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Analysts Say Muslim Group Has Failed to Make Progress in France


Five years after its formation, the body representing France's five million Muslims is being torn apart by competing interests of various Islamic factions. The latest division surfaced this month, when the council's president pulled out of upcoming elections for new members. Lisa Bryant has more on the problems facing Europe's largest Muslim community.

Ever since it was coaxed into existence by the French government in 2003, the French Council for the Muslim Religion has been torn apart by infighting and, experts say, by competing foreign interests. Today, analysts like Olivier Roy say, the council has done very little for Islam in France - the country's second-largest religion.

"The only thing this council has been able to achieve these last few years has been to decide on a common day to celebrate the Ramadan," said Olivier Roy. "That is all. They do not want to take any decision concerning any concrete issue about the situation of Islam in France."

The Muslim council was expected to fulfill a number of functions besides organizing Islamic holidays. Organizers hoped it would oversee mosque construction and imam training - and ensure a moderate Islam flourished in France, in sync with the country's separation of religion and state.

Instead, its many critics say, it has mostly bickered. The newest disagreement concerns June elections for new council representatives. The current system allocates voting rights based on the size of prayer space in mosques and Muslim houses of worship.

Critics argue that method will grant the Moroccan-based community an unfair advantage over the Algerian one - including the Great Mosque of Paris, which is backed by Algiers and whose rector Dalil Boubakeur is president of the council.

Earlier this month, Boubakeur announced he would boycott the June elections. Chems-Eddine Hafiz, lawyer for the Paris mosque and member of the Muslim council says the vote would unfairly sanction the mosque and its affiliates.

Hafiz says the Mosque does not represent a minority of Muslims in France, as some claim - that it in fact represents about six in 10 French Muslims. He says the council must set aside its divisions and concentrate on working for the country's Islamic population.

Analyst Roy, of the National Center for Scientific Research, says France's Muslim population is divided and no one group has a majority. He says behind the local power struggle is one between rival North African neighbors Morocco and Algeria, sources of a large chunk of Muslim immigration to France. Algeria, for example, supports the Paris mosque.

"The present problems do exist from the beginning," he said. "The contradiction in the [French] government policy was on the one hand to advocate a French council representing French Muslims and on the other hand to subcontract to the Algerian and Moroccan governments the elections [for council seats]."

A third influential group in the council is the conservative Union of French Muslim Organizations, which is backed by the Egyptian-founded Muslim Brotherhood.

The upshot, says Muslim intellectual Malek Chebel, is that ordinary Muslims have no direct say in the council - and women and youths are particularly underrepresented.

Chebel, who was part of an advisory group for the council at its start, believes the panel should also represent intellectuals along with more secular Muslims who rarely, if ever, attend mosque. He says it should give French Muslims greater visibility and rights, and work to dispel stereotypes of Islam as a violent religion.

Sociologist Franck Fregosi, who recently published a book on Muslims in France, also believes the council should be more democratic.

"If we want to do something very important in the religious field it would be to ask Muslims as individuals to participate in their own mosque and elect their own delegates," said Franck Fregosi. "And then we will have an organization that will be more democratic."

What has changed, Fregosi says, is the attitude of the French government. In the past, it was a strong backer of the Paris mosque and its moderate brand of Islam. But today, he says, it has refrained from championing any one group for the upcoming vote - leaving it up to the Muslim community to decide just what kind of representation it wants, and how effective it will be.

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