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French Imam Teaching Tolerance and Inclusion

  • Lisa Bryant

French imam Hassen Chalghoumi, author of newly published book, 'For Islam In France' (file photo - 16 Jan. 2009)

French imam Hassen Chalghoumi, author of newly published book, 'For Islam In France' (file photo - 16 Jan. 2009)

At a time when France is fearful of Islamist radicalism, one imam is speaking out against religious extremism and against intolerance and racism toward Muslims.

Friday afternoon prayers at al-Nour mosque, an unassuming building tucked behind a supermarket in the Paris suburb of Drancy.

In the women's section, one worshipper repeats the Shehada, attesting to her belief in one God, as she converts to Islam. Helping her along by video linkup is imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who has grabbed the media spotlight with his newly published book, For Islam In France.

Chalghoumi has been derided as the "Imam of the Jews", because he has reached out to France's Jewish community. He has received death threats for criticizing Muslim extremism and the face-covering veil, which the government recently banned in public places.

Chalghoumi says the niqab, or face veil, is not a religious obligation. Rather it alienates Muslim women from the rest of French society because it covers their faces. He says it also feeds on anti-Muslim sentiments in France.

In his book and in a recent interview, the 37-year-old imam describes the events that led him to a life of prayer. Born in Tunisia, he studied at El-Zitouna University, a famous theological institute in Tunis. He traveled widely in the Middle East and Asia to understand different branches of Islam, before arriving in France in 1996.

Chalghoumi said he was shaken at an early age by the 1990s conflict between Muslim extremists and the Algerian government that killed roughly 150,000 people. He says radical Islam had nothing to do with the tolerant religion his mother taught him.

As imam, he reaches out to the non-Muslim community in France, inviting local authorities to religious holidays. He has hosted dinners between police and Muslim teenagers, who often clash in tough French suburbs. He also works to improve tense relations between Muslims and Jews, who comprise France's second- and third-largest religions.

As an imam in Drancy, where tens of thousands of Jews were deported to concentration camps during World War II, Chalghoumi says he has a special obligation to reach out.

The president of the Representative Council of French Jewish Institutions, Richard Prasquier, describes Chalghoumi as courageous.

"I think we need to have more imams like Hassen Chalghoumi," Prasquier said. "We need to have imams who speak up, as he does, and who have his courage ... and who are willing to practice what he calls an Islam de France, an Islam with the values that we should all honor in our country."

Chalghoumi has lessons for Muslims and non-Muslims in France. He says French Muslims need to be given greater opportunities to succeed, but they must also overcome their own prejudices. And he believes each community must reach out more to the other.

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