Once one of the seediest parts of Paris, the 10th arrondisement (district) has acquired an Islamic flavour over the past few years. Here, Arab, Berber, Turkish, Bosnian, Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and black African shops and cafes are bustling with customers while a daily market that extends the full length of a street reminds visitors of Casablanca or Algiers. There are numerous mosques, often consisting of nothing but small shops or converted ground floor flats.
What is remarkable is the rich diversity of the various brands of Islam that exist side by side in freedom and security. These include sects that are banned in almost all Muslim countries where their members are persecuted, imprisoned and, sometimes, executed as “deviants.” In one small street where Pakistani shops run by Ahmadi, Jaafari and Salafi sects do business side by side, the owners have learned to talk together and, on occasions, even do business- something that is unimaginable in Pakistan itself where militants from rival sects kill each other by the hundreds each year.
In this French haven of peace you can live and practice your Islam the way you understand it- a gift rarely available in any officially Islamic country.
The reason why such a gift exists is that France is a society in which the private space is distinct from the public one. Your private space, that is to say your home, business, and place of worship is protected by law and allows you to organise and live your life as an individual in accordance with your beliefs, opinions and tastes.
The public space, however, belongs to everyone and thus to no one in particular. To be sure everyone can claim a share and use its facilities to advance his or her ideas, business interests and political projects. But no one is allowed to arbitrarily impose a decision or exclude anyone.
All this, to be sure, appears alien and exotic to most Muslims who have settled in France during the past decades. The reason is that they are taught not to recognise a distinctly private space in which the individual or even a whole community can do pretty much as they please provided they do not trespass on the rights of others. The idea of religion as a private affair is abhorrent to most Muslims. For Islam aims to rule every single aspect of individual and collective life, from the most mundane to the most sublime.
On that basis several Islamist organisations in France have tried to sow the seeds of anger in the French Muslim community for years. The extremist elements regard France as part of the “Dar al-Harb” (the House of War), because political power is held and exercised by the so-called “infidel” (kuffar). Moderate elements prefer the label of “ Dar al-Sulh” (House of Conciliation), implying a conceptual no-man’s-land between war and peace. Still others use the term “Dar al-Dawah” (House of Propagation), which means that the principal reason for the presence of Muslims there is to convert the French nation to Islam.
All three concepts are based on the assumption that it is impossible for a Muslim to live in a society in which secular law rather than the Shari’ah ( Islamic jurisprudence) is in force. A Muslim could never regard himself as a Frenchman until France becomes an Islamic state. This is why the organisations that claim to represent Muslims never use the adjective French. Rather, they describe themselves as Association of Muslim in France or Council of Muslims of France. You are a Muslim who happens to live in France, but never a Frenchman who happens to be a Muslim.
Such an approach, of course, can lead, at best, to a form of apartheid based on faith or, at worst, to religious conflict.
When Nicholas Sarkozy, the bombastic French Interior Minister, decided to “solve the Islamic problem” a few years ago, he knew nothing about Islam. He pushed through an ill-thought scheme under which something called the Council of the Muslim Cult of France was created under the auspices of the Interior Ministry and with public funds. An electoral exercise was made in which less than one per cent of Muslims eligible to vote participated.
Over the past few years, however, it has become clear that the council’s principal role is ceremonial and protoclary.
During the current riots in suburbs where Muslims form a majority the council was not even able to forge a dialogue with the rioters let alone become an interface between them and the authorities.
Worse still, the council has fostered the illusion that it is possible to blend the various Muslim schools into a single one within a church-like structure supported by the state. The scheme could prove harmful not only for Muslims but also for the French state which, as already noted, is based on a clear, some might say excessive, separation of the public and private spaces.
It is impossible to develop a version of Islam that is acceptable both to all the Islamic schools present on French soil and to the French state. Even if such a version were developed it is certain than many Muslims would not accept it, forcing the state to use coercive measures to impose consensus.
France and other Western democracies that have become home to millions of Muslims, including an increasing number born there, offer Islam an opportunity that it had never enjoyed since the first Islamic civil war during Ali’s Caliphate. This opportunity consists of the possibility for Muslims to develop their own approach to their faith and to practice it freely and in accordance with their deepest beliefs without fear or hypocrisy.
France and other Western democracies are the only places where all Muslim schools freely propagate their ideas and maintain their places of worships and seminaries without restriction. In Muslim majority countries, the dominant school of Islam bans all other schools. Iran, for example, uses the label of Islamic Republic but does not allow a single Sunni mosque to be built in Tehran, a city that includes at least 1.5 million Sunni Muslims.
Elsewhere in the Muslim world sectarian feuds among Muslims claims thousands of lives each year.
France and other Western democracies are also the only places where no Muslim writer is banned because he or she is branded as heretical or “deviant”.
The key secret of the West’s success in reshaping the world is the freedom of thought and expression that it has fostered since the end of the Inquisition, that is to say when it realised that the abuse of religion for political purposes is a recipe for tyranny and terror.
For the first time in history large numbers of Muslims, may be up to 40 million, now live in societies where that freedom is equally available to them. The Western democracies offer Islam a space in which to flourish in all its rich diversity. Those who want to destroy this historic opportunity either by inventing a so-called European Islam or by urging Muslims not to feel at home in Western democracies are guilty of a double betrayal of both Islam and the West.