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Approval, Concern in France After Jewish and Muslim Officials Meet

September 13, 2004
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

It’s not every day that a radical Islamic organization whose spiritual mentor backs suicide bombings meets with a leading Jewish group. But in a highly publicized visit Sept. 9, the Union of French Islamic Organizations, the country’s largest Islamic group, met with the CRIF umbrella organization of French Jews at CRIF’s offices here.

The event was not a first because officials from both organizations met secretly last year in the offices of former Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. CRIF’s president, Roger Cukierman, and the Islamic group’s general secretary, Fouad Alaoui, also recently engaged in a debate on national radio.

The radio debate was largely friendly, leading Cukierman to invite the union for further talks. That invitation, according to CRIF, was followed up by a formal letter, which, after lengthy internal debate within the union, was accepted this month.

The publicity given to the meeting and the pride taken by ! the union at the invitation have accentuated a growing perception that the movement is moving firmly into the political mainstream.

But several groups, Jewish and not, expressed concerns about the meeting, worrying publicly that CRIF was being used by the union, and that by taking part in the meeting, CRIF was offering the Muslim group unwarranted legitimacy.

As part of a delegation from France’s Muslim Council, Alaoui recently returned from Iraq, where he had traveled to plead for the release of two French hostages currently held by an Iraqi terror group demanding that France repeal its new law banning the Muslim veil in state schools.

That trip — and the sudden dilution of the union’s fervent opposition to the legislation — have won the group plaudits from many who see it as finally accepting the basic tenets of France’s secular republic.

Still, it is the meeting with CRIF that represents a new seal of approval for the union, as well as recognition that it! is as major a player in France’s 5 million-strong Muslim population t han other, less-radical groups.

According to Bernard Kanovitch, who heads CRIF’s Commission for Relations with Muslim Organizations, “it is CRIF’s role to speak with anyone who can help to campaign against anti-Semitism.”

On that score, the union has consistently condemned anti-Semitism, although following the meeting with CRIF, Alaoui once again criticized CRIF for blaming Muslims for anti-Semitism.

“I asked CRIF to not point the finger after each anti-Semitic act as if it’s of Muslim origin,” he told reporters. “French Muslims have no reticence toward French Jews. Our religions were not created by God to cause social problems.”

Kanovitch, for his part, said the meeting did not imply that CRIF accepted many of the views held by the union.

“We talk to the Catholic bishops as well but that doesn’t make us Catholic,” he said.

Kanovitch said he knew the union had links with the international Cairo-based Muslim Brotherhood. However, speaking to JTA before t! he meeting, he said he was “still unclear” about the nature of those links.

In his radio debate with Cukierman, Alaoui denied formal links with the brotherhood, which is banned in both Egypt and Jordan and has spawned Islamist groups including the Palestinian Hamas organization.

Just as problematic is the union’s affiliation with the London-based European Council for Fatwa and Research, which it regards as its principal spiritual authority.

The council is presided over by Sheik Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, a leading Sunni cleric who has given his backing to Palestinian suicide attacks. Qaradawi currently lives in Qatar, but recently visited London to attend an international conference opposing the law banning the veil in France.

In a recent interview with the BBC, Qaradawi said “suicide bombings sanctify God. Allah gave the weak what the strong do not possess — the ability to turn the body into a human bomb, just as the Palestinians are doing.”

He also has called! for all Americans in Iraq to be killed, although this week he said th at should only apply to the U.S. military and not to civilians.

Those views, and the fundamentalist positions of the union on the veil ban, have concerned many Jewish observers in France.

The country’s leading Jewish religious organization, the Consistoire Central, has so far held off meeting with the union despite repeated requests from the Interior Ministry, JTA has learned.

Since the union is essentially a religious grouping too, the Consistoire might have appeared the logical organization to meet with it.

Consistoire sources told JTA that “there was no official boycott going on,” and that they had told the ministry that the matter would need to be discussed within the Consistoire’s official structures.

What appears likely is that the Consistoire, which has a more hard-line constituency than CRIF, is happy to let CRIF take the flack for meeting with the union, which is recognized as the principal faction within the Muslim mosque-attending community.

! The director general of the Consistoire, Frederick Attali, said his group preferred meeting with less-radical figures such as Muslim Council head Dalil Boubakeur.

Boubakeur, though, heads a minority faction on the council; the largest grouping is the union. He is regarded as holding little sway with Muslims in working-class suburbs around France’s largest cities whom the Jewish community see as the principal cause of anti-Semitic acts.

As a result, most voices in the community accept that CRIF had little choice but to meet with the union.

Moreover, with the government accepting the union as semiofficial interlocutors in the hostage crisis and its dominant position on the Muslim Council, there is little doubt where real influence lies in France’s practicing Muslim community.

According to Jean-Yves Camus, a political scientist and expert on radical Muslim groups in France, the union’s recent appeals on behalf of the French hostages and their moderated approach t! o the veil issue mask considerably more radical views.

Camus point ed out recent statements by the union condemning Israel’s targeted assassinations of Hamas leaders as well as anti-Jewish comments that regularly appear in a forum hosted on the union’s Web site.

He also alluded to systemic problems within the movement.

“It’s in their mosques where they raise money for Hamas and recruit for Afghanistan,” Attali told JTA.

Nevertheless, Camus said he supported CRIF holding talks with the union since they were “very certainly” more representative than Boubakeur.

“We can deplore this, but it is a political meeting and that is CRIF’s job,” he said. “In politics you speak with your enemies.”

But not only Jewish groups were troubled by the meeting.

The Association of Secular Maghrebins urged members of the Jewish community to write to CRIF warning that the union was just “using” CRIF.

“Holding a dialogue with the union is no more a part of interreligious dialogue than talking to extremist Christian currents in the Nationa! l Front,” the letter said, referring to a far-right political group in France.

Similar comments came from the National Association of Elected Officials in the Suburbs.

In a statement issued Sept. 9, the group said CRIF had made “a serious mistake” and had given “additional legitimacy to this Islamic movement.”

CRIF however, was unrepentant.

The group’s executive director, Haim Musicant, told JTA “we know who we’re talking to and I guarantee we won’t be keeping our tongues in our pockets.”

Whatever the tone of the meeting — described by Alaoui as “frank and calm” — CRIF recognizes that only by monitoring the discourse of radical imams in mosques controlled by the union, can they effectively change much of the hostile climate toward Jews which exists in certain sections of the Muslim community.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Kanovitch said CRIF had asked the union to monitor the lectures given by the imams and that “they have committed to tha! t.”

He added that there likely would be a future meeting between t he groups, although no date has yet been fixed. “We will probably be invited to the union’s offices and we will respond favorably,” he said.

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