Liberal imam risks death by backing ban on burkas

Jan 27, 2010
Gavin Mortimer

Mob of 80 Muslims attack Hassen Chalghoumi’s mosque in Paris suburb

Should the burka be banned from French society? It’s a contentious issue, and in some cases a dangerous one, too, as Hassen Chalghoumi discovered this week.

Chalghoumi, at 36 one of the younger and certainly one of the most liberal imams in France, told Le Parisien last week that he supported "a legal ban of the burka, which has no place in France, a country where women have been voting since 1945".

The imam, whose mosque is in Drancy, a north-eastern suburb of Paris, also criticised those Muslims who advocated the wearing of the burka, saying they "belong to a tiny minority tradition reflecting an ideology that undermines the Muslim religion. The burka is a prison for women, a tool of sexist domination and Islamist indoctrination.”

The Tunisian-born Chalghoumi, who is a naturalised French citizen and proud of it, told the paper: "Having French nationality means wanting to take part in society, at school, at work. But with a bit of cloth over their faces, what can these women share with us? If they want to wear the veil, they can go to a country where it's the tradition, like Saudi Arabia."

Chalghoumi’s comments were designed to provoke discussion among the Muslim community in France, but a small minority of radicals considered his pronouncements so insulting that on Monday evening they stormed Chalghoumi’s mosque and threatened to kill him.

He was chairing a meeting of the Conference of Imams, a body established in 2009 to promote better relations between France’s faiths, particularly Jews and Muslims, when a mob of 80 men forced their way into the building. There was a brief scuffle between the two groups, ending in a handful of invaders grabbing the microphone. "They started to cry Allah Akbar and God is great," recounted Chalghoumi. "Then they insulted me, my mosque, the Jewish community and the [French] Republic. They left after an hour and a half."

According to a member of the Conference of Imams, the mob condemned Chalghoumi as an apostate and threatened him with "liquidation, this imam of the Jews".

But far from cowering Chalghoumi into silence, the attack has only strengthened his resolve to confront the extremist element within the French Muslim community. "My voice speaks for the majority [of Muslims]," he said yesterday. "I work for the future of our children and of the Republic in order that Islam is allowed to find its place and Muslims can be respected."

On Tuesday, the day after the incident at Drancy, a long-awaited report was released on how best to deal with the burka in France. The 32-member all-party committee spent six months addressing the question, but still couldn’t produce an unequivocal response.
Among the 15 recommendations put forward were that women wearing full veils should be barred from hospitals, universities, post offices and public transport, while a similar sanction would be applied to any burka-clad woman seeking state benefits or citizenship.
Yet the panel couldn't agree on whether the burka should be outlawed on the streets, despite President Nicolas Sarkozy declaring such a garment as "not welcome" in a speech last year.

The impasse did not deter one of the report's authors, Eric Raoult, and a member of the ruling UMP party, from predicting the burka would be banned "by the end of 2010...we need maybe six months or a little more to explain what we want".

As for Chalghoumi, he is now under police protection, as is his mosque, and he is promising to press charges against his aggressors. While he has received support from the Christian and Jewish communities throughout France, the reaction from many of his fellow Muslims has been luke-warm.  

Fouad Alaoui, president of the Union des Organisations Islamiques de France (UOIF), said he "wasn't surprised" at the incident. "We've warned him several times to moderate his words because he risks to attract these sort of reactions."

On the streets of Drancy, support appeared thin on ground for Chalghoumi . "If he wants to condemn the burka, why not, but not in the name of our mosque," a man called Malik said, adding that the imam’s recent declarations "have shocked us". Another young Muslim dismissed Chalghoumi as  "not an imam but an administrator".

It was left to an associate of Chalghoumi's at the Drancy mosque, who wished to remain anonymous, to try and defuse what is an increasingly volatile issue in France. "This debate on the burka is creating a great deal of tension," he told today's Le Parisien. "We would like to see calm and serenity restored in the house of God."

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