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Imam Assimilation à la française
by R. John Matthies
The Netherlands, one reads, has come to accept that magistrates require a generous range of motion to prevent radical clerics from "exercising their profession." But empowering judges will clearly not suffice to promote the "integration" of imams, or to groom a crop of clerics attuned to Western values. So while lawmakers across the Continent consider means to douse inflammatory speech and detain troublemakers "constitutionally," it's time again to consider l'exception française.
France, far from those "Cheese-eating surrender monkeys" depicted in "The Simpsons," has distinguished itself (since the Paris terror bombings of 1986, especially) as a nation uniquely disposed to trample toes of intolerant faith. For better or for worse, the practice of religion – since the Revolution and the Law of Separation (1905), especially – has become, for the State, no less than a matter of public order and public safety. For this reason, the policing of even "non-violent radicals" and radical clerics has become something of a national pastime.
Consider the case of Salafist cleric Abdelkader Bouziane, deported back to Algeria in April 2004 for an interview, published in the local Lyon Mag, in which the imam defends polygamy and promotes, "in certain cases," the stoning of adulterous wives. The Ministry of the Interior slapped Bouziane with an order of expulsion within days of his remarks, on the strength of a prior order (signed by Nicolas Sarkozy) that identified Bouziane as a danger to State and to public safety. This, in turn, allowed the government to ignore established protections for the safeguard of resident aliens, and to deport the cleric back to Oran.
All was as planned when a Lyons appeals court judged Interior's order "lacking," and ordered the imam returned to France. But in a fit a pique, Sarkozy declared: "Imam Bouziane [does not represent] French Islam; he [represents] Islam [as it is practiced] in France, and we don't want that sort of thing." President Chirac agreed, and promised: "If we have to change our law to avoid repeating this kind of case, which is unacceptable for us, we will change the law so we can expel people who say such things." This they did, and dismissed the appeals court ruling at the level of the State Council, France's highest administrative authority. And Bouziane was returned to Algeria in October of the same year. "Constitutionally."
The Netherlands (and others) have envied France's unobstructed hand in matters of policing radical clerics; but the security services warn that if expulsion prevents Bouziane from "exercising his profession," it cannot prevent similarly oriented imams – or self-proclaimed prayer leaders – from falling in place. For this reason, Interior proposes to privilege "assimilation" and acculturation of France's next generation's imams, and has seized on an unorthodox (so to speak) method.
Seizing on a program suggested by Dominique de Villepin three years ago, the Catholic Institute of Paris (ICP), in conjunction with the Grand Mosque of Paris, has announced it's "on course" to admit some 30 imams to a "secularizing" course of study – complementary to the Mosque's own training cycle. (The public Sorbonne and suburban Paris-VIII, Interior's first pick in the matter, respectfully declined for reasons of "secularism.")
Catho's program, titled "Religions, Secularism, Interculturality," will offer 400 hours of accredited instruction in four subject areas: one devoted to "general culture," including a history of "republican values"; a second for legislative matters, which will examine the rights and obligations of religion in France; a third on the subject of "openness," to explore religion's relation to the human sciences; and a fourth on "intercultural exchange." More exactly, France's future imams will be asked to ponder French secular tradition, read their Rousseau and Voltaire, and imbibe tremendous amounts of grammar.
But this strategy, too, will require effort: Opposed to the plan is the Union of Islamic Organizations in France (UOIF), France's largest Islamic organization (who operate non-accredited centers of its own), and members of the Grand Mosque itself. There is also the fact this is, as yet, a voluntary course, open only to those qualified for study at the university level. This would exclude imams like Bouziane, and the hundreds of makeshift or homegrown clerics on the radar of the security services at present.
But this is the modest debut one should expects in these matters, and signals a willingness on the part of France to define standards of comportment for the second religion of the land – and to acknowledge, as former mufti of Marseille Soheib Bensheikh has suggested, that "French-style secularism is a necessary precondition for the reform of Islam." "Ideally, it would have been a classic university to respond to this request," says Didier Leschi, religion chief at Interior, "but we advance with those willing to advance." And for those who disagree? Ask Bouziane.