The moderate imam: On a mission to unite France while dodging IS assassins

By Europe correspondent James Glenday

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PHOTO: A man is scanned with a metal detector before entering the mosque in Bordeaux. (ABC: James Glenday)

Outside the main mosque in Bordeaux, France, worshippers are scanned with metal detectors and heavily armed soldiers stand with guns ready.

The city’s Grand Imam, Tareq Oubrou, is a marked man and in a country reeling from repeated Islamist terrorist attacks, no one is prepared to take any chances.

“Threats don’t scare me,” he tells us, as he welcomes us inside.

“The goal of terrorism is to create fear in communities and to affect you mentally. The best response is to just be yourself.”

Six months ago, the Islamic State terrorist group posted the address of this mosque in one of its propaganda publications and called for Imam Oubrou’s assassination.

The reason? The Imam urges his followers to reject fundamentalism and adapt their religious practices to France’s secular society.

Recently he described the hijab as a cultural “invention” of last century.

At a time when the debate over Islam is dividing France, Imam Oubrou is running a public campaign to try to combat fears some people have about his religion.

“We need intellectual work on integrating Islam because Islam is a religion,” he said.

“It’s not a political system, it’s not a civilisation, it became one, but originally it’s a spirituality that adapted throughout history, across the world to many different cultures.

“It’s true the Catholic Church has already adapted [to French society] but it took 200 years.”

At Friday prayers Imam Oubrou’s sermon about tolerance is warmly received.

Some in his congregation believe the French are now less welcoming of Muslims, in the wake of attacks in Paris, Nice and most recently, Normandy.

“There is a lot of racism, or Islamophobia, so I’m really scared for the future,” Rofaida Merzeouki, a member of the congregation, said.

“Will I be able to wear my headscarf, work like everyone else, do research, care for people, work at the hospital?

“I’m really scared but I want to fight because it’s my country and I live here.”

In his youth, Imam Oubrou was once a member of the Muslim brotherhood, a political movement founded in Egypt, that has the stated aim of introducing Islamic law, or Sharia.

Although he denies ever having fundamentalist views of Islam, he said he understands how radicalisation takes place.

“Sometimes there is no dividing line between teaching and indoctrination,” he said.

“It is really easy to engage people in a movement if they don’t have the right tools and knowledge.”

Imam Oubrou has thrown his support behind a new centre trying to prevent Bordeaux’s Muslims being indoctrinated.

The program runs from a secret location in the city and it is currently tracking 30 at-risk young people.

Faoud Sanaadi, from the CAPRI de-radicalisation centre, said they are most worried about outsiders attacking Bordeaux.

“We are afraid terrorists might choose a town where everything is going well.

“I’m not afraid of the people in Bordeaux but more an attack from outside that will pit different communities against one another.”

France’s socialist government has repeatedly promoted Imam Oubrou’s views and work, as it tries to “reform” Islam and tackle the number of home-grown jihadis.

But there is a level of scepticism in France about what exactly “moderate” or “reformed” Islam means.

A cartoon in the controversial Charlie Hebdo magazine this week poked fun at the Burkini bans in southern France by calling on moderate Muslims to “loosen” up and go skinny-dipping.

The drawing reflects the view among some community and political groups that elements of Islam, however moderate, will continue to clash with liberal secular French society.

Imam Oubrou does not seem fazed by the criticism of his religion or the repeated threats on his life.

He said his main concern is getting French Muslims and non-Muslims to live happily side-by-side.

“Death is in God’s hands, no-one can predict when they will die,” he said.

“It could happen by accident, by terrorist attack. What interests me is that I am serene and peaceful.”

 

 

Extracted fromabc.net.au

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