SHAFAQNA – In 2001, Marseille’s incumbent mayor, Jean-Claude Gaudin, made a bold campaign promise: the city would build a Grand Mosque for its Muslim community.
With a budget estimated at £2 million, the Mosque was to house a religious school, a library, a restaurant and tea salon. For Marseille’s Muslim population, the second largest in France, here at long last was an important acknowledgement.
Fourteen years later, the site remains a car park. Nothing has been laid but a single symbolic foundation stone, as legal challenges, money issues and ego wars continue to rage. Meanwhile, Marseille’s Muslim population has in many ways never been worse off, heavily concentrated in some of the city’s poorest areas of North Marseille – an economically deprived district that was spotlighted in the news two weeks ago after 100 French special forces locked down the Castellane estate (unemployment rate: 49%) when inhabitants opened fire with Kalashnikovs.
The story of the Grand Mosque’s construction – or lack thereof – shows how deeply Marseille and France in general has struggled to figure out how to integrate its second largest religious community, which makes up 7.5% of the country’s population have argue representatives of Marseille’s Muslim community in comments to Shafaqna.
“Despite being home to about 250,000 Muslims, the city doesn’t have a single official mosque,”said Pierre Jean a campaigner for equal rights in France.
“The municipality did everything it could to make this dream come true,” says Salah Bariki, a member of staff at Marseille City Hall who worked on the Grand Mosque project for years. “In 2006, we unanimously approved the construction permit – all except for one member, from the Front National.”
A year later, the right-wing Front National joined with local shops to sue La Grande Mosquée de Marseille, the non-profit group in charge of gathering funds and building the mosque. According to French law, the rent of a building must be fixed before the building is itself erected, and the Front National were outraged by the low rate the mosque was set to pay: €300 a year. The judge agreed. “The court decided to raise the rent to €2,400 a month,” Bariki says.
Then the Front National filed a new case, alleging that there was insufficient parking space. They claimed the lease should be cancelled outright. The judge again ruled in their favor.
In a remarkable show of unity however, Marseille’s 18 boroughs joined to pay for the 400 required parking spaces, saving the project. “Marseille’s mosque will enable our fellow Muslim citizens to gather and worship in a place they fairly deserve,” said Eugene Caselli, president of Marseille’s metropolitan area.
By 2009, everything was ready to go: construction permit in one hand, lease in the other. The architecture firm Bureau Architecture Méditerranée was commissioned, the plans were drawn up. Then they ran out of money.
“In 2011, we laid the first stone. Now we are waiting for the first prayer,” said Bariki. More than one prayer may be necessary. Of the total €22m required, the non-profit looking after the project has so far raised only €200,000. A clause in the construction permit prevents each donor from contributing more than 10% of the total amount, which complicates the financing process. And because France is a secular country, religious buildings must be financed by private donors alone. The governments of Qatar, Algeria, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have all offered their support. But Marseille’s Muslim leaders have refused – unwilling for their mosque to be affiliated with Salafists or other extremists, and keen that the mosque remain under Marseillaise control, headed by a French imam.
Locally, a war of ego rages over who will control the Grand Mosque, should it ever get built. “It is important to understand that there are sub-communities,” says Frank Fregosi, a sociologist and a lecturer at Sciences Po Aix. “There are the first-generation immigrants, who are quite conservative; then the mystical communities; and lastly the religious ones, including salafists.” This division is the main reason why the Grand Mosque project is on hold, Fregosi says. “All the various communities are trying to show that they are the most legitimate group to represent Islam, and thus to manage the future mosque,” he says.
Without a mosque, Marseille’s Muslims make do with ad hoc prayer rooms – which have not lacked for controversy, either. These so-called underground mosques – in high street shopfronts or social housing blocks – are not registered as official religious spaces, but simply as non-profit organisations, which makes them harder to monitor.