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Will Islam take hold?

An inside look at the Paris Grand Mosque, which is serving as a kind of incubator for a moderate strain of France's second religion that the government hopes will head off any drift toward radicalism within Europe's largest Muslim minority.

PARIS — Mustapha Tougui says he has the Quran in his blood. The Moroccan-born, Saudi-educated lecturer at the Muslim theological institute at the Paris Grand Mosque uses earthy language as he tries to preserve what he calls his students’ “spiritual hygiene.” His enthusiasm is infectious.

"If you eat always your mother's cooking, what a pity. I like other cooking, and Islam invites me (to appreciate) that. Islam shows me that," Tougui said as his students laughed. "The situation is a bit difficult now because (terrorists) give us an image and it's too difficult to clean … this dirt from the image of Islam."

The government hopes that moderates like Tougui at this Algerian government-funded mosque will play a leading role as this country tries to forge a so-called French Islam — one that is not only compatible with Islamic tradition but also palatable to the French government, mainstream society and, not least of all, Muslims themselves.

The mosque is serving as a kind of incubator for a moderate strain of France's second religion, which the government hopes will head off any drift toward radicalism within Europe's largest Muslim minority.

"We are an open Islam," Dr. Djelloul Seddiki, the head of the theological institute at the mosque, said. "But there are other Islams in France," including fundamentalists and radicals, he said.

The Paris Grand Mosque oversees the affairs of around 400 of the 1,800 facilities described as mosques throughout France, which can include simple one-room structures. The head of the mosque, Dr. Dalil Boubakeur, described by the Le Monde newspaper as "the ideal Muslim," is the most prominent Muslim in France and a friend of President Jacques Chirac.

"We prefer that [the radicals] are inside than outside, because it keeps them close," Seddiki said. "The best defense is education."

That's where Tougui comes in.

Mustapha Tougui. Sunday, May 7, 2006, Paris, France. (David Friedman / Friedman

The 56-year-old's courses are open to all, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. The mosque's theological institute also runs courses that it hopes will train a new generation of French-born imams, which is a hot topic in France.

"I hope to bestow the right religion so that they can educate themselves. I want to preserve them from spiritual pollution," Tougui said.

"Unfortunately you have very few teacher-lecturers who know how to lecture. They have gold in their hands, but they don't know how to manage it," he said.

France, along with other countries across Europe, is eager to limit its dependence on foreign imams.

"In the mosque, if the imam is not a French citizen and if he does not speak French, you can not speak about a 'French Islam'," Seddiki said.

Imams expelled
In 2004, at a time when the Interior Ministry estimated that perhaps two-thirds of France's imams were not citizens, the government began expelling foreign clerics judged to be preaching hate.

All students enrolled at the government-sanctioned courses at the Paris mosque who ultimately want to become imams must prove proficiency in French. The mosque is working with secular universities to allow Muslims also to study French history, civics and culture alongside other students, Seddiki said.

"The demand is growing because the new generation, they don't want to be preached by a poorly educated guy coming from Pakistan or Egypt, and who speaks bad French. They are not interested," said Dr. Olivier Roy, professor at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences in Paris and the author of "Globalized Islam."

But Roy is skeptical about how wide an impact this effort could have, particularly in the poor suburbs, where experts like him have warned of the possibility that radical strains of Islam could take hold.

"You can have a well-trained and relatively well-paid imam only when you have a huge constituency and, by definition, in the suburbs they have no huge constituency. But you can find some of these large constituencies in Bordeaux, in Lille, in Lyon, in Paris … (there) you have a bourgeoisie, or a growing Muslim middle class. But in the suburbs it's a different story," he said.

The government financed the construction of the mosque in 1926 as a gesture of thanks to Muslims from France's colonies who fought for the then-colonial power in World War I. The complex, just across the street from the Jardin des Plantes in southeast Paris, is the oldest mosque in France.

France's oldest mosque
Built as a hybrid of Islamic styles, the imposing structure features a large, sunken garden, fountains and a 33-meter high minaret. The internal courtyards, lined with Andalusian mosaics, are offset by dark eucalyptus and cedar trim. The mosque's adjoining cafe and restaurant, which serves North African cuisine such as couscous, tajine and sweet mint tea, is popular with tourists and Parisians alike.

In 2003, the government hand picked Boubakeur, the mosque's rector, to head the newly created Council of the Muslim Faith, which was intended to be an official interlocutor between Muslims and the government, although questions have lingered about the Council's effectiveness.

In France, as elsewhere in Europe, traditional Islamic practices are being influenced by conditions specific to the broadly-defined West, helping to forge what some observers have called “Euro-Islam.”

A key issue for Muslim immigrants is how to adjust to the pluralism so deeply ingrained in European society, said Dr. Jocelyn Cesari, a French expert on Islam. "This is the major challenge," she said.

"Muslims adapt to contexts, and the contexts in turn shape the kinds of reactions they may have," Cesari, a professor at Harvard and the author of "When Islam and Democracy Meet."

'House of invitation'
The broad concept of "Euro-Islam" does not constitute a "liberal" strain of the religion, Dr. Sara Silvestri said, but rather is influenced by Muslims' countries of origin, each European state's own history and the differences within each individual.

"There is not a monolithic type of Islam in Europe," said Silvestri, a fellow at Cambridge University's Center of International Studies who is writing a book on the challenges Islam and Europe present to each other. "As Muslims engage in European society, they go through a process of adaptation and confrontation to new ideas. They then reevaluate their own vision and the practices of Islam."

Silvestri said some Muslims jurists have begun rethinking the archaic Islamic concept of the world being split into two regions, “dar al-Islam” (“house of Islam”) and “dar al-harb” (“house of war”), to include a third option, “dar al-dawa” (“house of invitation”), denoting that Europe, while not an Islamic land, has become a welcoming environment that allows Muslims to practice their faith freely.

Cesari, the Harvard professor, currently is working on a comparative analysis of Muslims in Europe and the United States. American Muslims display a more robust self-confidence, Cesari said, one that is not afraid to question traditional practices and take charge in their spiritual communities.

"I don't think we have in Europe yet a very strong generation. This generation is here in America. Here, we're seeing women leading Friday prayers,” she said, referring to Amina Wadud, who first led prayers at a service in New York City last year.

“I have never seen this kind of activity in Europe," said Cesari, who is also the coordinator of

Staunchly secular republic
The primary classroom at the Paris Grand Mosque’s theological institute is accessed through a side door near the building’s main entrance. During a recent lecture, young men and women sat on separate sides of the long, narrow classroom. The men were neatly dressed, many of them in sports apparel, none in traditional Islamic dress. All of the women were veiled.

Institute class at the Grand Mosque of Paris. Sunday, May 7, 2006, Paris, France. (David Friedman / Friedman

They sat quietly taking notes and submitting questions about Islamic practice ("Can a man help a woman during childbirth?" "Yes! Of course," Tougui answered with a broad smile.) during Tougui’s class.

"This is something difficult to get from books or something," said one student, Peter Habermehl, a German computer scientist who converted to Islam after moving to France nine years ago to pursue a Ph.D.  "The key thing is that really you get an overall good education in Islam and this is what the course is providing."

All of the Muslim students, regardless of sex or age or background, are confronted with the challenge of adapting their practice of Islam in this staunchly secular republic. The teaching helps Muslims adapt to reconciling their faith with life in France but grounding them in the basics of Islam.

"We are here in a non-Muslim country so … it's really a challenge to find times to pray, and to do the practices like that," said another student, Zina, a physician who only wanted her first name used. She came to the institute upon the recommendation of her husband, a French convert.

“(But) our religion is easy to practice. We can find solutions — like our prayers — with some difficulties, but we can find solutions," she said.

That's all part of the goal, Tougui said.

"I regret really that (any) Muslim doesn't know their religion. This is my very big regret," he said.

Exploiting rifts
Daniel Fried, assistant U.S. secretary of state for European affairs, warned this spring of the potential for a "miniscule minority" of Muslims to exploit rifts between Islam and the West to further violent ends.

"A reliable way to counter European Muslims' spiritual alienation may be to anchor them in their own traditions of honor, respect, diversity and tolerance," Fried told a Senate subcommittee.

In Tougui’s course, he tries to impart to his students the value in appreciating Islamic traditions by reconciling them with French values.

"Cultures are like mothers. Your mother is the most beautiful women in the world. Mine as well. And everybody's. So … all cultures around the world are beautiful," Tougui said.

And through his instruction, he aims to protect his students “from the spiritual pollution because this is the best way to make a good, nice, normal Muslim — and human — because a Muslim is not an extraterrestrial. He's just a human."