The Imam Who Wants to Purge France's Mosques
France has said it will shut down radical mosques in response to last week's terrorist attacks in Paris -- and at least one imam thinks that's a great idea.
Even before the attack on the Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine in January, Abdelali Mamoun, the outspoken imam of Alfortville just outside Paris, has been pushing for radical Salafist mosques to be "cleaned out" and, if that fails, shut down. Now he thinks the moment may finally have come.
"I don't like to say this, but there were only 17 dead [after Charlie Hebdo]. Now I hope that with 129 dead they will say OK, let's go," said Mamoun when I caught up with him in Paris on Monday evening. "They must conduct a true reform of our institutions, which has been very timid so far."
There are, according to Mamoun (pictured below), close to 100 radical mosques among the roughly 2,500 in France. But they don't present the biggest problem, in his view. Instead it is the lack of competent, French imams in ordinary mosques, a dearth that leaves young men and women uneducated and prey to radicals who teach outside the mosques.
In Mamoun's view the foreign links of many French mosques lie at the heart of the problem. Around 800 of them are Moroccan, 600 Algerian and 400 Turkish-linked, he says. The Grand Mosque in Paris, for example, was assigned to Algeria's trusteeship by the French government in 1957. Algeria has been responsible for funding the Mosque since 1982. Only between 30 percent and 40 percent of mosques in France are independent, he says, which he defines as institutions that set out to serve all Muslim communities, aren't sponsored from abroad and don't have imams imported and paid from abroad.
Many of these imams don't feel French, speak the language well, or understand the lives of many of the second and third-generation immigrants they serve, according to Mamoun. Many speak as though their congregations have to make a choice between being Muslim and French. Some just say daily prayers and leave, according to Mamoun, rather than trying to teach and mentor their congregations. Freelance "predators" then mix among the youngsters and draw them away for indoctrination, he says.
These imams are incapable of mentoring the youth, that's clear. The youth mock them and call them blédard [fresh off the boat]. They are not able to connect and incompetent to mentor, and so the young people are not even interested. They are frustrated. They often have chaotic pasts -- parents who are divorced, failure in school, discrimination -- so there are many factors that feed the hate in their hearts and it can finish with a fundamentalist Islam from the internet or elsewhere, which [they think] gives them the legitimacy to act and kill in the name of God.
So apart from cleaning out the radical mosques, Mamoun wants to have all imams vetted by a council of theologians to ensure they are sufficiently educated to preach a moderate, "republican" Islam better able to integrate with the majority French society. Those that fail should be replaced by imams trained in France. There are plenty looking for jobs, he says, but mosques don't want to pay them when they can get imams for free from abroad. Money should be collected centrally from the Muslim community to pay the salaries of the new imams.
I pointed out that a lot of young people don't seem to agree with him. When he and other moderate muslim leaders speak out on these issues, the comment strings on some community website pages are filled with bile, accusing Mamoun for example of being "an agent of the unbelievers" for his stance in favor of closing Salafist mosques, or indeed a Rabbi, for his outreach to French Jews. Hassen Chalghoumi, a prominent Paris imam who supported a 2010 ban on wearing anything that masks the face -- including Burkas and Niqabs -- in public, has a mocking Facebook page dedicated to him titled: "Chalghoumi doesn't represent the muslims of France." Says Mamoun:
They say to me, "but you are Algerian why don't you represent Algeria?" I tell them: "I love France and I love Algeria." But I don't agree that France should meddle in Algeria. And in the same way, I don't agree that Algeria should meddle in France.
Mamoun says he believes most French Muslims are on his side, but admits he is often targeted for abuse, including in the streets. "That's why I say we have to take curative action," he says. "We need a healing process with three stages of work: preventive, curative and repressive."
I salute President Francois Hollande's position; we are in a state of war. France has to act in order to protect its citizens. We need to act fast. We have to do a work of healing process in which we have to cleanse the mosques. When you have an imam with a republican, moderate speech, who is capable of engaging the youth, this false ideology will fall like a deck of cards. Because at root, all of this is based on a misinterpretation of religious texts. At that moment, the young people will be de-radicalized.
In order to prevent radicalization and terrorism, the families and community need to denounce those among them who leave France to fight in Syria. People are not educated to love their country in France, unlike in U.S. schools where they pledge allegiance to the flag. It is our duty to love and defend our country against any potential threats.
Mamoun may be a captive of his own campaign to persuade French Muslims to integrate: The state bears plenty of responsibility for its failure to make its former colonial immigrants feel they belong. For now, though, he is in high demand on French radio and TV stations because he says what the majority want to hear after an atrocity perpetrated on French citizens by several of their own.
What Mamoun wants may not be achievable and his account of Muslim France is surely generalized: Not all mosques that serve Algerians or Moroccans will act as outposts for those countries. But the concerns he has ring all too true.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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