One year after the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) called for an “open mosque” weekend across France, but the results have been mixed.
The mosque of Puteaux might be the most open in France. The building has been under construction since 2011, so there are literally no doors, only scaffolding and steel beams. On Saturday morning, smiling members of the congregation set up long tables on the unfinished concrete floors and offered hot tea and North African sweets, encouraging passersby to take a tour of the future Islamic cultural centre.
Anouar Kbibech, president of the CFCM, was on hand to endorse Puteaux’s efforts and to explain the open mosque program, which he announced to Le Parisien on December 26.
“The idea is to involve people in a dialogue, away from prejudices, fears and clichés, which unfortunately were brought out after the tragic attacks of January and November,” Kbibech said. For some visitors to the Puteaux mosque, it was the first time making contact with a member of the town’s Muslim community.
Marie Lebossé, 33, looked like she was dressed to go jogging but had stopped at the mosque for a cup of tea. She’s lived in the neighborhood for two years but didn’t know anyone from the congregation. “I had a really nice visit,” she said. “It’s important that people from different backgrounds get together.”
Valérie and Thomas, a couple from the neighborhood, hadn’t realized that there was a mosque being built on the site but were happy to be invited inside. “The people here are just like us,” Valérie said. “There’s no difference.”
Mohamed El Madani, a member of the mosque’s board of directors, gave a tour of the building’s five unfinished floors. He pointed out two floors that would become prayer halls to accommodate the 800 to 900 people who come to pray, spaces for offices and meeting rooms, and two more floors for classrooms where children would learn Arabic. According to El Madani, a solid Muslim education is a defense against radicalization.
“It’s easy for someone with a big beard to come along and say, ‘This is what the Koran means,’ and if you don’t speak Arabic you might believe it,” El Madani said.
Lahssen Baba, president of the Islamic Solidarity Association of Puteaux, explained that reaching out is nothing new for the town’s Muslim community. The mosque helps organise regular interfaith dialogues, with the next one to be held on January 26 in the congregation’s temporary prayer hall in La Défense.
“The Catholic parish is across the street from us, and one of the rabbis from Neuilly lives down the block,” explained El Madani. “There’s a lot of interfaith dialogue.”
To illustrate the point, Maurice Autané, priest of Puteaux, showed up shortly before noon and shook hands with the mosque’s imam and president.
“Of course, there’s always some fear and a temptation to confuse [Islam with terrorism],” Autané said when asked about his congregation’s view of the Muslim community. “But we’re lucky to have a very good relationship with the directors of the Puteaux mosque.”
But Puteaux’s successful example may be an exception rather than the rule. The town is one of France’s richest thanks to the presence of the La Défense business zone. In addition, the congregation has longstanding ties to Anouar Kbibech, who has come to give sermons in Puteaux.
According to Kbibech, mosques throughout France are inviting their non-Muslim neighbours in for tours, open prayer services, and calligraphy courses over the weekend. It was unclear, however, how many other mosques in Paris were participating. The CFCM website contains no information about the open mosque program or list of participating locations.
At the Muslim Socio-cultural Institute near the Porte de Clignancourt in the north of Paris, Mohamed, who works at the front desk, said on Thursday night that he hadn’t heard anything about the open door weekend, despite the fact that the Clignancourt mosque is one of the largest in the Paris area.
“Our doors are open all year,” Mohamed said. “But this is the first I’ve heard of it.”
The Al Islah mosque in Montreuil also said by telephone on Wednesday that they were not aware of the program.
The CFCM is the closest thing France’s Muslims have to an official spokesperson or governing body. Nicolas Sarkozy backed its creation in 2003 while he was interior minister, with the idea of giving a government-recognized voice to the country’s second-largest religious group. But it’s often unclear how well the CFCM really represents France’s huge and diverse Muslim population. In 2008 the Grand Mosque of Paris boycotted elections for the CFCM presidency.
Shortly after noon in the Puteaux mosque, kids rolled along the concrete on scooters and bikes. Pointing to the police van parked outside the mosque for security, Mohamed El Madani acknowledged that other parts of France weren’t always so relaxed for Muslims. After the November attacks in Paris, people left a severed pig’s head in front of the mosque in his hometown in Auvergne.
“In Puteaux, we’ve never had problems,” he said. “I’m aware that we’re lucky. But we’ll stay open to dialogue. We didn’t wait for the attacks to start it.”