Owen Franken for The New York Times
HASSEN CHALGHOUMI, 38, is the imam of President Nicolas Sarkozy’s dreams. He supports a ban on the full facial veil, the so-called burqa; he opposes religious radicalism and promotes a “republican Islam” focused on France; he is ecumenical; and he favors dialogue with France’s Jews.
But Mr. Chalghoumi has also received death threats for his public positions and in particular his support for a ban on facial veils, including the black niqab, which reveals only the eyes. There are voices of dissent among the 2,500 worshipers at his mosque here in Drancy, just northeast of Paris. He has been called “the imam of the Jews.”
Twice, bands of young men, wearing knitted skullcaps and many of them bearded, demonstrated angrily at the mosque. At Friday Prayer two weeks ago, they demanded his resignation. Some shouted, “The anger of God on you,” which Mr. Chalghoumi understood as a threat.
“The large majority of people inside the mosque completely disagree with what Mr. Chalghoumi said” about the veil, “and what shocked us is that he said it as imam of Drancy,” one young man, Karim Hachani, told rue89.com, an Internet newspaper.
Mr. Hachani had seen a video of Mr. Chalghoumi at a Jewish ceremony and was shocked. “They said to Chalghoumi, ‘You are part of us,’ and it frightens us. A rapprochement with the Jews, why not? But not to such an extent.”
Born in Tunisia, Mr. Chalghoumi came to France at the end of 1996, at 24. Asked if he is nervous for his safety, he smiled almost shyly. “It’s my mother who worries,” he said, and laughed a little. “My mother told me, ‘Bin Laden and his team will never set you free.’ ”
Still, he had two police bodyguards with him during an interview, and they also accompanied him to the mosque.
HIS latest trouble is a result of his position on the full veil, which he regards as a symbol of inequality with no justification in Islam or the Koran. Those who support the full veil in France are ignorant, having absorbed a street Islam of anger and slogans in a time of rising radicalism, he says. The full veil itself, he says, cuts off Muslims from France and frightens many.
“A man who knows nothing about religion and sees a woman hidden from head to toe, what is he going to understand from that religion?” he asked. “The burqa is a sign of extremism, and it’s normal that the state is fighting against that.”
The debate on the veil is a distraction from the real needs of French Muslims, he said, citing problems of poverty, unemployment, poor housing and racial prejudice.
Asked if the choice to wear the full veil was not also an expression of freedom, Mr. Chalghoumi said simply, “Freedom has limits,” adding: “If some ‘acts of freedom’ stir hatred, it’s not good. And will it show the good side of Islam? I don’t think so. One has to respect the feelings of others.
“The French have not accepted the hijab,” the head scarf, he said. “How do you expect them to accept the niqab?”
You see the problem? he asked excitedly, his French becoming more accented. “People think Islam is a dark, closed religion, that women are imprisoned and men think only about sex. What an image! This is the perception I refuse!”
His wife, a Frenchwoman of Tunisian origin, herself wears the hijab, he said. But he sees the niqab as a sign of growing radicalism, not just in France, but throughout the Arab world, a trend that began with the Islamic Revolution in Iran.
In France, he said, radicalism feeds on ignorance. “There is little knowledge of Islam here,” he said. “I hear young people saying that they hate us, they grab Koranic verses, they pick up two words and say, ‘Those are our enemies.’ ”
The ignorant young born in France are easy to manipulate, he said. “They are told, ‘Look at Islam, it will forgive you, that’s paradise; your enemy is the Jews, the United States and the Westerners.’ That’s the reality and shouldn’t be hidden,” he said.
The children of immigrants are atomized and lonely, he said. Parents say they will return home, the French call them foreigners and in their country of origin they are mocked for not speaking Arabic. “He is rejected everywhere, so once he finds a religious trend that can accept him, he’s ready to get involved, he regains self-esteem and courage, and that’s the kind of manipulation we have in France.”
French Islam is dominated by the original nationalities of adherents, who remain close to their embassies, and to political trends imported from the Middle East. “When you have an Islam divided into trends, manipulated by foreign states, you have an Islam of nationalists,” he said. “But here most Muslims don’t want that; they wish to have an Islam of France, adapted to their lives, and an imam whose sermons are in accordance with their own problems.”
Mr. Chalghoumi himself grew up in Tunisia at a time of political unrest, when Islamist parties were moving into politics in the Maghreb and governments were cracking down. He was a tall, gentle boy and took after his mother, he said, preferring words to fists. He became serious about Islam at 14, and his reluctant parents let him study at the famous Ez-Zitouna University in Tunis.
He then traveled to India, Pakistan and Syria, and studied different forms of Islam. At the same time, he said, “I noticed the recruitment system for jihad.”
MR. CHALGHOUMI is about to publish a book, “Republican Imam,” and while he is praised by the government and French Jews, he is viewed skeptically by other Muslim leaders, who fear he has moved beyond the point where most Muslims can easily follow.
M’hammed Henniche, who runs the Union of Muslim Associations in nearby Seine-St.-Denis, said Mr. Chalghoumi was filling a vacuum, but was too bold. “What he’s doing is honorable; it meets a need. But he makes blistering statements without worry and quite easily,” Mr. Henniche said. “He wants to gain a following through provocation,” and should instead focus on teaching. “His voice is very listened to in the media, but little by Muslims.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Chalghoumi published a message to the faithful of Drancy, noting that the National Assembly in France had no Muslim members and explaining that “the burqa should not veil the two problems that afflict French Muslims and put in danger France, our country: racism and fundamentalism.”
Some of Mr. Chalghoumi’s sensitivity comes from Drancy itself, the site of the transit camp where thousands of French Jews were shipped to Nazi death camps. In 2006, at a ceremony there, Mr. Chalghoumi, largely unknown, spoke of the horrors of Drancy and the Holocaust. He described his “heavy heart” and “an injustice without equal.” He said Muslims and Jews were related, declaring that “the children of Israel and of Ishmael are cousins, and remain so today.”
His house was vandalized the next day. During the Israeli invasion of Gaza a year ago, he opposed Muslim street protests here. “On the Palestinian question he’s too in line with the Jewish position,” Mr. Henniche said. “I saw no use in prohibiting the protests. We want a more nuanced point of view; this discredits him.”
Mr. Chalghoumi dismisses the criticism. What frightens him are ignorance and radicalism.
He supports what is now unacceptable in constitutionally secular France — voluntary religious education in public schools. “When it comes to teaching Islam, if we don’t do it ourselves, others will,” he said. “They will take our children.”