For a French Imam, Islam’s True Enemy Is Radicalism

February 13, 2010

Owen Franken for The New York Times

DRANCY, France

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, 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.”

Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting.


6 thoughts on “For a French Imam, Islam’s True Enemy Is Radicalism

  1. Peace brother Wajahat,

    first i’d like to mention that i really like your articles.

    Ive been reading them on Counterpunch for the past few years and i can honestly say that your a truly righteous brother.

    Also, its good to read articles written by young North American muslims who are both proud muslims and keen observers and intelligent left-wing commentators of social, cultural and political contemporary issues relative to North America and beyond.

    However, and if im writting this to you, its truly because i have respect for you and what you write (I really liked your article ans interviews with Ishmael Reed): this Hassan Chalgoumi character is someone you should’ve checked his background on first before posting this article.

    I understand that english speaking brothers who cant read french have somewhat of a handicap in regards to understanding whats happening in France so let me give you a couple clues on the whats happening with that dude.

    Its also a shame that you cant read french because there’s a really righteous progressive french muslim web site that has a post-modern and post-colonial touch that you would love for sure called “”.

    They put out a lot of great material on the issues pertaining to muslim life in the francophone world (their slogan is “Islam in all liberty”) and they gave a damning account of this character.

    I dont have much time to translate all but heres the skinny:

    Dude hangs out with members of the CRIF (conseil représentatif des institutions juives de France).

    Now intereligious dialogue, all progressive muslims are for it. But what about intereligious dialogue with an association that is the french equivalent of AIPAC or JINSA?

    Where you must leave the issue of the israeli apartheid out the door if you want in?

    CRIF is like AIPAC. They get Sarkozy and Bouygues to come to their annual receptions and give praise to them.

    Chalgoumi is the type that tells these people what they wanna hear in order for him to be able to get in.


    The incident of the “commando” is nothing but the simple devotees and people who pray at the Drancy mosque who asked him to leave the mosque because they consider the man a sell out who says nothing about the damning racism in Europe in general and France in particular and about the socioeconomic and political issues and who blames the so-called “muslim problem” on radicalism alone.

    A damning video has outed him. There was no violence, no slurs, no threats. Just a “get out”.

    This man reverses causality and gets kick backs by the powers that be and at the same time he pursues the old colonial strategy of begging the masters for a little power in exchange for total loyalty towards the racists and crooks who refuse real equality and respect towards muslim in France.

    That is not to say that there is no need for reform and change amongst us Muslims.

    But this talks exists and the reformers are there.

    Its just unacceptable to have the reform imposed and orientated by the racist islamophobic Mofos up in the sphere of the institutionnalized racism.

    This Chalgoumi types and the ones like him talk as if there is no such talk of reform and present themselves to the lily white press and the politicos and the powerful lobbysts as the “good muslim” whose gonna get his brethren to straighten their act when he is just an opportunistic ignorant uncle Tom.

    Peace brother

    Much respect and please keep up the excellent work

    We need more enlighten brothers like you

    May God help and protect you

    sincerely yours,

    Karim B., Montréal

  2. Read your articles for the first time. Posted one on our blog. Sitting in Pakistan, and reading of American Muslim community and their viewpoint is refreshing at times. Is there a similar site for European Muslims, other than just the UK?

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