- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 11, 2004

PARIS — France is intensifying efforts to integrate its large Muslim minority by trying to create a generation of French-speaking imams equipped with some knowledge of law and diplomas from Parisian universities, including the Sorbonne.

Dismayed by calculations that a third of the imams practicing in France do not speak the language of their adopted country, Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin plans to start a foundation early next year. A two-year course at the Sorbonne and Assas universities, starting next autumn, would take the initiative further, giving aspiring Muslim preachers instruction in French law and society.

French politicians of all parties are concerned that immigrants living in high-rise blocks of flats on Muslim-dominated estates are turning to self-styled imams who deliver their frequently anti-western rhetoric in ground-floor prayer rooms. But in an interview with Le Parisien, Mr. de Villepin supported the view of President Jacques Chirac that the 1905 law separating church and state was untouchable.

“It creates a correct balance between religious freedoms and state neutrality and it would be dangerous to distort that balance,” Mr. de Villepin said.

“In 1905, Islam wasn’t a factor within the republic. Now it must find its place. I am convinced that the law allows us to meet that challenge. Of 1,200 imams preaching in our country today, 75 per cent are not French and a third do not speak our language. That is unacceptable. What we need is imams who are French and speak French.”

Each student imam would follow a course covering the theological and secular needs of society. Regional councils would be asked to provide French courses for existing imams.

France faces parallel issues in its attempts to cope with what has become the country’s second-biggest religion: how to keep a lid on extremism and how to persuade the broader French public to be more tolerant of the country’s 6 million Muslims.

The case of Abdelkader Bouziane, a radical Algerian imam deported in October because suspected links to terrorists made his presence damaging to public order, illustrates both issues. Mr. Bouziane attracted even more attention for his advocacy of wife-beating than for the questionable company he may have kept.

The spectacle of a preacher speaking in favor of violence against women and then complaining that his limitations in French had caused him to be misunderstood did nothing to further the interests of moderation or understanding.

Mr. de Villepin insisted that almost all Muslims in France were moderates who wished to practice their religion but also be part of society. Of 1,685 known Muslim places of worship, fewer than 50 could be linked to radicalism.

Dalil Boubaker, the president of the French Muslim Council, said a list of 60 prospective students had been drawn up.

Lhaj Thami Breze, president of the French Union of Islamic Organizations, said he would encourage theological students to follow take the courses “because an imam must not be ignorant of secularity and its history in France.”

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