Tue, Oct 07, 2003 - Page 9 News List

French resist Muslim push for minarets


Hamida Maiga looks out over a green field ringed by white suburban houses and low-rise apartment blocks, and imagines the spires of a mosque's minarets rising above it all.

"Our one condition is that it should look like a mosque so that people, when they drive by, will know what it is," he says, standing with two other members of the town's new Muslim Federation, which hopes to build an Islamic center on the site.

That modest wish is a radical aspiration in a country where stone churches are the central architectural statement in almost all cities and towns and Christianity so permeates the culture that, for most French, it is an assumed part of the national identity.

While people here may have grudgingly accepted a growing Muslim presence in their midst, many still resent displays of religious and cultural symbols that suggest the country's second largest and fastest growing religion is here to stay.

But as the country's first major wave of Muslim immigrants retire and their French-born children come of age, the largest Islamic community in Europe is pushing for the social and religious institutions that it believes are its due.

In so doing, they have pushed right up against the French tradition that dictates by law a strict separation of church and state and the celebration of secular values.

It is a tussle that is going on in various degrees across Europe: Last month, Germany's highest court ended a long legal battle there by ruling that an Afghan-born Muslim teacher cannot be forbidden to wear a head scarf in school. But the ruling left a loophole that may allow individual German states to pass laws expressly forbidding head scarves in schools.

In France, Muslim leaders have called for paid days off on Islamic holidays and the appointment of Muslim chaplains in hospitals, prisons and the military. At least two French cities now cater to Muslim women with female-only hours at public swimming pools.

Building mosques is highest on the Muslim agenda, both because of a physical need and a desire to demonstrate that the religion has incontestably arrived.

"Islam is a religion that is rising and is very strong, and that causes fear," said Zeinoul Abidine Daffe, a light-skinned Senegalese who, in his tweed jacket and glasses, looks like a college professor.

Daffe and Maiga, a native of Mali, have both spent the better part of their adult lives in France.

For 20 years, they and most of France's 5 million Muslims made do with tiny prayer rooms -- often in the basements of buildings. Cergy's Muslims worship in a town gymnasium put at their disposal once a week.

There are already more than 1,500 mosques and Muslim prayer rooms in France, but only a handful have domes or minarets because local governments consider such identifying details unnecessarily ostentatious, even inflammatory.

Now, dozens of mosque projects are making slow progress through France's formidable bureaucracy and at least 10 of the planned buildings will be architecturally recognizable as mosques, with domes or minarets or both.

The Cergy mosque, still at least two years from realization, has already excited passions and led one local opposition politician to warn that its minarets might rise higher than the town's church steeples. The comment won the town national attention: The conservative newspaper Le Figaro ran a cartoon of a priest and an imam cranking up the towers on their respective houses of worship, each trying to top the other.

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