London, Asharq Al-Awsat- In light of the French government’s fight to outlaw the burqa and niqab, French Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, who is a strong critic of full-face veiling, agreed to speak to Asharq Al-Awsat in a telephone interview about this controversial issue. Chalghoumi believes that the tradition of wearing the niqab is very dangerous to the Islamic religion, as this is something that distorts the position of Muslim women in society. Chalghoumi, who is the Imam of the Drancy Mosque in Seine-Saint-Denis near Paris told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Quran does not call for Muslim women to wear the niqab, and he said that women who want to completely veil their faces should go to the tribal areas of Pakistan or Afghanistan where wearing the niqab is tradition. Sheikh Chalghoumi is married to a French-Tunisian who wears the hijab [headscarf] rather than the niqab, and they have 5 children together.
Sheikh Chalghoumi is a vocal advocate of banning full-face veiling, and he has said that he supports French President Sarkozy’s draft law to ban the burqa. Chalghoumi is considered to be part of a new generation of modern and moderate imams who strongly advocate a moderate interpretation of Islam. Chalghoumi has faced harsh criticism for his views, and he is currently living in a state of fear and anxiety after receiving death threats from Islamic extremists. The Tunisian Imam who was born in Tunis in 1972 and immigrated to France in 1996 was even recently forced to flee his own mosque under police escort after being attacked by the congregation after airing his views. Muslims in Drancy have called for Chalghoumi to be removed from his post as the Imam of the Drancy Mosque for his controversial views and statements. For his part, Chalghoumi told Asharq Al-Awsat that there is a large “silent majority” who support him and his views.
For the past 10 years, Sheikh Chalghoumi, along with prominent Arab, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian figures, has been promoting the principles of coexistence, and denouncing racism, extremism, and fanaticism.
The following is the text of the interview:
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What do you think of the sanctions that were decided recently, known as the “niqab sanctions,” starting with the fining of a French lady who was wearing a niqab while driving her car, and the fining of a husband if he forces his wife to wear a niqab?
[Chalghoumi] Look at the words of Almighty God when He commanded that Muslims should lower their gaze [in the face of a woman]. This means that the niqab was not widespread when the Koran revelation came to the graceful Prophet. It was not prevalent at that time and this is why Almighty God commanded that the believers should lower their gaze. Regrettably, what happens is that women attract men’s gaze by wearing the niqab. In other words, women seeking to avoid what is religiously forbidden have found themselves in a worse position. As is known in religion, a woman’s face and hands are not meant to be covered. We notice backwardness in the Middle East today in terms of education and knowledge because women’s progress is impeded. As far as I am concerned, wearing a niqab is no different from the burying of newborn female babies alive in the jahiliyah [pre-Islamic era in Arabia]. If a woman is good, her situation will be good and her children will be good. The niqab conveys an image of our men as lustful and sex obsessed. This is not true. Muslim men are wise, reliable, proud, and courageous. We do not call for showing off but for moderation and a middle-of-the-road approach.
The sanctions in question were simple in being 22 euros for the lady because she was wearing the niqab while driving a car. She was fined because she could not have a clear field of vision. In other words, she could have put herself or others in danger on a public road. This means that lives are threatened on the road because of the niqab the lady was wearing and that obstructed her vision. She wanted to exonerate herself and hired a lawyer to defend her. Meanwhile, the prosecutor found out that her husband is married to three other women, in addition to her. She is aware of this and agrees to it. This means that her husband married this French lady legally and three others outside the provisions of the positive [secular rather than Shariaa] law that does not accept marriage with several wives. The other disaster is that they are getting social security help from the state.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you explain the escalation of the situation and the ban on niqab in most European countries, almost simultaneously?
[Chalghoumi] The sight of a Muslim lady clad in all black garments is ugly and scary. Today, we are engaged in dialogue and discussions. I receive threats because I am against the niqab. In the fifties, French women fought to have the right to vote in elections and to have a prestigious place in society. This means that in the fifties French women wanted their voices to be heard in society, while Muslim women in 2010 want to wear the niqab. Is this reasonable? Wearing the niqab does not look nice. It transgresses on generally accepted concepts, and annoys the French. Moreover the niqab conveys a distorted idea about our graceful religion. In other words, the niqab humiliates Muslim women, limits their freedom, and prevents their natural role in social life. We should ask the niqab-wearing ladies a question: Is the face not a person’s identity? It is not fair to reduce the 15-century-old graceful Islamic religion to a black piece of cloth, a “black rag.” Our religion is more important than this. Islam has nothing to do with the niqab. Like Europe, Islam calls for the upholding of values and for being kind to others.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you comment on your years-long preaching to Europe’s Muslims to abide by prevailing European laws and norms?
[Chalghoumi] When Islam arrived 14 centuries ago, it blended in with previous civilizations and laws in terms of clothes, garments, and prevailing laws. We must respect the laws of the European countries where we have been living, since we arrived there with a pact and a covenant that we must abide by and not transgress. How can we show the grace and fairness of our holy religion if we do not show commitment to prevailing laws? Because our Prophet Muhammad was honest and sincere and kind to others, we must abide by, and be committed to, laws. We must not deceive others, be hypocrites, or lie to people in Europe under the claim that the Europeans are unbelievers whose property it is religiously permissible to get, as the fatwas issued by fundamentalists claim. We seek refuge in God from any sin, and we pray to God to protect us, because Islam is the religion of right, justice, equality, and mercy. It is not the religion of the takfiriyin [those who hold other Muslims to be infidels] and certain Salafi movements that uphold that it is religiously permissible to take the unbelievers’ property. They adhere to the religion’s commandments selectively and whimsically.
Look at France’s jails. Regrettably, they harbor many sons of Muslims. I can affirm to Asharq Al-Awsat that, according to French statistics, 60 percent of jail inmates are sons of Muslims. The statistics do not mention that they are Muslims but provide their ethnic origins. According to official figures, 300 of them commit suicide each year, while dozens of others deviate from the serious path of the graceful religion and get involved in drugs, moral decadence, and terrorism. We are busy with the niqab and whether it is legitimate or not at a time when thousands of the sons of Muslims are living in French social institutions after their parents disavowed them. Moreover, academic failure is rife amid Muslims. We should ask ourselves about the priorities of Muslims in Europe. Is it education and learning or bragging about what is wrong, changing one’s car, building a house in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, or Egypt, or engaging in a “defamatory argument” about the niqab? We need to gain education and learning, not the wearing of the niqab. We do not need a competition over who wears the longest beard or the shortest robe with trousers tucked up under them, as the fundamentalists do.
We need to follow the example of the Prophet and Messenger. A brother answered me in a debate over the radio and swore on the air that the niqab will enter the Elysee Palace one day. I replied to him and swore like him that “Islam will enter the Elysee Palace only with the morals of the Prophet Muhammad, the last messenger and Prophet, who was a mercy sent down to mankind, not with your niqab that has made people dislike Islam.” A few days ago, shots were fired at a mosque in the south of France. There is no smoke without fire. They are now afraid of this “black Islam.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How would you explain the fact that, contrary to their fathers, the second and third generations [of Muslim immigrants] are less integrated in European societies?
[Chalghoumi] I will give you an example from the community around me, my relatives and compatriots. The fathers who came from our Arab countries in the fifties and sixties came for a precise objective of to work and then go back. They came with a determined goal. They held the view that they should respect this country, that they were ambassadors of their mother countries here. They were supposed to stay here for 10 or 15 years and then return to their respective countries, cherished and dignified. But those who are born in France for instance are marginalized because they do not know their religion. They have moved away from it. Moreover, when they go to their homelands, they are seen as foreigners there. In other words, they have no reference to turn toward. Also, the French Government has placed them in closed districts, like ghettos. The priorities of these immigrant families were not moral education or learning religion, but buying cars or furniture for their apartments. This pushes the young toward moral delinquency, or makes them fall into the claws of terrorism, drugs, and extremism. Meanwhile, we are busy with the burqa, the niqab, and the question of whether they are religiously permissible or not. We are also preoccupied with the war between India and Pakistan, and the violence and destruction in the tribal zone there. These should not be the priorities of the Muslim communities in Europe, which I sum up in two words: “Education and knowledge.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is the position of the Muslim community concerning your fatwas? Are those who are against them more numerous than their supporters?
[Chalghoumi] Regrettably, the majority is silent. This means that they agree, but they do so in deep silence. There is a minority of people who are against them, together with hard-line Salafi movement elements. They do not support me and do not side with me. This applies to the Muslim Brotherhood movement activists, who do not want somebody like me. Those who side with me are the Sufis [mystics] and the moderate people who follow the middle-of-the-road line. I am also supported by those who have no specific leanings or think about coexistence and integration into French society.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What would you say to the fundamentalist imams who are not pleased with your religious discourse?
[Chalghoumi] I say: “Repel (evil) with what is better; then will he between whom and thee was hatred become as it were thy friend and intimate,” [Partial Koranic verse, Fussilat, 41:34]. In other words, I answer them with what is better, meaning with evidence and proof. “He who believes in God and doomsday should say something good or remain silent [saying of Prophet Muhammad].” We must show people that extremism is rife in Europe because of the spread of the hard-line fundamentalist movement that has gone underground in fear of the new counterterrorism. These fundamentalist trends are to be found in most countries, and Europe cannot avoid the presence of this extremist fundamentalist thought. By the end of this month, I am going to publish a book entitled: Sheikh Hassen Chalghoumi: For a French Islam. The book will be in the hands of readers on 20 May. It has 400 pages and broaches a large number of issues related to the daily life of the sons of the Muslim community in the united Europe.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Have you already met with President Nicholas Sarkozy?
[Chalghoumi] Yes, I have met with him several times. But, I have good news for you: There are many moderate imams like me. President Sarkozy thanked me and said: The French Republic is grateful to you; this is the moderate Islam we want. We hope that the Muslims will also assume their duty.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Where did you learn Islamic jurisprudence, and how did you qualify for the role of a preacher in the West?
[Chalghoumi] I studied in the Zitouna Institute in Tunisia and obtained a Baccalaureate in letters. I learned the jurisprudence of the holy religion in the Zitouna Institute too. I later went to Damascus, where I finished my religious science studies for two years. Then, I traveled to Lahore, Pakistan, where I studied jurisprudence, Shariaa, and religious science for three years. Then, I went to India for six months. I came to France as a student in 1996, in the historic town of Bobigny. I married at the end of the same year.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is a European Muslim? Should he be loyal to the state or to religion?
[Chalghoumi] His loyalty should be to Almighty God, but what is our religion.” Is it not the religion of mercy and humanity? Is it not the religion of kindness and compassion? Also, is Europe not an ensemble of states of the rule of law, respect for human rights and for the religion in which we believe to promote the value of man? How can our graceful religion not be in harmony with the humanitarian European values?
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your preaching line, your own line?
[Chalghoumi] The middle-of-the-road line in Islam. This means excluding bigotry, extremism, and intransigence. For no one can claim to make absolutely correct judgments. No one is immune from being wrong, and no one has the absolute truth in knowledge. Also, no one can claim to be in possession of the keys to interpretation, judgments, and the reading of texts. Therefore, the middle-of-the-road line is the most important behavior. It is a cultural method that can lead man to understanding. In dealing with all issues and matters, we as individuals, groups, doctrines, scholars, and opinion holders should follow the principle that says: “My view is right but may be wrong, and your view is wrong but may be right.” There were two schools of thought and movements close to people in Tunisia: one was Sufism and the other was the Attabligh [conveying the call] group. I learned from them leniency and wise talk before I carried preaching in my heart and mind to other countries.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] What advice would you give to Muslim families in Europe?
[Chalghoumi] I urge them to be their respective countries’ ambassadors, and to abandon nationalist and sectarian Islam. First, we should say that our children are part of ourselves, then we should love these European countries the way we love our own homelands. We should zealously protect their security and peace. In my sermons I pray to God to bestow security and peace on these countries where we live. I pray to Almighty God to help us ensure the security of these countries, and to protect and reassure us. One of the brothers has sent me a videotape containing the Friday sermon of an extremist, fundamentalist preacher, in which he says: “God, please destroy their homes, undermine their lives, and make their women widows.” This is not the Islam of mercy, and has nothing to do with the prayer of the graceful Prophet when he said, addressing the polytheists of his Quraysh tribe: “Please God, forgive my people because they are ignorant.” And when the Prophet’s companions said to him: Prophet of God, curse them! The Prophet replied: “I have not been sent as a curse but rather a guide to the pious ones and a mercy to mankind.”
[Asharq Al-Awsat] Would you encourage Muslim families to send their children to Islamic schools?
[Chalghoumi] Many schools are good, and in harmony with our time and science, not just religious science. But what is important is to stay away from sectarian schools where children are taught and their minds crammed with Salafi Jihadist thought. They should teach children the morals of Islam and its commandments regarding daily life.
[Asharq Al-Awsat] How do you explain the rise of the extremist right in Europe in recent years? Is this motivated by the fear of Muslims?
[Chalghoumi] There is no smoke without fire. In addition to the presence of fundamentalist trends in European capitals and the emergence of their leaders who call for not rubbing shoulders with local societies, there is also the way certain Arab states deal with Europe. Concerning the recent crisis over minarets, certain Arab states dealt with Switzerland without deep reflection and wisdom. Who pays the price for this? The price is paid by Muslims living in Europe.