One week after jihadists from Islamic State massacred 130 people in Paris, the French Council of the Muslim Faith took the unprecedented step of asking imams in 2,300 French mosques to read a text at Friday prayers condemning the attacks. An estimated one million Muslims attend Friday prayers in France.
“We must never weary of saying loud and clear that authentic Islam is light years away from the ideology of hatred of these criminal terrorists,” said the text, which also insisted that the real meaning of jihad is the struggle within one’s soul, that life is sacred and that “known and recognised” experts must interpret the Koran.
After the attacks at Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher last January, “voices rose to say that Muslims had not expressed themselves sufficiently”, said Anouar Kbibech, the president of the council. “There are still intolerable suspicions in public opinion.”
The fragmentation of the Muslim establishment is one reason why it is so little heard. At least two other Muslim groups, the Union of French Mosques and the National Federation of French Muslims, also drew up texts to be read at Friday prayers. Because mosques are funded by foreign governments, their imams tend to be loyal to Riyadh, Cairo, Algiers or Rabat.
“We have not succeeded in organising ourselves,” Hakim El Karoui, a former government adviser, wrote in Le Monde. “Because of endless division, the weight of the countries of origin, oversize egos and political calculations, French Islam lies fallow.”
One form of Islam is expanding rapidly. Young but ultra-conservative imams who post their sermons on YouTube have been compared to Protestant televangelists in the US.
Rachid Abou Houdeyfa (35), the imam of Brest, has 175,000 Facebook followers. He created a scandal this autumn, prior to the Paris killings, with a video where he preaches to children that listening to music is Haram (sinful) and that “those who like music are those who would like to be transformed into monkeys and pigs . . . Music is the incantation of fornication, the voice of shaytan [the devil].”
One cannot help noticing the similarity to Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the massacre, referring to the Bataclan concert hall “where hundreds of idolaters were gathered in a feast of perversity”.
In a video, Abou Houdeyfa condemned the November 13th attacks as “barbarian acts that do not represent Islam”.
French officials and intellectuals want Muslims to condemn acts of terrorism. Gilles Clavreul the government’s “interministerial delegate for the fight against racism and anti-Semitism” this week retweeted an article that said “the failure to denounce a terrorist act contradicts the fundaments of Islam”.
It may be a meaningless exercise. Fabien Clain, the French convert to Islam who recorded Islamic State’s claim of responsibility for the Paris attacks, had corresponded with the 2012 “scooter killer” Mohamed Merah. Yet Clain condemned Merah’s crimes and claimed he’d barely known him.
L’Obs Magazine published an indepth investigation into the YouTube imams this week. Nader Abou Anas, the imam of Le Bourget mosque, has said “the best wife is the one who obeys her husband’s orders . . . The wife must make herself beautiful for her husband . . . The problem with the sisters [is that] often they try hard for the first months. Six months later, it’s Dracula.”
Mehdi Kabir, the imam of Villetaneuse, says: “Those who eat pork tend to behave like pigs. Those who eat pork are among the dirtiest people.”
But is such idiocy a step on the path to jihadism? Dounia Bouzar, a researcher who specialises in “detoxifying” French youths who have been radicalised, says it is. “When I go through their [internet] navigation histories, I find the videos of these imams,” she says. “The young want guides. They think they’re resisting their parents, society, capitalism. These gurus invite them to flee the real world. That’s how it starts . . . ”
French officials say some 100 of the country’s 2,300 mosques are “radical”. Two days after the attacks, the interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve promised to close them down, a longstanding demand of National Front leader Marine Le Pen.
But much as the sermons of the YouTube imams outrage secular French people, it’s quite a stretch to accuse them of inciting armed demonstrations in the streets, attacking the republican form of government or provoking acts of terrorism – legal conditions for shutting down an association.
In the meantime, France’s Muslim community, the largest in Europe, fear being conflated with terrrorists, and falling victims to jihadist attacks. Three women wearing headscarves were aggressed in Paris and Marseille this week.
The “Mosque of Fraternity” in the Paris suburb of Aubervilliers issued a communique claiming police caused thousands of euro in damage when they broke doors and windows, overturned furniture, threw religious books to the floor, tore out computers and damaged false ceilings in a search during the night of November 16th-17th.