In France, Some Muslims Seek To 'Adapt' Islam To Secular Culture | WGLT

In France, Some Muslims Seek To 'Adapt' Islam To Secular Culture

Feb 13, 2017
Originally published on February 15, 2017 11:51 am

The carpeted prayer hall at the grand mosque in the French city of Bordeaux is full on a recent Friday afternoon. Behind a sculpted wooden railing on a small raised pulpit, Tareq Oubrou, a popular imam, is delivering his sermon in French as well as Arabic.

Bilingual sermons are rare in French mosques. Most Muslim clerics in France are foreign and speak in Arabic, which most young French Muslims don't understand. Oubrou says that's one reason why Muslim religious leaders are out of touch with a generation of French Muslims.

The interpretation of Islamic scriptures is often out of sync with modern times, too, he says. He's working to change that. Oubrou says a reformation is long overdue, and he's become a leading force in working for change.

France has suffered two major terrorist attacks in recent years, both carried out by home-grown Islamist extremists. The country is home to Europe's largest Muslim population, and many French Muslims like Oubrou believe it's time to create a uniquely French brand of Islam — one that is compatible with the country's secular values and responds better to the needs of modern Muslims.

"We have to rethink Islamic doctrines in light of our times," says Oubrou. "One of the reasons for the violence is that some people are interpreting these medieval canons literally. So we have to take Islam out of the context of ancient Arab-Muslim civilizations and adapt it to a modern, globalized, secular society, like France."

Oubrou has received death threats from radicals who don't agree with him, but he has so far refused the French government's offer of protection.

"Everyone in France feels threatened by terrorists," he says. "Why should I get protection?"

In any case, he is not scared. And he wants to be free. "It's their goal to create terror and fear," he says. "As long as people keep their rhythm and serenity, it is a victory over the terrorists."

Oubrou came to France from Morocco when he was 19, originally to study medicine. Now 52, he's raised four children in France and says he's proud to be French.

The French model of society is based on the teachings of enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau – it's one of assimilation, Oubrou says, where all differences are meant to be erased. He says France emphasizes equality rather than liberty. This, he says, is the opposite of Britain and the U.S.

"In the Anglo-Saxon model, there's a preference for liberty," says Oubrou. "So the system doesn't promise equality and equal salaries. France promises equality, but falls short. And this is what creates the frustration that can lead to violence."

Oubrou says young Muslims face discrimination and often don't feel they're fully French. He says their Muslim culture is one reason for the discrimination.

"We're living in the most secular country in the world on the most secular continent, Europe," says Oubrou. "Any kind of religion in the public sphere is suspect, because French secularism was won by opposing the Catholic Church. People fought to liberate themselves from religion."

Oubrou says the French thought they'd solved the problem of religion in the public sphere when religion and the state were officially separated in 1905, and the Catholic Church's pressures receded from public life.

Then, in the 1970s, Muslim immigrants arrived from North Africa, with religion a part of their culture. "So the old demons have been awakened," he says, "and French society views the Muslim faith as a threat."

Oubrou says young Muslims are often ignorant of the spiritual side of their faith but some embrace Islam as a cultural identity — and as a shield, to protect themselves from what they see as a hostile society that considers them second-class citizens.

"Religion is supposed to be for sharing. And once we transform it for protection, we are confiscating God and spirituality," he says.

For young French citizens with Arab origins, "If you want to express a revolt [against French society], you are a fundamentalist Muslim," says Hakim El Karoui, a Muslim writer and business consultant.

He's the author of a recent study titled "A French Islam Is Possible," published by the Montaigne Institute, an influential Paris think tank.

To complete the study, El Karoui and his team did something that's usually illegal in a country where everyone is supposed to be equal: They collected demographic statistics to find out how many Muslims live in France. The French population census does not note religion, race or ethnicity.

"I don't know [how] you deal with a problem if you are not able to have a clear picture," says El Karoui. "So getting statistics to find out who French Muslims are was compulsory."

El Karoui's team got special authorization to do so from French data protection authorities, known as the Commission Nationale de l'Informatique et des Libertés, as long as they agreed to maintain respondents' anonymity.

El Karoui says he and his team of researchers discovered there are fewer Muslims in France than people assume. He says there are around 4 million, and not the widely accepted and cited figures of 6 million to 8 million, or about 10 percent of the population.

For the purposes of El Karoui's study a Muslim was anyone who identified as such. The study found 1,000 out of 15,000 total respondents self-identified as Muslim. Many French with one Muslim parent did not. El Karoui says about half of French Muslims are integrated into society and are more or less secularized — believing in French laws above all else — even if they fast during the month of Ramadan and avoid eating pork.

When his report came out last fall, one figure shocked people: that a quarter of Muslims in France do not believe in core French values, such as equality between the sexes and the separation of religion and the state.

"This group uses religion to send a message against French values," says El Karoui. "So of course, they are the ones that get all the attention of the media and politicians."

El Karoui says there are certainly some radicalized people within this group and most of them are young, under 25.

El Karoui's study proposes eight pragmatic solutions for developing a French Islam that is compatible with the country's values and free from foreign funding from Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar and Saudi Arabia — which provide support to imams and some large mosques with religious schools.

Some of the proposals include recruiting French-born imams and training them in France, and offering Arabic courses in the secular public schools — so kids can learn the language outside the mosque.

And El Karoui says that French political leaders should do more to embrace French Muslims.

"Saying you are French, you are not a foreigner, and you are a part of the national community is very, very important," he says. "It's important to remind the rest of the population that Muslims are French, and that their problems are everybody's concern."

Oubrou, who says his four children are gainfully employed or studying and are all active in the life of Bordeaux, says there are tens of thousands of Muslims working in French hospitals, offices, universities and politics. "But they're invisible," he says. "We don't talk about them. We only talk about the delinquents."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Recent terror attacks in France have focused attention on what's being taught in the country's mosques. Some French Muslims say it's time to create a new type of Islam, one that is distinctly French. They want something that better reflects their views or responds to their needs and fits in with the country's secular values. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The main mosque in the southern city of Bordeaux is full for prayers on a recent Friday afternoon.

TAREQ OUBROU: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: The popular imam here, Tareq Oubrou, gives his sermons in French, as well as Arabic, but most imams in France are foreign and speak only in Arabic, a language most young French Muslims don't understand. Oubrou says this is one reason why imams are out of touch with a generation of French Muslims. He's working to change that.

OUBROU: (Through interpreter) We have to rethink Islamic doctrines in light of our times. One of the reasons for the violence is that some people are interpreting these medieval canons literally. So we have to take Islam out of the context of ancient Arab Muslim civilizations and adapt it to a modern, globalized, secular society. This reformation is long overdue.

BEARDSLEY: Oubrou came to France from Morocco when he was 19, originally to study medicine. Now 52, he's raised four children here and says he's proud to be French. He quotes enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe French society's model of assimilation where differences are meant to be erased. Oubrou says France emphasizes equality rather than liberty, which is the opposite of Britain and the U.S.

OUBROU: (Through interpreter) In the Anglo-Saxon model, there's a preference for liberty, so it doesn't promise equality and equal salaries. France promises equality but falls short, and this is what creates the frustration that can lead to violence.

BEARDSLEY: Oubrou says young Muslims face discrimination and often don't feel they're fully French. And their Muslim culture is a big reason for that rejection.

OUBROU: (Through interpreter) In France, any kind of religion in the public sphere is suspicious because French secularism was won by opposing the Catholic Church. The French thought they'd solve the problem of religion in public, and then along came Muslim immigrants in the '70s whose religion was part of their culture. So the old demons have been awakened, and French society views the Muslim faith as a threat.

BEARDSLEY: Oubrou says many young people from Muslim families are ignorant of the spiritual side of their faith. They embrace Islam as a cultural identity and to protect themselves from a hostile society.

HAKIM EL KAROUI: For young people with Arab origins, if you want to express revolt, you're Muslim - fundamentalist Muslim.

BEARDSLEY: That's Hakim El Karoui, a business consultant and the Muslim author of a recent study called "A French Islam Is Possible." To complete his study, El Karoui and his team did something illegal in a country where everyone is supposed to be equal. They collected demographic statistics.

EL KAROUI: I don't know how to deal with a problem is you not able to have a clear picture. So making statistics about who are as the French Muslim - it was compulsory.

BEARDSLEY: El Karoui says half of French Muslims are integrated into society and more or less secularized, even if they do practice Ramadan and avoid eating pork. When his report came out last fall, one statistic shocked the French - that 25 percent of Muslims do not believe in core French values such as equality between the sexes and separation of religion and the state.

EL KAROUI: They use religion to send a message against French values. So this group is of course the group which retains the attention of media and politicians. My interpretation is that you will find some radicalized people in this group of course. But not all of them are radicalized, and most of them are very young.

BEARDSLEY: El Karoui's study, published by the influential Montaigne Institute, proposes eight pragmatic solutions for developing a French Islam that is in line with the country's values and free from foreign funding. Proposals include recruiting French-born imams and training them in France and teaching Arabic in public schools so kids don't have to go to the mosque to learn it. And El Karoui says that French leaders should do more to embrace French Muslims.

EL KAROUI: Saying you are French, you are not a foreigner and you are a part of the national community is very, very important.

BEARDSLEY: El Karoui says it's also important to remind the rest of the population that Muslims are French and that their problems are everybody's concern. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR SONG, "RATTLESNAKES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.