As Europe is now the epicentre of the coronavirus, France is amongst top three European countries struck by the global pandemic. Monday 16th of March in the evening, French President Emmanuel Macron made a public allocution on TV in which he repeated six times: “we are at war” (with the virus). He then listed several public restrictions in order to stop the spread of the virus on the national territory: only food or indispensable shops are allowed to remain open while the entire country is under lockdown. French citizens are formally prompted to stay at home and to practice “social distancing”. Such sanitary crisis is unprecedented in French history and has major repercussions on Frenchs day-to-day life, notably for French Muslims, on whom will focus this article.
The closure of mosques
From a chronological point of view, places of worship have been the first cause of concern for French Muslims. Places of worship and mosques had to adopt governmental restrictions, which gradually became stronger. Since the apparition of the virus a few weeks ago, people gatherings and consequently activities at mosques and Islamic centres have been progressively limited. Initially restricted to five thousand and then to hundred people, public gatherings are now totally forbidden until the end of March and should be extended for at least fifteen days. Throughout the process, mosques had to navigate and to adapt in order to continue welcoming or helping believers. They have examined several options such as a limitation of prayers allowed, or the possibility to organize two preaches. It has been particularly complicated to advise elderly observers not to go to mosque for the Friday prayer for instance, as they were potentially the most vulnerable. Since the beginning of the crisis, the CFCM (the French Council of Muslim Faith, an umbrella organization with hundreds related mosques) sent official recommendations and guidelines to its affiliated imams with some adjustments to better tailor the mosques’ context. It was strongly recalled the necessity to regularly wash ones hands, not to shake hands, and to use paper tissues for ablutions rather than bath towels. Finally, mosques have been compelled to close as every other worship in France, or at least not to organize religious ceremonies anymore. The major Muslim Federations in France which gather most of the French mosques, such as the CFCM, the Federation of the Grand Mosque of Paris, or other independent and smaller local mosques unanimously relayed the slogan “pray at home” and shared guidelines for their devotees.
France confinement: between necessity and religious innovations
Most of the organizations and Muslim actors (federations, mosques, imams, etc.) relayed the governmental instructions to tackle the epidemic and used their popularity to reach a wide audience among French Muslims. They also tried to adapt to the confinement and shared guidelines for believers to fulfill their religious obligations “at home”. In other words, they transferred, when possible, mosques’ services online in order to recreate the Muslim community virtually. For example, the Grand Mosque of Paris established a telephone switchboard with its imams, to answer every question of sick people and their relatives and also to help believers to adjust their religious practices at home. As another example, the online platform created few months ago The Muslims [L.E.S. Musulmans], whom audience is relatively young, shared on the Internet a summary of the pandemic progress in France but also a link with different applications to pursue “pedagogical and worship activities” despite social distancing. Along with educational materials, lots of religious advice and information have been uploaded online and many Islamic institutes offered free trainings on their website. Despite a lack of consensus among Islamic scholars, several imams, familiar with social-media or not, diffused their sermon and/or the Friday prayer (Jummah) online endorsing a virtual religious community. In the same time, famous figures of the “Muslim community” encouraged French Muslims to behave civically and reach out to their fellow citizens in need.tFor instance, being regularly in contact with old or lonely people in their neighbourhood and help them in their daily undertakings. Concomitantly, Muslim humanitarian associations and NGOs, which are sometimes hosted inside or related to mosques, have organized daily food distributions for the homeless in the French biggest cities (e.g. Paris, Lyon or Marseille), and maintained or even increased their activities with their volunteers. They have also provided healthcare support to public hospitals and workers in the frontline, by offering respirators and surgical masks. For this purpose, they have opened new fundraising campaigns online asking French Muslims for their financial support.
Due to the gravity of the crisis, Muslim Federations mentioned above, such as the CFCM, have released fatwa regarding funeral toilet and ritual for Muslims in order to adapt to the circumstances and minimize the extra risk for caregivers.
Along the same line, the observance of the fast during the upcoming month of Ramadan is raising concerns. President Macron held an audio conference Monday 23rd March with the leaders of major religious communities, in order to adjust Easter celebrations “without gatherings”. As an emblematic illustration, the yearly “Salon du Bourget”, which brings together almost 150 000 visitors around the stands of hundreds of Muslim associations, was initially expected to be held few days before Ramadan and has already been postponed.