France's Model Muslim 'Imam for Peace' Sows Discontent
What happens when a Muslim cleric embraces the values of the West? In France, President Sarkozy is using the teachings of one imam for his own purposes. Hassen Chalghoumi, who has backed calls for a burqa ban, now faces threats from his own community.
Hassen Chalghoumi is the best-known imam in France and easily the most controversial, even though he preaches peace instead of hate. Police cars are stationed in front of his mosque during Friday prayers, and he has two bodyguards with him at all times when he goes out in public. Sometimes, when it all becomes too much for him, he takes his wife and their five children and goes away for a week or two, in the hope that all the excitement over him and the ideas he preaches will calm down again. But the tactic hasn't worked so far, because the whole thing flares up again as soon as he returns home. Chalghoumi has led a hectic life in recent weeks.
There are 5 million Muslims in France, although there could even be as many as 8 million, no one knows for sure. Some have been there for a long time while others are recent immigrants. Within this population, there are believed to be 1,400 women who wear either the large full-body veil, the burqa, in black or blue, or the niqab, the full veil that covers the face apart from the eyes, although that number could also be as low as 400. In any case, Chalghoumi dared to publicly condemn the wearing of the full veil, and he welcomed the idea of outlawing it -- something that may have been ill-advised.
Chalghoumi's is a man who doesn't reveal much about himself, while others seem to think that they know everything about him. What is indisputable is that he was born in Tunis in 1972, immigrated to France in 1996 and became a French citizen in 2000, or perhaps it wasn't until two years later. Sometimes Chalghoumi contradicts himself, or he doesn't remember the details correctly, or he is quoted out of context. It isn't easy to figure him out, but it is easy to like him. He is a gentle person, a man with the grace of a professional dancer.
Journey Into a Different World
The imam lives in Drancy, a northern suburb of Paris with a population of 66,000, one of France's poorest municipalities. Although it's only a half-hour drive from downtown Paris to Drancy, it is a journey into a completely different world. The beauty of Paris ends on the Boulevard périphérique, the beltway surrounding the French capital. The drive soon passes through a completely different world of industrial estates, wasteland and cemeteries, past abandoned factories and railroad tracks covered with weeds. The first impression in Drancy is of the long lines forming in front of soup kitchens at midday.
It is from here that Chalghoumi has gradually become a figure of interest to the entire nation. The media, the government and even the president at the Elysée Palace first became aware of him when, in May 2006, he began saying pretty radical things. But that wasn't because he was preaching against the status quo, the republic and its values. Instead, Chalghoumi was saying things that could have been copied from right out of the French constitution, sentences that were in conformity with the system and advocated peace.
At the time, he publicly acknowledged the horrors of the Holocaust, he reached out to France's Jews, and he spoke of reconciliation and rapprochement -- things that were unheard of for a Muslim cleric at the time. Chalghoumi soon came to be known as the "imam of peace." Meanwhile, there was growing unrest within his own congregation. The tires of Chalghoumi's car were slashed, and strangers ransacked his apartment. The imam of peace was sowing disagreement and reaping violence -- in all likelihood from within his own community.
He had already completed his religious training when, in 1996, he arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport in nearby Roissy, an immigrant like so many who had come before him and who would follow. At first, he lived in Bobigny, in the Seine-Saint-Denis district, which has some 100 mosques. There was plenty of work for someone like Chalghoumi, who had studied the Koran for four years at schools in Syria and Pakistan, and had already made the pilgrimage to Mecca. Until 2002, he worked half the day as an imam in Bobigny and the other half earning money as a FedEx warehouse worker in the turmoil of Charles de Gaulle Airport. This is where the contradictory versions of his life begin.
'Unusually Radical Positions'
At the time, French intelligence classified him as an Islamist to the core, "who took unusually radical positions." Informers told the authorities that Chalghoumi was calling on the faithful to engage in jihad and, during Friday prayers, was announcing that anyone who died in jihad would undoubtedly reach paradise. As if to prove these conclusions, Chalghoumi's access card for Roissy Airport was confiscated "for security reasons" in August 2003. But this can mean a lot or nothing at all.
It was the time of the nascent Iraq war, not long after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, a time when many of those who prayed to Allah were considered vaguely suspicious. Many Paris airport workers lost their access cards at the time, simply because they were Muslims, because their beards were too long or because their passports contained Syrian stamps or visas for Algeria.
Chalghoumi doesn't wear a beard, only a goatee. He denies the accusations that relate to his past, and he says that he was confused with other imams who delivered the hate sermons in Bobigny. He insists that he never called upon people to engage in jihad, and if he did, it was only in the way the concept was preached by the Prophet Muhammad: that every devout Muslim is called upon "to engage in perpetual jihad with himself." And what about Roissy and his airport access card? "They took it away from me because I had traveled to Mecca several times," says Chalghoumi, "but believe me: I have never had any problems with the police since my arrival in France." Never? "Never."
A Gift from Drancy's Mayor
The meeting with Chalghoumi takes place on a cool working day at the mosque in Drancy. The mosque, built in 2008, stands on the edge of a large shopping mall called Avenir, the French word for "future." When the faithful bow toward Mecca, there is a Carrefour hypermarket behind them, the shopping center's large parking lot on one side and a railroad embankment in front. On Fridays, there are such large numbers of worshippers at the mosque, upwards of 1,500 people, wearing every conceivable North African traditional costume, that the prayer room becomes too small to contain the congregation. Volunteers place carpets on the ground outside for the countless faithful, who then worship under the open sky.
Inside the mosque, the floor in the large prayer room is covered with red wall-to-wall carpeting. Without the bookshelves in some of the corners and the mihrab, the prayer niche with its cheap arabesques, the space could just as well be a gymnasium or the lobby of a German administrative district office.
The building was a gift of sorts, from the new mayor of Drancy. He is a man of the "new center," who accomplished the feat of driving the Communists out of town hall after they had been in power for more than 40 years, a pragmatist who flatly ignored France's ironclad principle of the separation of church and state when he had the 1.8 million ($2.39 million) mosque built for the many Muslims in his city. It was also for the imam of peace, who had said that he wanted to shine a light on "sinister Islam."
Chalghoumi meets with visitors in his small office on the upper floor of the mosque, a room furnished with a desk and upholstered furniture, its walls adorned with small rugs covered with surahs in gold lettering. His staff serves sweetened tea. Chalghoumi, a man with sad-looking eyes and wearing a white fez, shakes our hands and says: "I don't have much time. Would you like to take a picture? If so, we should do that right away."
Hardly waiting for an answer, he stands up, bounces out of the office and walks down to the prayer room. He knows what photographers want. Images are important to him -- images of himself. They can't be taken out of context as easily as words. And Chalghoumi is aware of his photogenic effect. He always appears in photos as a modest and unthreatening man, a good Muslim, the imam France has been waiting for.
'Imam of the Jews'
Chalghoumi has been in the news a lot lately, appearing on the front pages of Le Parisien and Aujourd'hui en France, the country's largest newspapers. There have been photos in Figaro and full-page portraits in Le Monde, Libération and the magazines. Chalghoumi also appears frequently on television, either as a subject on the evening news or as a guest on Grand Journal, a talk show on the Canal Plus channel that normally features cabinet ministers, Olympic medalists and Hollywood actors. Chalghoumi has become a star in his own right, a star of the republic: a good Muslim, one to be shown to the world and not one who constantly accuses and demands and challenges everything.
His current fame peaked at the end of January, when he said in a newspaper interview that he approved of a burqa ban. He and his small congregation have had no peace since then. Within days of the interview, 20, 30 or perhaps even 40 people loudly interrupted a sermon in Drancy and jostled for the microphone so that they could talk about the "imam of the Jews," as they called him, and about an "imam who speaks in our name and betrays us," and they demanded Chalghoumi's resignation.
- Part 1: 'Imam for Peace' Sows Discontent
- Part 2: Commitment to France and its Values