Anti-terrorist GIGN elite forces storm the hijacked Air France Airbus at Marseille's Marignane Airport December 26, 1994.
Eric Camoin / Reuters

France today has roughly four or five million Muslim inhabitants, nearly a tenth of the population. Approximately half have French citizenship. More precise figures are not available, since the French state, being officially secular, is forbidden to inquire into questions of religion. It is generally agreed, however, that France, preponderantly Catholic, now has more Muslims than either Protestants or Jews, its historical minorities. Islam has become the country's second religion.

The change has come about through immigration, largely from France's former North African colonies. Although a presence since World War I, Muslims arrived in significant numbers in France only in the 1960s, when the government granted asylum to hundreds of thousands of Algerians who had fought on the French side in Algeria's 1954-62 war of independence. In the 1960s France also opened its doors to immigrant manpower to meet the needs of its burgeoning economy, bringing in a million more Muslims. Within a decade the economic boom ebbed, but by then Muslims were living in nearly all of France's cities and towns. With few choosing to return home, France slowly realized that a major Muslim community had settled in the country to stay.

Since the 1970s, France -- like much of Europe -- has enacted "zero immigration" laws, but its Muslim population continues to rise, thanks to high birth rates, illegal entrants, and an exception allowing the reunion of immigrant families. The exception makes clear that French policy is to legitimize the Islamic community, integrating it into the society. This policy contrasts with those of Germany and Britain, each with a community of about 1.5 million Muslims; Germany's policy is to repatriate its Muslims, Britain's to ignore them. Of the three, only France has taken positive steps to promote Muslim integration.

But France's policy, well-intentioned or not, is by no means the end of the matter. The developing world's soaring populations and stagnant economies are imposing increasing migratory pressures throughout the West. France is no more likely than any other Western state to satisfy these pressures by its integration efforts, even if they succeed -- and so far success has been elusive.

France's Muslim community is probably the first in history that has contemplated integration into a Christian society. Its proclaimed objective is to become French while keeping faith with Islam, but France's Muslims find few precedents for cultural adaptation. In theory the community's twin goals are not incompatible. Similar to the general population, only 10 or 15 percent of France's Muslims regularly practice their religion; most identify with the faith socially, chiefly by celebrating its major holidays. Yet in the French mind Islam is linked with fundamentalism. A recent poll found that two-thirds of the French associate Islam with religious fanaticism. To say the least, the Muslim community lives uncomfortably in France, distant from the goal of becoming truly French.

Muslims generally concede that the French try to contribute their share to the integration process. France has never abandoned the egalitarianism of its revolutionary heritage; it has absorbed outsiders more readily than any other country in Europe over the past two centuries. In the last few years French hospitality has been strained: France, like much of Europe, has been plagued by unemployment. Although Muslims have been disproportionately victims, a vocally anti-foreign party called the National Front blames them for France's economic ills. But the National Front, while growing in strength, is an exception. Most Muslims agree that France has been generous in promoting their community's development and respectful of its religious character.

The state provides Muslim chaplains and serves rations in accord with Islamic dietary law to believers in the military and in prison. Business and industry offer Muslim employees time and facilities for prayer. Some 30,000 of France's Muslims go on pilgrimage to Mecca each year, with official blessing.

Mosques are a more visible sign of the community. France has eight "cathedral-mosques," each accommodating a thousand or more worshippers, and a hundred or so smaller mosques in which several hundred can assemble. Muslims say they need more mosques, and claim that local officials put bureaucratic obstacles in their way. Free to improvise, however, they have transformed stores, houses, and apartments into prayer rooms, more than a thousand of them throughout the country.

If the French government had its way, the Grand Mosque of Paris would be the Muslim Vatican. The mosque, a building of classical Islamic design at the edge of the Latin Quarter, is the country's most illustrious Islamic monument. It was dedicated in 1926 to the Muslim soldiers who fought for France in World War I, and it receives official greetings every year from the president of the republic. In its main courtyard, paved in tiles of black and white, men in many different styles of dress -- the Muslims of France are said to come from 123 countries -- perform ritual ablutions at an octagonal fountain before prayers. The mosque originally had links to Morocco, but Algeria has financed it since 1962 under an agreement with the French government. Algiers also names the mosque's imam, or prayer leader. The agreement troubles many in the Muslim community in France because it underlines Paris' support for the military government in Algiers, and they view the mosque not as the seat of an Islamic papacy but as an arm of the Algerian state.

In September 1994 a new cathedral-mosque opened in Lyon, France's second city. Paid for by Saudi Arabia, the snow-white mosque fuses modern and traditional architecture. Construction began only after a decade of legal wrangling, during which Lyon's Muslims agreed to shorten the minaret and suppress the muezzin's traditional call to prayer five times daily. At its dedication, its imam described the mosque as standing "midway between two cultures -- the marvels of the Koran and the wisdom of Descartes."

Representing the state at the dedication ceremony was then-Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, who boasts of his own immigrant roots. As the nation's highest police official, his presence was a reminder to the Muslim community that however tolerant France might be, it still viewed Islam in the context of state security. France, Pasqua warned in his speech, would not compromise its secular traditions to accommodate any faith, and expected French Muslims to place the law of the land over sharia, or Islamic law. He issued a further challenge: "It is not enough simply to have Islam in France," he said. "There must now be a French Islam." It was an odd idea, alien to the traditional doctrine of a universal religion. France, it seemed to say, would not tolerate Islamic practices, religious or cultural, at odds with the character of French society.

Pasqua's words reflected the discontent many in France feel, contemplating Islam's impact on national life. They articulated the persistent concern that Muslims are different from the immigrants who preceded them, the Poles or the Portuguese or the Jews. They suggested that perhaps the Muslims could not be integrated after all.

PRAYERS AT THE MOSQUE

Across town from the Paris Mosque, in the grim nineteenth arrondissement that abuts the heavily Muslim industrial suburbs on the northern rim of the city, stands another of France's "grand" mosques -- although it is not grand at all in the English sense of the word. Its Arabic name is Addawa, "the call," but it is familiarly known as the Stalingrad Mosque, after a nearby subway stop. It is the largest mosque in France in terms of square footage, but its flat, unmarked facade makes it difficult to identify. I found it last December by following the crowd of believers hurrying to say their Friday prayers.

The building is a converted warehouse purchased in the early 1980s with Saudi funds. The few partitions that have been installed have scarcely altered the interior's rough, unfinished look. The second story contains offices, an auditorium, a modest library, and a few classrooms. On the ground floor is the mosque itself, a cavernous space about 100 by 200 feet, interrupted at regular intervals by thick pillars. Missing panels leave dark rectangular spaces in the ceiling.

The men filing in to pray, many of whom were teenagers, had mostly the faces of Arabs or Africans. A few looked typically French -- there are an estimated 35,000 French converts to Islam. Some congregants wore colorful West African dress or Middle Eastern galibiyahs. A few had on ties, but most were outfitted in the shabby coats or ski jackets and the knitted hats of manual laborers. They carried their shoes in plastic bags or tucked under their arm. Spread around the hall were several dozen well-groomed men in their twenties with badges declaring them "Securite."

The congregants began filling the hall about noon, lining up in tight, straight rows facing the niche on the eastern wall that points the way to Mecca. There were no women in the space, though about 500, I was later told, assembled in a the second-floor auditorium to follow the prayers on closed-circuit tv. By the time the imam entered at one o'clock, more than 2,000 men stood silently in the winter chill, waiting for his opening words.

The prayer leader at the Stalingrad Mosque is Larbi Kechat, a slight figure with a neatly trimmed beard. He is one of the country's most prominent imams. Born in Algeria in 1952, K‚chat is a product of French higher education. Although still an Algerian national, he has been a resident of France for 25 years. Politically, he is considered hostile to Algeria's military regime and sympathetic to the Islamic movement that opposes it, but still an opponent of revolutionary violence. A frequent participant in Muslim-Christian dialogues, he preaches a tolerant Islam. The message of his sermon that day, delivered half in French, half in Arabic, was that Muslims must not claim God's mercy exclusively for themselves but recognize that He makes it available to all who believe in Him.

Kechat was the central figure in the controversial August 1994 arrest of 26 Algerians suspected of sympathizing with Islamic terrorists. The roundup took place in response to the murder of five Frenchmen in Algiers by members of Algeria's Armed Islamic Group. Kechat, seized outside his mosque, was taken with the others to an abandoned military camp north of Paris, from which 20 of the detainees were expelled to the West African republic of Burkina Faso. Explaining the action, Pasqua's Interior Ministry said all were "susceptible of presenting a danger to the security of our compatriots." None, however, was charged with a crime.

Kechat was permitted to remain in France on his release three weeks later. As a cleric, he received strong support from church leaders, the newspaper Le Monde, and even the Paris Mosque -- although he shocked the country by joining the other detainees in refusing a visit from Dalil Boubaker, rector of the Paris Mosque, maintaining that Boubaker was an agent of Algiers. Commenting on K‚chat's arrest, a prominent Catholic priest said the imam had been "taken as a hostage to terrorize organized Muslims, whether sympathetic or not to the extremists, who are hostile to the Algiers military regime." After his release, K‚chat was confined to the nineteenth arrondissement and placed under police surveillance. He was allowed to continue as Addawa's imam but forbidden, as he joked, to go to his favorite barber. Officials ended his punishment only a few weeks before my visit.

In a shabby office above the mosque, Kechat told me the arrests were directed, symbolically, at all the Muslims of France. Though a "humiliation for our entire community," he said, Muslims would not be bullied by it. The resident Muslim community, he pointed out, has never been identified with terrorism in France. Referring to the December 1991 elections in Algeria, which the government in Algiers annulled after the Islamic party's first-round victory, he insisted that France abandon its support of the military government and endorse Algerian democracy, whatever the results. It was vital, he said, that France and its Muslims intensify their "brotherly collaboration."

Challenging Pasqua's vision, K‚chat said, "What is being asked of us is not integration but assimilation, which requires us to leave our identity behind. Individuals can be assimilated, a community cannot. A workable integration is one in which each party accepts the other as it is, with its own special culture.

"Our community, which started with soldiers and workers, is now mostly native-born and knows no other home. The idea of returning to someplace else is not part of our thinking. We have become part of the French family, and accept our responsibilities to it. But we cannot be alone in making accommodations.

"As Muslims, our ideal is a totally Islamic society, but that is only an ideal. Of course we would like the life of our community to be guided by our own laws, but we know that in France, circumstances do not permit it. Fortunately, Islam does not bar us from adapting. Islam in France is different from the Islam of, say, Egypt or Algeria. We practice a kind of diluted Islam here, in which we live with the separation of church and state, although it offends our beliefs. If we accept the limitations imposed on us, it is because Islam also commands us to preserve the stability of the society in which we live.

"But the arrival in France of Protestants and Jews required changes in French society; now it is the time of the Muslims. To start with, we need more mosques, to replace the dingy basement rooms in which so many Muslims now pray. We propose that a committee of wise men of both cultures sit down to work out solutions to our differences. These changes need not be abrupt, but we have got to assemble around a table together and agree on them."

DIFFERENCES UNCOVERED

The hijab, the scarf Muslim women traditionally wear to cover their hair, is among the issues that has eluded accommodation. One writer has drawn a parallel to Watergate: touching on basic but subtle social values, the furor over the hijab is practically incomprehensible to outsiders. Both Muslims and non-Muslims recognize the hijab as a symbol that reaches to the heart of their cultures -- one on which neither so far has been willing to yield.

The controversy began in 1989, when three teenage girls declaring themselves "believers but not fundamentalists" were expelled from a high school in Creil, a town north of Paris, for wearing what school authorities said was a religious symbol. The adoption of the hijab, French sociologists hypothesize, is part of a search for identity by the first generation of French-born Muslims to reach maturity. But it runs straight into the struggle between church and state in France that goes back to the time of Voltaire and was more or less settled in 1905 by the exclusion of religion from official institutions. Negotiations with the Creil students proceeded for three years, to no avail. Finally the government banned the head scarf, but Muslim leaders have kept the issue in the courts. Polls show that the dispute has sharpened worries among the French about the prospect of living with Islam.

The standard Muslim defense of the hijab is that it is not a religious symbol but a cultural artifact, part of Muslim tradition. Larbi K‚chat told me it reflected the differences between the West's physical notion of beauty, which comes from the Greeks, and the East's more abstract conception, in which the highest art form is calligraphy. Why, the hijab's defenders ask, can a teenager attend classes in a miniskirt or torn jeans but not in a head scarf? Perceiving a weak spot in secular ideology, the hijab's supporters say that denying Muslim students a freedom guaranteed to everyone else is pure racism.

The counterargument is based on a French belief that the schools have a mission to neutralize religious differences between students while imbuing them with French civilization. Some French intellectuals have linked the hijab to tribalism, seeing it as a barrier to the integration that Muslims claim to desire. Citing a tenet of the French Revolution, a prominent scholar has insisted that French education "is incompatible with the preservation of immigrant cultures. We preach the universality of mankind." The support of the organized clergy -- Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish -- for the Muslim position suggests to some Frenchmen a conspiracy to send secularism into retreat.

Characteristically, the Interior Ministry sees the hijab in terms of national security. Of some 300,000 Muslim girls in French high schools, it estimates that 15,000 wear the hijab, which it claims is an assertion of fundamentalism. The Education Ministry puts the figure at 2,000, and ascribes to them less militant motives. Some Muslim leaders maintain that any statistic for the wearing of the hijab in schools understates the extent of the practice because many girls, embarrassed to be seen bareheaded, avoid school altogether. On the other hand, teachers say that political militants regularly recruit young girls to take up the hijab and to pressure their fellow students to do likewise.

In 1994 the government adopted a rule that recognizes a student's right to display religious symbols unless they are "outrageous, ostentatious or meant to proselytize." The rule seems to leave room for a cross or a yarmulke while barring the hijab, but in fact it passes the buck, leaving interpretation up to the director of each school. Predictably, the rule satisfies neither side, and the dispute rages on.

SPREADING THE WORD

Among the outspoken supporters of the hijab is the Union of French Islamic Organizations (uoif), an umbrella association for some 200 local groups that promote Islamic orthodoxy. Many believe the union is the French branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the international society founded in Egypt 70 years ago to foster fundamentalism. Its leaders dismiss the description. But in its headquarters on a narrow street in the grimy Paris suburb of La Courneuve, it produces books, videotapes, and audiocassettes aimed at advancing the Islamic cause, and conducts courses and camps to train Islamic activists.

The union's program includes an annual Islamic fair held on the grounds of the old airport of Le Bourget, where Lindbergh landed in 1927. Dozens of chartered buses were parked near the cavernous hangars when I arrived at last December's fair. Inside, reminiscent of a Middle Eastern market, thousands of men with beards and women wearing the hijab -- some, in fact, in full veils -- wandered about, greeting friends, snacking on kebabs, enjoying the Arab music that boomed from loudspeakers. Beneath banners carrying names like Union Islamique des tudiants de France and Association Islamique du Calvados, booths were filled with merchandise for sale: prayer rugs, religious posters, trips to Mecca, and the recorded sermons of Islam's famous preachers. Workers at some booths collected funds to build mosques in France or to help needy Muslims in Palestine, Bosnia, and Chechnya.

One of the booths belonged to the European Institute of Islamic Studies, as its name is translated from the Arabic. Its French name is l'Institut Europ‚en des Sciences Humaines; the founders dropped "Islamic Studies" in French, I was told, to avoid provocation. The institute is in fact an Islamic divinity school, incongruously located in the tiny village of Chateau-Chinon in Burgundy, where Fran‡ois Mitterrand was mayor from 1959 to 1981. In poetry and song, the region is known as la France profonde.

I found the institute, now in its fourth year, perched high on a Burgundy hill. Once a vacation site a French manufacturer kept for employees, the property was bought in 1990 by a group of Muslim intellectuals affiliated with the uoif, with financing from Saudi Arabia. Twice the right-wing National Front brought in busloads of demonstrators to picket against the intended use, but residents of nearby towns and villages refused to take part. The institute, its directors assured me, tries to be a good neighbor, consulting with the local residents and inviting them to roundtable talks and open-house visits.

The property consists of two handsome old villas, housing administration offices, classrooms, and a library, and a half-dozen lesser buildings that serve as a cafeteria and dormitories. The institute has 75 resident students, half of them women, and some 200 enrolled in correspondence courses. Donations from the Persian Gulf states subsidize tuition and living expenses. The genders mix academically, I was told, but not socially. The women, of course, wear the hijab.

Most of the resident students are enrolled in a four-year program to obtain master's degrees in Islamic theology; ten will study for two years to become imams in French mosques. The directors describe the institute as the first Islamic university in Europe, and aspire to matriculate freshman classes of 300 within the next few years. Their dream is for Chateau-Chinon to rival Al-Azhar, Cairo's great seat of Islamic learning.

"French is the native language of most of our students. They arrive knowing little Arabic, and less religion. Islam was losing this generation," said Ahmed Jaballah, the 40-year-old director of studies, who was born in Tunis. We spoke in his office amid filing cabinets and computers. "Our aim is to form the leaders needed by the Muslim community of France.

"We start here by teaching them Arabic. Then we teach them the Koran, the hadith [the traditions based on the Prophet Mohammed's doings and sayings], and Islamic jurisprudence, like any other Islamic university. But there is a difference. Though our faculty was shaped in Arab institutions, most have advanced degrees from universities in France. Knowing France, we understand that we must teach Islam within the context of Western reality. The religious training we provide has a Western orientation."

Several years ago Jaballah won a moment of fame with a highly publicized open letter to the government arguing that the hijab was an obligation the Koran imposed on all Muslim women. But in talking with me he maintained that the institute teaches an Islam that can adapt to life in the Western world -- he prefers the word "adapt," he said, to "compromise" or "weaken."

The institute is far from fundamentalist, as some Frenchmen have charged, he said. Rather, it is influenced by the turn-of-the-century Egyptian reformer Mohammed Abduh, who acknowledged that the West had lessons to teach Islam. Jaballah said that living in the West opened him to a reexamination of formal Islamic doctrines. He no longer accepts, for example, the orthodox tenet that ijtihad, the interpretation of sacred texts, is closed. The institute, he said, considers the doctrine too rigid, therefore harmful to Islam.

"We see some advantage to living in the West, but we also see the problems," Jaballah said. "Muslims fear Western hegemony. The French fear that we will undermine their civilization. French pressure on us to assimilate is great. Some of the French say their culture is available only on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, without the slightest concession to our culture or our origins. We don't want to change French civilization, and we think we can be good Frenchmen. But we must have the freedom to express our differences and be able to practice our religion as it is."

Jaballah's ambiguity on the subject of integration echoes Larbi K‚chat's, and that of much of France's Muslim community. Convinced that religion has a mission in society, they are unhappy with a state that maintains its neutrality between religious, nonreligious, and even antireligious forces. They favor Muslim participation in France's secular life, but, deep down, they desire state intervention on religion's behalf. With the dispute over the hijab, they breached the wall that has kept religion out of official institutions. Clearly they do not regard the battle as over.

EXCESS MANPOWER

Religion is only one obstacle to the integration of the Muslim community into French society; temporal considerations also loom large. France welcomed the early waves of Muslims three decades ago, when the country was short of manpower; now, in an era of surplus labor, it treats their offspring as black sheep. The generation of the fathers contributed significantly to French society; the sons, economically superfluous, are more than the society can handle. A few of the offspring, women principally, have done well. But the young men, marooned in ghettos, too often drop out of school, join gangs, take drugs, engage in violent crime. The government, failing to ameliorate conditions for them, has left them as a problem for the police. Muslim extremists have plowed the field of their discontent.

In July 1995 Sheikh Abdelbaki Sahrawi, a well-known imam of a Paris mosque, was assassinated after condemning Islamic extremism in Algeria. The same summer saw a wave of extremist attacks in which nine people were killed and hundreds injured. The most dramatic incident was a July 25 bombing in the Paris subway, for which Algeria's Armed Islamic Group took credit, saying it was retaliation for French support of the Algerian government. The terror reduced France to panic, and placed police under tremendous pressure to find the killers. On September 29 an anti-terror squad killed a 25-year-old Algerian in a shootout in an industrial suburb of Lyon. The government maintained that the death solved the crimes, although other bombings, attempted bombings, and arrests continued well into this year.

The man killed in the shootout, Khaled Kelkal, was born in Algeria and raised in a bleak public housing block near where he died. His story is a familiar one. He was one of ten children of a father who had migrated to France decades before in search of work. In 1990 the father lost his job in the economic downturn, and shortly afterward Kelkal, who had been an excellent student, was arrested and imprisoned for burglary. On his release two years later, he accompanied his mother on a visit to Algeria, during which, French police say, Islamic extremists recruited him. After that, he never found steady work. In August 1995 the police took his fingerprints off an explosive device attached to a railroad track near Lyon, and distributed copies of his photograph around the country. Kelkal went into hiding, and when security forces located him, French tv was with them. Viewers witnessed Kelkal's last moments, lying on the ground, apparently trying to raise the pistol in his hand to fire.

By chance, a German scholar studying France's ethnic conflicts had conducted a long interview with Kelkal in 1992. The text, which Le Monde published after Kelkal's death, depicts a thoughtful youth raised by caring parents, drawn to both studies and crime, angry at getting a lesser chance in life than French kids, attracted in prison to drugs and prayer, and finally choosing fundamentalist Islam.

"I'm neither Arab nor French," Kelkal told the interviewer in his slangy French. "I'm Muslim. . . . When I walk into a mosque, I'm at ease. They shake your hand, they treat you like an old friend. No suspicion, no prejudices. . . . When I see another Muslim in the street, he smiles, and we stop and talk. We recognize each other as brothers, even if we never met before."

No sooner was Kelkal's death announced than young Muslims rioted in the suburbs of Paris and Lyon, burning cars, smashing windows, looting stores, and attacking police. "The killing of Kelkal was the last straw," said Areski Dahmani, founder and president of France Plus, the only Muslim organization in France with an agenda that is more social than religious. Dahmani claims that, unlike the religious associations, France Plus gets its money at home, not from the Gulf states. The group likes to compare itself with American civil rights organizations. France's Muslims are at the bottom of the social heap, Dahmani contends, not because they need religious concessions but because France lacks a policy to end racial discrimination and high unemployment.

"Kelkal is seen as a martyr, a Robin Hood who defied the state," said Dahmani. "He is the product of the 20-year failure to integrate the races. France never really accepted its North African immigrants. Now the authorities see they have a potential fifth column of angry, state-hating young people, and they think that handing out a few peanuts will calm the situation down. But French society is not working. More and more people are excluded from participation. Unless there is dramatic change, we could fall into the abyss of civil war within a few years."

France Plus was founded a decade ago in response to the Islamic organizations then getting started in France. Its motto was "All the rights and all the duties of the citizen," and as its name implies, it urged young Muslims to become more French -- to vote, finish school, join the police, enlist in the army. France Plus defied the predominant Muslim position on the hijab by urging parliament to approve an outright ban, arguing that the state's neutrality on religious questions is the Muslim community's best long-term guarantee of the right to practice its faith. France Plus claims to be the headquarters for 11,000 activists from 50 regional organizations with similar views. These views have earned it the opprobrium of the mainstream Muslim leadership, which routinely proclaims that France Plus is not Muslim at all.

"The demagogues in our community, in pushing for the hijab and sharia, are trying to achieve an ideological split," said Dahmani, an articulate man dressed in the latest fashion, who has been described as having political ambitions of his own. Born in France in 1950, he calls himself a nonpracticing Muslim. "They see the perpetual combat between religious and secular forces in France as a model for polarizing Muslims. They emphasize the differences between Eastern and Western concepts of civilization. Fortunately, we don't kill each other over our differences here -- unlike in Algeria or Egypt, we debate our differences openly. France Plus sees France as the laboratory for an experiment that can serve all Islam. In our view, the extremists, in trying to undermine the experiment, are Islam's worst enemy.

"The means that we advocate are political. Our goal is power-sharing at every level. As Muslims, we have long been powerless, and France Plus is trying to overcome our weakness in political experience. But we don't want to repeat the mistake of American blacks and support only the liberal parties. The French left has taken our votes and given us little in return. Though the government has made France a modern state in organization and technology, on a human level, with left and right collaborating, it has created a disaster. We at France Plus believe that the more we spread our strength, the more the system will respond."

The high point of the organization's efforts came in the municipal elections of 1989, when candidates it supported competed for 2,000 seats and won a quarter of them. Sixty percent of the victors represented left-wing parties, and 40 percent, right-wing parties. Since that time, the trajectory has been downward, while backing for the fundamentalists, particularly among young Muslims in the suburbs, has steadily risen by every measure. Last year France Plus suffered a serious setback when the National Front -- calling for the expulsion of immigrants to reduce French unemployment -- won 15 percent of the vote in the presidential election. More directly threatening, National Front candidates won 1,000 seats in local assemblies and became mayor in three major cities.

WHO SPEAKS FOR THEM?

Notwithstanding its secularist vows, the French government, for practical reasons, gives formal recognition to religious communities and deals with them through bodies of their own choosing. On social matters like prison chaplaincies, it consults with the Catholic hierarchy, the Grand Rabbinate, or the Protestant Federation. To handle matters like these, as well as security questions, France would like to have such a body for dealing with the Muslims. It annoys Paris that Islam contains no provision for a clerical hierarchy, and even more that the Muslim community is too divided to choose political chiefs.

The government holds that the Paris Mosque has the credentials to represent the Muslims. It has a longer history than any Muslim organization in France. More important, given the link the government sees between fundamentalism and security, the mosque is considered valuable for its liberal interpretation of Islam. It has also retained ties with the Algerian regime, which France supports in the current civil war. The problem is that most French Muslims view the mosque as both the Interior Ministry's pawn and Algeria's agent.

Even the government concedes that the Muslim community has little sympathy with Algeria's fundamentalist rebels; it is likely that only a small minority supports them. But Algerians in France are cool to Paris' support of the military regime in Algiers, and non-Algerians, who make up more than half of the community, do not like any mixing of Algerian politics into Muslim community life.

Last year the Interior Ministry tried giving the Paris Mosque a leg up on its rivals by awarding it a lucrative contract for supervision of all butchering under Muslim dietary law. The fees involved -- some $100 million annually -- were enough to assure the fidelity of the mosque while freeing it from Algeria's embrace. The Muslim community's protests of favoritism forced the ministry to withdraw the plan, however, leaving the government to lament that it still had no Muslim authority to talk to.

Dalil Boubaker, the Paris Mosque's rector since 1992, continues as the government's candidate for head Muslim of France. The son of an earlier rector of the mosque, he was born in Algeria in 1940 and has French citizenship. Trained as both a medical doctor and an Islamic scholar, his intellect impresses even Muslims who consider his politics too French. Visiting him at the mosque, I found his office door guarded by a secretary without hijab and a half-dozen French cops.

"No one can categorically define Islam, not as a culture or civilization or even as a religion." said Boubaker. He is a pudgy man with thinning hair, who wore a suit and tie but had an imam's robe hanging on a hook nearby. "Islam comes in many variations. The problem is that each Muslim thinks his own is the only real one. Here at the Paris Mosque, where Muslims from all over the world worship, we start with the premise that rationalism and modernity are components of religion. This view is guided by the uniqueness of the Muslim condition in France: we live as citizens under the laws of a non-Islamic country, and we must face issues in Islam that have never before been raised.

"I do not accept, for example, the orthodox doctrine that Islam makes no distinction between religion and the state. The Prophet himself, after occupying Mecca in 630 a.d., returned to Medina to rule. This act says that Islam accepts the separation of the sacred and the temporal. From the time of the Umayyad Caliphate [661-750], Islam has recognized the sovereignty of the state. Living in France, in a Christian community under secular rule, we have no reason to reproach ourselves for violating Muslim ways.

"The French understand that we are willing to live under their laws. I sometimes think that French secularism is too static, too absolutist, in failing to take account of the spiritual needs of human society. But we do not want to deconstruct the patterns of French life. I don't like the term 'French Islam,' which Monsieur Pasqua and others have prescribed for us; the issue is more complex than that. But Islam evolves, and we are willing to practice within the context of French values. Many Muslims remain attached to a stagnant version of Islamic thought. But Islam is now at a crossroads, and can escape this stagnation. In France, we are ready to live our lives as good Frenchmen and French women."

In January 1995 the Paris Mosque published a long-awaited document, the Charter of the Muslim Faith in France, designed as a framework for Islamic organization and practice in the country. It condemned all forms of fundamentalism and fanaticism, insisting instead on moderation and dialogue for the resolution of differences both inside and outside the community. It denounced violence, while calling for the defense of Islamic values within the context of French law. It proposed a program for building mosques that would be apolitical and staffed by French-speaking imams prepared to swear an oath of loyalty to the French state.

Not surprisingly, the charter also named the Paris Mosque the official spokesman for the community. For most Muslims, this con-firmed that the document was written on Pasqua's typewriter. To Pasqua's chagrin, most Muslim leaders proceeded to turn their back on the charter, leaving the government with one more useless document on its growing stack of failures to organize the Muslims of France.

TOTALLY FRENCH

Pasqua is no longer minister of interior. In last year's presidential race he endorsed douard Balladur, hoping to become his prime minister. When Jacques Chirac was elected, Pasqua lost his cabinet post. He remains popular, however, and continues to wield considerable power at the local level, preserving his influence. The team he assembled at the Interior Ministry is intact, and his policies toward France's Muslims have become Chirac's policies.

A son of Corsicans who migrated to France from Greece, Pasqua received me in a handsome suite at the Conseil G‚n‚ral of Hauts-de-Seine, the wealthy Paris suburb that is regarded as his fief. He is a rotund man of 69 who boasts that he is 50 pounds lighter and in better health than he was a decade ago. His jovial style and thick accent are what the French describe as Mediterranean. When he speaks, he conveys the impression that his absence from high office is only temporary.

"The lack of structure in the Muslim community is dangerous," Pasqua said. "Anyone can proclaim himself an imam, without even speaking French. The institute at Chateau-Chinon is too fundamentalist to be a solution to the problem. The Paris Mosque remains our best hope, but I see now that it has got to cut its ties to Algeria and establish its independence. Boubaker is intelligent and totally French, and we should help him found a school for imams based on dogmas compatible with French life. If matters slide, the extremists will take over. France does not want to intrude into religion, only to safeguard national security. I only wish our politicians pursued this end with more vigor.

"The great majority of Muslims in France are loyal Frenchmen. But we have 50,000 or 100,000 who are influenced by fundamentalist doctrines, practice a hard-core Islam, and are guided in their conduct by the Koran, not by the laws of the republic. Among them are maybe a thousand who are ready to turn to violence. We cannot allow such people to win in Algeria, and we can't allow them to affect our lives here."

After 20 years as a public official working with the Muslim community, Pasqua is no less frustrated than the members themselves with their sense of alienation from society. The conclusion both Muslims and non-Muslims in France seem to be reaching is that Muslim resistance to cultural change is indeed greater than that of earlier immigrant groups, and that pessimism about Muslim integration is justified.

Given the size of the community, this alienation is not a minor matter. Conflict in the Islamic world is likely to continue, and Muslims in France will inevitably be drawn in. Furthermore, to regard the problem as France's alone would be naive. The number of Muslims in Western Europe already exceeds ten million, and it is growing. All the Western democracies, in one form or another, face immigration pressures from the developing world that are unlikely to abate. The clash of cultures that some have predicted for the next century may not take place at the frontiers where these cultures meet, but rather, as events in France suggest, inside the borders of the Western states.

  • Milton Viorst, author of Sandcastles: The Arabs in Search of the Modern World, is currently working on a book on political Islam.
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