June 1, 2008

The Economist: The Graveyard Shift and Covering Up

Two short articles in this week's Economist about Muslims in Europe, one about Muslims in France, the other about Denmark. First, the French article, The Graveyard Shift, which suggests that regional Muslim officials are better able to work with local communities and governments than those officials at the national level:

Members of France's official Muslim body, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), bicker interminably at national level. But, step by step, a few are getting practical things done in the regions. The contrast between the dysfunctional national body and its active regional offshoots is striking, because the CFCM is squabbling yet again ahead of a leadership election on June 8th.

The CFCM was launched by Nicolas Sarkozy as interior minister in 2003, to give an official voice to France's 6m or so Muslims, rather like that enjoyed by the country's Jewish community. Since then, Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris Mosque, who has long been seen as the voice of the old Muslim establishment and allied to Algeria, has led the CFCM under a pact loosely dressed up as an election. Now more hardline bodies, notably the Union of Islamic Organisations of France, which is linked to the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as groups tied to Morocco and Turkey, want their turn. Amid a frenzy of lobbying — and, say his critics, a fear of losing in an open poll — Mr Boubakeur has threatened to boycott the vote.

Even if a deal is struck to divide up power again, the CFCM will struggle to win credibility. Non-practising Muslims see it as irrelevant, since it is organised entirely through mosques. It has been split by rivalries among foreign sponsors and financiers. And it has failed to pursue such practical matters as the training of imams, many of whom do not speak French. “The CFCM's track record in terms of organising Islam in France is zero,” says Olivier Roy, an Islamic scholar. “The advantage is that this has left the regional heads to get on with what they want.”

In Lyon Muslim burial plots are not the only achievement. The CRCM has negotiated the building of mosques and official sites for the slaughter of sheep at Eid, the festival of sacrifice, as well as improving contacts with other faiths. In Vénissieux, a run-down suburb of Lyon, opposite a Renault factory, the communist mayor has approved the building of a mosque, the Eyup Sultan, after years of failed applications. “Previous projects were abandoned because we didn't know the rules,” says Sifayi Ozcan over Turkish coffee in a portakabin at the site. “This time, we invited the mayor to lay the first foundations.”

During last December's Eid, the CRCM asked regional prefects to provide five extra official sites for ritual slaughter, to improve hygiene and stop sheep-killing at home. More than 1,200 sheep were sacrificed, along with another 10,000 at abattoirs. Now it is in talks with nearby sheep farmers to guarantee future supply — “to enable us to have good French lambs, not foreign ones,” says Mr Gaci.

Much remains to be done. There are worries about lack of progress on training imams. Vénissieux was home to an extremist preacher, Abdelkader Bouziane, who was expelled to Algeria in 2004 after advocating violence against women and who, said the intelligence services, had links to foreign terrorists. The fear is that without a French interpretation of Islamic texts, younger Muslims may turn to more hardline messages on foreign websites or through satellite television. Another difficult matter is prisons; an estimated 70% of the inmates of one in Lyon are Muslim. In the absence of moderate Muslim chaplains, radical movements are recruiting prison inmates with worrying ease.

One wonders exactly what they mean by a "French interpretation of Islamic texts."

The other article, Covering Up, which was also brought up by Islamophobia Watch, focuses on how a political party in Denmark, the Danish People's Party, has been trying to stir up Islamophobic sentiment by suggesting that Danish Muslims will ultimately take over the court system there and implement Shari'ah.

Pia Kjaersgaard'S Danish People's Party has a genius for attracting attention. Over the past month its campaign to ban public employees from wearing Islamic headscarves has dominated the headlines and also triggered squabbles within most of the country's other political parties.

The campaign began with a poster of a burka-clad woman wielding a judge's gavel. The implicit message was that Danes risk having their courts invaded by Muslim hordes and sharia law. Birthe Ronn Hornbech, the immigration minister, denounced the DPP as “fanatically anti-Muslim” and said the judiciary was capable of policing its own impartiality and dress code. Stig Glent-Madsen, a high-court judge, confirmed that the judiciary had always managed this itself.

Yet the government, which relies on the DPP's support to stay in power, has decided that a new law is needed to ban the wearing of all religious symbols by judges — from Christian crosses to Jewish skullcaps and even Sikh turbans. The hapless Ms Ronn Hornbech will have to frame the law. And the DPP is now calling for even broader bans. Muslim headscarves, says Ms Kjaersgaard, are a “symbol of political Islam and the discrimination against women.” She wants them “out of schools, off the streets and outside the doors of parliament.”

Many Danes share Ms Kjaersgaard's sentiments. A poll by Megafon for TV2 found 48% in favour of a ban on public employees wearing “religious garb,” and only 39% against. The international fallout could be large. Denmark is still struggling with the aftermath of the 2006 Muhammad cartoons affair, which led to protests, deaths and burnt-out embassies across the Muslim world.

One response has come from Danish-born Muslims. A poll by Politiken, a daily, of 315 young Muslim students, found that two-thirds of them were considering emigrating after graduation. Most gave as their reason “the tone of the Danish debate about Muslims.” Jakob Lange, head of studies at Copenhagen University, says that children of immigrants deliberately choose portable qualifications. “They want an education they can use abroad, where the tone of the debate is different. Which is why they often choose medicine, engineering or business-related disciplines.”

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