French Muslims fear state aims to control their faith

The mosque at Gennevilliers
Image caption The mosque at Gennevilliers was shut down last November after the Paris attacks by jihadists

Behind a wire-mesh fence embedded in weeds, in the northern Paris suburb of Gennevilliers, stand a cluster of terracotta-coloured buildings and a row of tents.

This is the site of the El Houda Association Mosque, raided and closed down less than a fortnight after the jihadist attacks on Paris last November, which triggered a state of emergency across France. The reason, according to the authorities, was its alleged links to militant Islamist groups.

For Mohammed, a local resident who worshipped there, the mosque was unremarkable.

"I'm a practising Muslim and I always come here and I've never seen anything strange. Closing spaces for the Muslim faith is not the right way," he says.

El Houda was one of around 20 mosques closed down in the name of national security. That move has forced many of France's Muslims - a diverse community estimated to be close to five million - into a period of deep introspection.

Jihadist attacks in France

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Image caption Children were among those murdered on the seafront in Nice by a Tunisian named as Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel
  • Paris 7-9 Jan 2015: Seventeen people died in attacks on Charlie Hebdo satirical magazine, a policewoman and a Jewish supermarket: Three days of terror
  • Paris 13 November 2015: 130 people murdered in coordinated attacks on the Stade de France, bars and restaurants and the Bataclan concert hall: What happened on the night
  • Magnanville 13 June 2016: Police commander and partner fatally stabbed
  • Nice 14 July: Jihadist kills 86, driving lorry into families celebrating Bastille Day on Promenade des Anglais: What we know about Nice killings
  • Near Rouen 26 July: Father Jacques Hamel, 86, was murdered by two young IS militants during morning Mass

Full timeline of jihadist attacks 2012-2016

How France is wrestling with jihadist terror

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Many French Muslims resent the idea that violent acts of terrorism have been carried out in their name by jihadist groups such as so-called Islamic State.

But they also object to the sense that they are having to justify themselves, in a country that prides itself on a strong secular tradition and the principles of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Image caption Anouar Kbibech of the French Council of the Muslim Faith wants to see imams sign up to a tolerant and open Islam

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), which acts as a bridge with the French government, is planning to create a foundation to oversee the vetting of imams and the funding of the mosques in which they preach.

"The idea would be to examine the theological path that imams have taken," says its president, Anouar Kbibech, "to encourage them to study and sign a charter which promotes an open Islam, a tolerant Islam and an Islam that respects the values of the French Republic".

Image caption France's Muslim population is estimated at almost five million

A recent report by a Senate committee in France found that, out of 2,500 mosques, 120 were Salafist, preaching a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam.

However, Marwan Muhammed, director of the Collective against Islamophobia, insists that does not equate to a jihadist threat.

"The authorities need to stop chasing people for being Muslim, for having a beard or for being religiously involved. This is not a sign of risk. This is a sign of religiosity."

The senators found that 20 mosques received foreign funding, mainly from Turkey, Algeria, Morocco and, to a lesser extent, Saudi Arabia. The concern is not that overseas patrons are directly promoting violence, but that these mosques or prayer rooms create a highly politicised atmosphere, in which violence may be considered a tool for disseminating Islam.

Image caption Marwan Muhammed fears the French government may hijack Muslim efforts to become more open

For that reason a new foundation to accredit imams and monitor finance is being considered.

But some accuse the CFCM of pandering to the government's demands.

"We have very strong legislation on financial transactions and money laundering. So the existing legislation allows for the authorities to look into any suspicious transaction," argues Marwan Muhammed.

A Frenchman of Moroccan descent, he worries about what he sees as a rising tide of Islamophobia in France, exacerbated by the prospect of presidential elections next year.

He, like others, is worried the French government may in effect hijack any attempts by the Muslim community to become more open about their internal affairs.

But the head of the CFCM, Anouar Kbibech, strikes a more conciliatory tone, mindful of the climate created by the most recent jihadist attacks in Nice and Rouen.

Those attacks triggered a wave of new restrictions, including a ban on the wearing of burkinis on some of France's beaches - a move that some argue smacks of Islamophobia.

"We invite our fellow French citizens to avoid making links (with terrorism) and equally we invite our fellow Muslim citizens to pay attention to their activities and not exacerbate the issue and make things more complicated," says Mr Kbibech.

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In addition to advancing the case for better training of imams (many of whom are volunteers from within the community) the CFCM is considering new forms of domestic funding for France's mosques.

The senators' report suggested that 20 mosques which received €6m (£5.2m; $6.8m) in foreign funding could benefit from a financial system involving a new foundation.

Marginalised Muslims

Among the novel ideas being considered by the CFCM is a more formalised system of funding via the halal meat industry. But when the BBC tried out the idea on half a dozen halal butchers in Paris, it was met with puzzled faces.

The vast majority of France's mosques are funded by voluntary contributions from within the community, occasionally even from halal butchers.

French senator Nathalie Goulet believes clamping down on mosques to deter extremists misses the point altogether. "Radicalisation happens outside mosques and more often in prison. The thing all young radicalised people have in common is their weak understanding of the religion," she argues.

Muslims make up less than 10% of France's population and yet they make up some 60% of the prison population.

The French authorities have sought to introduce de-radicalisation programmes.

And yet, many Muslims believe France still needs to address problems of marginalisation, as well as the way Islam is portrayed in French media. Otherwise they fear France may continue to offer fertile ground for Islamist extremists.

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