French Muslims in battle for Islam

Mosques at centre of power struggle. Mary Dejevsky reports
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The Independent Online
There are French tricolours flying from the minaret of the grand mosque at Evry. You can see them across the concrete-and-grass wasteland that separates the suburbs of Evry and Courcouronnes the moment you emerge from the station, 40 minutes south of central Paris. They are one of the few outward signs of the battle being waged for the hearts, minds, and wallets, of French Muslims.

At the entrance to the mosque, two notices have been posted. The first says: "Those who betray us are no part of us - Word of the Prophet." The second says: "Purge the Evry mosque and cultural centre of those who have used Islam for personal gain."

Last week, the grand mosque at Evry became the first in France to be "liberated", as the victorious faction claims, after a week-long "occupation". An emergency meeting of the mosque's governing council ousted the director, a Moroccan technician called Khalil Merroun, while he was on holiday and installed a new director and management committee.

The new director is Laredj Nizar, Algerian-born, and a senior probation officer attached to the local prison. The power behind him, judging by the deference shown to her by other committee members, is Khadija Khali, a much-decorated Algerian war widow and French citizen, who is a member of the recently formed "High Council of French Muslims".

Precisely what the Evry mosque was "liberated" from can barely be divined from the words of committee members. "It was nothing personal. It was simply a question of management. He never consulted, never called any assembly meeting, never constituted a management committee, wouldn't open the accounts to scrutiny," said Mrs Khali. "We will run everything with complete openness."

"This mosque has been more than 14 years in the building, and it is still not finished," said the porter who showed me around. "Huge amounts of money have gone into it and now they are asking for more."

The scandal of the unfinished mosque is known throughout France. But the disgrace is felt keenly in Evry, because Evry also managed to commission, fund and build France's first new Catholic cathedral this century in less than half the time taken already by the mosque. A renewed call for contributions last month was one of the last straws for the Muslims of Evry. "We felt the money was just vanishing," said the porter, signalling with his hands the probability of individuals lining their pockets. "The mosque must be finished."

As the flags on the minaret suggest, there is much more to the takeover of the Evry mosque than allegations against the ethics or work style of Mr Merroun. It is also about Frenchness and the perceived threat of fundamentalism.

In late June, the French government authorised the mosques of Paris, Evry and Lyons to contract out and supervise the slaughter of Halal meat themselves. Hitherto, it had been a government function. Because the contracts are valuable, the decree was seen as a test of legitimacy for Muslim leaders. Would parishioners sanction a big new source of income for the existing management?

At Evry, a powerful group got together and said "no". At Paris and Lyons, mosque leaders have come under such pressure that they may not survive. More Machiavellian observers see the government's move as a deliberate attempt to destabilise the Muslim establishment in France.

Perhaps the real origins of the struggle for control of the French mosques, lie in the terrorist attacks of last year, when it was demonstrated that numbers of second-generation North Africans were finding solace in fundamentalism. The suspicion spread that certain mosques and mullahs were using France as a recruiting ground.

Since the beginning of this year, voices have been raised - and encouraged by pro-government publications and lobbyists - in favour of a central structure for Islam in France, which would ensure a peaceful cohabitation with French culture. Those like Mrs Khali, Algerian born, but culturally French, had the encouragement they needed to "reclaim" French Islam for France.

The advantages to Muslims of having a central structure are clear. Catholics and Jews have a recognised hierarchy and an official voice; Muslims do not. For the authorities, the advantages are even more obvious. An unmanageable tangle of organisations and self-governed mosques would be replaced by a single hierarchy - and fundamentalism could be marginalised.