Fate of French Muslim Leader Shows Challenge Posed by Fundamentalists

The credibility of the man seen as the moderate face of French Islam lay in tatters recently, little more than three months after the creation of the new Council of French Muslims.

Dalil Boubakeur, a man who has eagerly sought to build bridges with the Jewish community and to present a liberal image of French Islam, came close to throwing in the towel late last month.

The rector of Paris’ Grand Mosque, Boubakeur was handpicked by Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to lead the new council, a body set up to integrate French Muslims into society and, simultaneously, to marginalize the more fundamentalist currents in the community.

However, following stinging defeats at the hands of the Islamists the council was set up to reject, Boubakeur issued a short statement on June 27 that he was resigning as council president for “health reasons.”

The statement set off alarm bells at the Interior Ministry. Sarkozy quickly telephoned Boubakeur and — with a little arm-twisting from Boubakeur’s backers in Algeria — Boubakeur soon issued another statement “categorically denying any intention of resigning.”

Regardless of Boubakeur’s ultimate fate, the prospects for moderate French Islam do not appear promising.

Boubakeur’s links with the Jewish community have hurt him in a community radicalized by the Palestinian intifada and the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

In fact, the more open and tolerant Boubakeur has appeared toward French Jews, the more it has hurt him among his own constituents.

A forceful voice against anti-Semitic attacks, Boubakeur recently published a book along with CRIF executive member Bernard Kanovitch calling for intercommunal dialogue and mutual respect.

Ironically, the elections that have empowered the fundamentalists were intended to do just the opposite.

France’s large Muslim population — estimated at 3 million to 6 million strong — traditionally has lacked the official institutions of France’s more established Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities.

Moreover, without state support or recognition for Muslim places of worship, cemeteries and the like, the community has been forced to look elsewhere for sources of support. They generally have found it abroad, but not without political strings attached.

The French government traditionally has turned a blind eye to support for French Muslims from moderate North African states. In recent years, however, there has been a tendency for vast financial resources to reach the Muslim community from Persian Gulf states, particularly from Saudi Arabia, with its fundamentalist form of Islam.

Recent media reports have suggested that Sarkozy’s intelligence reports named only a handful of mosques in the Paris region controlled by fundamentalists, mostly grouped around the Union of French Islamic Organizations, a group with close ties to the international — and radical — Muslim Brotherhood.

However, proof of how far those reports underestimated the fundamentalists’ influence came in early June, when the union’s leader, Lhaj Thami Breze, took the presidency of the Paris-Center region in the second round of elections for the Muslim council.

Boubakeur’s Paris Mosque faction suffered other stinging defeats as well: The fundamentalist union took the presidencies in many French regions, including the key areas of Provence-Alpes Cote d’Azur and the eastern region of Alsace, both of which have large Jewish communities.

Following the elections, many political commentators suggested that it was just a question of time before Boubakeur would be forced to resign. For his part, however, Boubakeur, said the union’s victories should rouse France.

“French society has to wake up. Nobody is safe from the Islamists,” Boubakeur said.

Such comments were directed not only at his fellow Muslims but, paradoxically, at Sarkozy, who chose to attend the union’s conference in the northern suburbs of Paris shortly after it won the most seats in first-round elections to the council. Critics said Sarkozy’s presence at the event gave the union much needed credibility.

The interior minister’s project to integrate French Muslims also suffered several other blows.

Disenchanted with the religious mission and the structure of the Muslim council, secular Muslims set up their own body, thereby mirroring the two main Jewish institutions in France — the religious-based Consistoire and the secular umbrella organization CRIF.

That further isolated Boubakeur, however, who now was the national head of a council with a majority of fundamentalists.

Next came the launch of what became known as the “May Appeal,”a statement of support for the notion of a secular French republic. It was signed by some of the principal lay Muslim figures in France as well as certain moderate religious figures, such as Soheib Benscheikh, the mufti of Marseille.

Also problematic was the highly publicized visit to the Grand Mosque by Israel’s ambassador to France, Nissim Zvilli, to congratulate Boubakeur on his election as council president.

Asked whether Zvilli’s public visit a day after Boubakeur’s election had been a wise move, a senior official at the Israeli Embassy in Paris told JTA that Boubakeur, not Zvilli, had initiated the visit.

For Kanovitch, CRIF’s representative to the Muslim community, Boubakeur’s decision to welcome Zvilli was “very courageous, and showed that he was prepared to welcome everybody.”

Kanovitch said the election results for the Muslim council were “not a surprise,” since the vote came from mosques and therefore naturally favored candidates with “less liberal views.”

While the Jewish community would work with any Muslim group prepared for dialogue, it was likely that relations with the Union of French Islamic Organizations would always be difficult, Kanovitch said.

“Their religious and political ideology will not allow” close ties with the Jews, he said.

Their lesson learned, Jewish leaders have been reluctant to comment either on the Muslim council elections or the fate of Boubakeur.

However, on one occasion they were left with little choice.

At a recent Elysee Palace reception marking the 60th anniversary of CRIF’s founding, French President Jacques Chirac spent much of the time walking arm in arm with Boubakeur, French Chief Rabbi Joseph Sitruk and CRIF President Roger Cukierman. It was a public display of moderate French Islam that both Chirac and his interior minister have tried so hard to promote.

With Boubakeur isolated and the Muslim council packed with fundamentalists, however, hopes for moderation appear to be dashed.

NEXT STORY