For secular France, a rift widens

Muslims: Measures intended to encourage assimilation backfire, strengthening the need for many to embrace an Islamic identity.

March 07, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

PARIS - Mahmoud Bourassi speaks softly about tolerance here, about the need for his country to respect his religion and for people of his faith to remember that beyond being Muslim they are also French.

To many of his countrymen, though, Bourassi is someone they should fear. They see him as a terrorist in the making, if not a terrorist already, a young man moving toward a brand of religious extremism responsible for everything from the sexual mutilation of thousands of French Muslim girls to deadly attacks on Western targets around the world.

Their evidence: his age and his attention to Islam. He is 28. He prays five times a day. He does not drink alcohol. He is mildly political. His mother covers her head with a scarf.

"There is no conflict in being French and Muslim at the same time, in my view," Bourassi said. "I'm French in my way of speaking, in my sense of humor, and I look at the world through French eyes.

"But a lot of French don't want to see me as French. They want me invisible, and if they see me as Muslim, they associate that with violence, terrorism and hate."

The government and Muslim leaders agree on at least one thing: The number of real fundamentalists is growing.

"There is no question, fundamentalism is growing everywhere, and, of course, we see it more and more in France," says Jacqueline Costa-Lascoux, a researcher at the prestigious Institute of Political Science and a Paris immigration attorney who advises the government on how to integrate Muslims into French society.

"All of this can lead to violence," she says. "It already has."

In her view, and that of the government, the threat of violence born of religious extremism is here, now, and growing - in the Muslim ghettos that ring Paris and Lyon, in the underground mosques within walking distance of the Louvre.

France is home to about 5 million Muslims - 8 percent of the population - and their numbers are increasing quickly. People such as Bourassi are being tarred as potential terrorists, and more young Muslim men, increasingly feeling isolated, are in turn listening to prayer leaders who talk of the evils of the West.

As one way to protect itself against religious extremism, the French government is clamping down on religious symbolism. This month the French parliament approved a ban on head scarves in public schools; its passage into law is expected this spring.

The logic of the legislation works like this: For a Muslim to become a religious extremist is to first embrace Muslim symbols - head scarves for women, beards for men.

Eliminating as many of those symbols as possible, the logic continues, removes this step to extremism.

"France cannot be a playground for fundamentalism, and that's the direction it's heading," says Herve Mariton, a member of parliament who served on a committee that created the head scarf ban. "We are drawing a line to protect French society, to prevent this move toward extremism."

But the legislation has backfired.

Tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims - and between Muslims divided by the ban - have increased in a country where integration has been a problem since the influx of North Africans began in the 1950s. Thousands of Muslims - most of them young and many who kept their religion in their homes and mosques, just as the French government preferred it - have taken to the street in protests and have, for the first time, found themselves politically aligned with true extremists.

So high have the tensions risen in France, historically the most adamantly secular country in Europe, that Bourassi is seen as a threat even by people such as Dali Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, the city's largest.

A Muslim in France becomes political only because he wants to inflict his religious views on others, Boubakeur says, a move, in the rector's assessment, toward radicalism.

"The division between the moderates and the fundamentalists is growing, without question, and it's making life more dangerous," Boubakeur says. "These fundamentalists prey on the young, and as the young are sucked in, sooner or later they're asked to fight."

"The demonstrators? Fundamentalists."

Said Mahmoud Bourassi, less than a week after protesting against the head scarf ban: "Our challenge, what I am trying to do, is to preserve our faith and practices in a society that doesn't have our references.

"We've almost become resigned to this bad image and we need to change that - but without becoming less-good Muslims."

Failed integration

The town of Bondy, a suburb north of Paris, is dominated by public housing apartment buildings, some of them 14 stories tall, clustered on lots that are mostly concrete and hardened mud.

Bourassi lives here with his mother, father and younger sister, in a well-kept but decidedly utilitarian apartment, with a stairwell that appears not to have been painted in years. It's across the street from a similar building with trash out front, where a basement is used as a prayer room for Muslims in the neighborhood.

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