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Divisions within French Islam deepen at Ramadan

Latest update : 2008-10-03

As the month of Ramadan came to an end, FRANCE 24 went behind the scenes at French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) and witnessed the divisions within French Islam.

The town of Evry, on the outskirts of Paris, is home to France's biggest mosque. Every evening during the month of Ramadan, thousands of faithful gather here to pray before breaking the fast. The crowds are so large the mosque had to call in two extra imams from Morocco. The rector of the mosque explains that an agreement was signed with France's Interior Ministry to allow Morocco to officially send imams to meet France's mosques' needs. One hundred and fifty preachers have been sent to France for Ramadan. One of them was hand-picked by the Religious Affairs Ministry. A graduate of one of Morocco's top Koranic schools, he belongs to the elite of his country's religious establishment. His mission is clear: to ward off extremist influences.

After his sermon, the faithful have differing opinions. One of them approves: "It's a very good idea. Even the Imams who come from the Gulf are very well versed in religion. We'd like to see more initiatives like this one." But another had trouble understanding the speech: "Some of the faithful here come from Asia, or from Africa, and they have a hard time understanding Arabic, or don't understand it at all. So we'd like to have imams who speak French."

Tense atmosphere

For decades now, Morocco and Algeria have been vying for control of France's Muslim community. Algeria traditionally had the upper hand. It controlled and funded Paris' Great Mosque, which was the top representative of the Muslim community. The mosque's Algerian director, Dalil Boubakeur, was also President of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, the CFCM. But in June 2008, after a turbulent election, the Council passed into Moroccan hands for the very first time.

This year, like every year, Paris' Great Mosque had asked for 100 imams to be sent from Algeria during Ramadan. But this time, the French Interior Ministry only granted Algeria 76 visas - half as much as it allowed Morocco. A real snub for Dalil Boubakeur: "In the current context, where there are sensitive identity issues, I think the French state should be careful... it shouldn't make it into a political choice; that would be catastrophic."

This evening the whole French Council of the Muslim Faith is gathered in Paris' Great Mosque, to set the official date for Eid el Fitr, which celebrates the end of the holy month. Moroccans and Algerians are here - but they form two separate groups, huddled in separate rooms. The two groups disagree on when to call the end of Ramadan. The atmosphere is tense and journalists are suddenly asked to leave the room. Although agreement is finally reached, Mohammed Moussaoui, the new Moroccan President of the Council, and Dalil Boubakeur, his Algerian predecessor, are at pains to show a united front on camera.

Date created : 2008-10-03