how French principles of secularity are applied to daily life. The students visit churches, mosques and synagogues. At the end of the training, they receive certificates in the “Understanding of Secularity.” Since it began in 2012, it has trained dozens of imams and other key Muslim figures.
They include Quranic teachers like Baian, who declined to give her last name for privacy reasons. “I was asked to take this program so I could speak to others about secularism,” she says. “Here in France, we have to all live together.”
French authorities are not just worried about cultural misunderstandings. The number of mosques controlled by fundamentalist Salafist preachers has doubled from 44 to 89 over the past four years, according to a recent article in “Le Figaro” newspaper, which cites government statistics. France has also expelled a number of radical imams over the years.
But Muslim leaders argue that the majority of imams and other influential figures are working in exactly the opposite direction.”Go to Friday prayers, everyone speaks out against extremism,” says Taibi, of the Lyon mosque. “We do the same work with our teaching programs in the mosque.”
Whether they can influence a new generation of French, who are becoming radicalized through the Internet, is a matter of debate. And it ultimately raises questions about the limits of the civics training.
“These people are very far from the mosque,” says Tareq Oubrou, rector of the Bordeaux mosque, referring to the new Islamists. “They don’t have beards, they don’t wear hijabs, they don’t even do their five prayers regularly. They’re just delinquents. You can’t expect imams to resolve problems created by society.”