Any doubt as to whether we got off the train at the right spot is soon dissipated, as we land in the suburb of Le Bourget just outside Paris. There are headscarves everywhere on this warm April day, and the photographer and I follow the stream of people to the busses the organisers have put at our disposal. The organizers are France's biggest muslim umbrella organisation, the Union of Islamic Organisations commonly known as the UOIF.
Sappho is probably the only foreign media that has bothered to go to Le Bourget where the UOIF is organising a four day venue (13th to the 16th of April) for members, sympathisers and observers. The curious are also allowed in. Everything is well organised and efficient and the bus trip to Parc d'Expositions takes only a few minutes. We are shown the way to one of the counters. Most of them are supervised by women in muslim garb. We pay the 11 euros per person it costs for a day, and the UOIF's security people, all men in easily recognisable red t-shirts, send us on to the quickest entrance to the gigantic exhibition hall.
The noise level is high here and the visual impressions legio. Thousands of people walk to and fro between the hundreds of stands. There are men in long robes, men and boys with white skull caps, men with turbans, men with beards, men without beards. There are crowds of young muslims of both sexes and people of African, Arab and European descent. The majority of women wear headscarves and many of them wear long loose robes.
Shouting collectors, bearded men of all ages cruising round the hall with wooden collection-boxes, spot you straight away: ”Madame, give a donation, madame, give a donation to the mosque.” Money is being collected for mosque-building in France and abroad as well as for projects we don't know about.
There are single men and women and families with small children carrying balloons shaped like unicorns and fish with the inscription “I love the Prophet”. There are stands with Moroccan-style furniture, stands with hijab and muslim fashionwear, others sell plastic chandeliers or offer to paint your arms with muslim patterns. You can ask learned men about islam, take a course in Arabic, join an Islamic education institute, sign up as a volunteer for an Islamic organisation, donate money to an Islamic cause, buy videos, DVDs and also books by the Muslim brotherhood’s ideologues, give money to the Palestinian cause, put questions to UOIF’s youth and women’s sections, debate the headscarf, listen to lectures on islamophobia and the pride of being a muslim, listen to Koran recitals and religious music. Those are just a few of the things on offer.
Not all the activities are as innocent as they look. Comité de Bienfaisance et de Secours aux Palestiniens (The Committee for Charity and Support for Palestinians) has its regular stand. The visitor can donate money to a specific (parentless or fatherless) orphan, whose picture, name, sex, village, date of birth and date of father’s death are all on display. What you're really sponsoring is (as the Lebanese-French political scientist Fiammetta Venner shows in her book about the UOIF) the Palestinian suicide bombers' children. In 2004 the Simon Wiesenthal Centre documented that money from this organisation is being channelled directly to Hamas' social branch.
This is perhaps not surprising. The UOIF, as Venner and the American terrorist expert Lorenzo Vidino and the Swiss journalist Sylvain Besson have demonstrated, is dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and Hamas is the Brotherhood's extended arm in the Palestinian areas.
The UOIF claims that it draws 150 000 visitors in the four days the conference lasts. This is doubtless a wild exaggeration, as there can be at most something like 50 000 visitors to Le Bourget on these four April days.
The figure is probably nearer 25 000 or 30 000. But it's still Europe's biggest muslim event and a testimony to the fact that, as Sylvain Besson has shown, the Muslim Brotherhood, is the best organised voice of European muslims today.
The big annual UOIF meeting has taken place ever since the UOIF came into being in 1983. In other words this is the twenty-fourth time the meeting has been held, and since 1992 it's been in Le Bourget. Every year the conference has a different theme corresponding to the topic the UOIF and the muslims are most concerned with at the moment. Among the themes have been the role of FIS (The Islamic Salvation Front) in the Algerian elections, the Gulf War and France's headscarf controversy.
The UOIF has a seat on the Muslim Council established by the French government. In the CFCM, Conseil Francais du culte Musulman, the UOIF has 10 of the 49 seats. On the regional muslim boards it has 7 out of 25 seats.
The true face of the prophet
This year the key words are pride, remembrance and identity, islamophobia, extremism and discrimination. Not surprisingly the Muhammed cartoons are also a topic. UOIF is one of the organisations that have tried to get the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo convicted for having printed them. So far without success.
A brochure on ”islamophobic propaganda” was thrust into my hand at the entrance. It shows the world famous drawing of Muhammed with a bomb in his turban and with a big “Why?” and a “For Whom?” across his face. In the background you can make out the words Charlie Hebdo. Underneath are the words “Beware!!! History repeats itself ... and just like with the Jews…the cartoons that stigmatise today, create blind hatred tomorrow.”
To mitigate the damage done by Jyllands-Posten and Charlie Hebdo the UOIF is collecting donations for the publication of 40 000 free books showing “the true face of the Prophet”. The brochure states that 15 000 are more or less ready to be printed. The men behind the book project have their own stand.
The coming presidential election is naturally an important topic at this year's meeting. In this connection the UOIF's own fatwa-department, Dar al-Fatwa de l’UOIF, has issued a publication in French and Arabic with a “theological pronouncement”. It refers to the so called Medina Constitution, a document of doubtful existence but which according to muslim sources can be dated to 622, and is claimed to mark the establishment of the Islamic state where political power is wielded by God and Muhammed.
The publication uses the Medina Constitution as an argument that is not only permissible to participate in elections but highly recommendable, and in some cases a duty. It's all about doing what is best for society in general and muslims in particular. If you don't vote, the UOIF fatwa-experts argue, it may help extremists make society ”intolerant, racist and exclusive”.
The Vatican voice
The four days also provide a series of lectures in the gender-divided conference hall next to the exhibition hall. Women use the left entrance, men use the right entrance.
This year there is one non-muslim speaker, père Michel Lelong, the Vatican representative in the Islamic-Christian dialogue. The title of Lelong's lecture is “The role of religion in the city”. The Catholic father has previously made a name for himself by suggesting dialogue with Algeria's islamists, and has also rallied to the defence of the ex-communist convert and Holocaust-denier Roger Garaudy, three of whose books I saw on sale in the exhibition hall's book section.
All 12 presidential candidates were invited to Le Bourget. But none of them turned up, not even Nicolas Sarkozy, who probably remembers all too well what happened when he visited Le Bourget as minister of the interior, and – in front of journalists and rolling cameras – was met by a chorus of boos from the spectators when he talked about integration and religion.
The list of lecturers included many veterans from previous years as well as top dogs from the umbrella organisation. Lhaj Thami Breze, the UOIF president, gave a talk, as did the well known Ahmed Jaballah who in 2002 had proclaimed from the podium in Le Bourget that ”the Koran is our constitution” – a slogan used by the Muslim Brotherhood. The UOIF has changed its style over the years and words like “identity”, “dignity” and proclamations of islam as a religion promoting peace and brotherhood have for a large part been substituted for the more crassly direct pronouncements of yesteryear.
The programme naturally contains criticism of the law prohibiting headscarves in elementary schools and high schools which France introduced in March 2004, and there are complaints about the offensive texts and pictures vilifying islam. There are protests about stigmatisation and being subjected to a racism that refuses to identify itself as such. But the programme text ends on a conciliatory note. The final lines ask philosophically why French muslims, enriched by their muslim identity, should not be able to enrich the French Republic by their presence.
But this mild tone wasn't matched by the speakers. One of them was Sudan's minister for religion, Issam Ahmad al-Bashir, who is also a member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, the UOIF's highest religious authority. Sappho has previously given examples of quite hair-raising fatwas on the correct way to treat women and muslim apostates. Bashir – one of the few who spoke in Arabic – was simple introduced as a “theologian”.
A popular speaker among the young people at Le Bourget was one of the leading figures in Young French Muslims, Farid Abdelkrim. He is also the author of the book Na'al bou la France?! (France be Damned?!). Abdelkrim is known for dissuading muslims from letting themselves be integrated into Western culture and also for promoting Thierry Mason's eccentric book about the Bush Administration denying that any plane hit the Pentagon on September 11th 2001.
And then there was Hassan Iquioussen, who, just like the internationally known preacher Tariq Ramadan's brother Hani Ramadan, often preaches in the UOIF controlled mosques. Iquioussen became famous outside UOIF circles when it came to light in 2004 that – on a tape entitled “Palestine: The Story of an Injustice” – he had made the Jews responsible for the Holocaust. According to Iquioussen, the horrors were agreed upon by Nazis and Zionists so that the Jews could get the state of Israel. Iquioussen's tape compares the terrorist organisation Hamas with the French resistance fighter Jean Moulin.
When Iquioussen’s statements became known to the public, the UOIF's general secretary Fouad Alaoui voiced his regrets but would not disassociate himself from Iquioussen, whom he characterised as a man of “high spirituality”. This year they let Iquioussen round off the Le Bourget conference with a talk called “Muslim and proud of it”.
Sappho intended to hear three speakers: the director of the Centre Islamique de Genève, Hani Ramadan, the president of the Federatione of Islamic Organisations in Europe, Chakib Ben Makhlaouf and Le Bourget's only female speaker, the French-muslim authoress Malika Dif, who naturally wore the hijab. Her talk collided with a headscarf debate in the exhibition hall and therefore had to be skipped. But the main points were summarised by Agence France Presse and from this it appears that she sided with the UOIF's official dialogue-seeking line, and she recommended muslims to take part in society and collaborate with non-muslims. But pointedly only in those areas “that are not at odds with islam's laws”.
The headscarf debate was organised by young university students, religiously garbed representatives from the Forum of Muslim Women, whose headquarters are in Brussels. The young women told the audience how hard it was get people to understand that one can be politically committed and still wear a headscarf. One is stigmatised, branded dangerous, a terrorist. Or an oppressed woman who has been forced to wear a headscarf by a father or a brother. But nobody has forced these women to do anything. “I wear a headscarf and wear it joyfully”, says one of the young women.
The audience consisted of about 40 people of both sexes. We were only a few women who weren't covered, and we were quickly remarked upon: “Have you come to hear the debate?” A woman clad in black from top to toe addresses me with a dramatic looking book in her hand. The front page shows the young muslim girl who protested against France's ban on headscarves in school by having her head shaved. You can see her bald pate sticking out from under the headscarf.
The woman in black turned out to be the book's author, Louisa Larabi Hendaz, who is also a long standing president of the Union Nationale de Femmes Musulmanes de France. With smile she gave me a free copy of Voile humilié (The Humiliated Veil). By this time we had got to the question-and-answer part. “A sister has a question.” A young religiously clad woman makes a long speech in defence of religious attire for women. Nobody on the podium asks her to keep it short.
”A brother has a question.” A young man stands up and says that one shouldn't create a conflict between those that wear headscarves and those that don't. One shouldn't pressure young women into wearing it. And a concerned mother follows up: She wears the headscarf herself, but her teenage daughter doesn't. Shall she pressure her to wear it? How shall she go about it?
There is no direct answer from the podium. The explanation given is that wearing religious attire expresses the wearer's choice of a spiritual path signifying probity. And no, there's no conflict between the wearers and the non-wearers, the three headscarved organisers assure the audience.
The prophetic tradition
Finally the headscarf debate is over and I find my photographer, and we get us a sandwich in the cafeteria area, where Halal Services are doing the catering. A large part of the visitors have kept the official prayer rules and have popped into the men's and women's prayer halls outside the exhibition. It's time to hurry over and hear Hani Ramadan's talk on islamophobia.
Hani Ramadan became famous in France when in 2002 he wrote an article in Le Monde arguing that stoning shouldn't only be seen as a punishment but also as a form of “cleansing”. There are so many people who want to get in to hear Ramadan that it's impossible to maintain gender segregation at the door of the conference hall. But inside the UOIF's representatives in their long robes, hijab and red waistcoats do their best to guide the “women who are here alone” over to the left of the hall. The male photographer and I sit in the family section. The men sit on the right. There are about 2500 in the audience.
Hani Ramadan is presented as ”our dear brother”, as a sheik (holy man) and as son of “dr. Said Ramadan”, who in these circles is often referred to as the “the little Hassan al-Banna”. Said Ramadan was the private secretary of the Muslim Brotherhood’s founder Hassan al-Banna and was allowed to marry al-Banna’s favourite daughter, Wafa. He also founded one of the Muslim Brotherhood's first institutions in the West, the Islamic Centre in Geneva, which is still run by the Ramadan family with Hani as director.
Ramadan junior's first interpreter into sign language is embarrassingly enough a woman without a headscarf, whose picture is visible at the bottom of the big screen. Once started he broaches the subject of France's intolerance vis-à-vis “the prophetic tradition” meaning the wearing of headscarves in schools. This gets him a round of applause.
Generally speaking the West has no understanding of islam, says Ramadan. The West likes to pretend it's a place where democracy and the rule of law are practiced, while at the same time criticising islam for being a religion that oppresses women and promotes obscurantism. But islam brings a simple message, ”the message of truth, the message of light”.
Islam does not reject modernity and progress. So why the animosity? Why refuse to enter into a dialogue with what is different? Secularism should be an open secularism that respects the Islamic tradition, the muslim headscarf for example. Applause.
Ramadan emphasises that islam can respect democracy. Muslims can commit themselves politically if it's in the interest of islam. “It's fundamental that we organise ourselves, join forces, locally and nationally. And there is no reason to fight about different Islamic principles. Muslims are agreed upon the Koran and the sunna, agreed on Islamic principles. So why should they disagree? More applause.”
Ramadan returns to the issue of the West's prejudice. For example the expression “islamism”. What do they mean by that? As far as Ramadan can tell, they mean political islam. But “everybody who can read the Koran and the sunna can see that islam has always had a political dimension”.
Next on the agenda is the West's definition of terrorism. Are Hamas and those that that fight in Chechnya and against the occupation of Iraq perhaps terrorists? No, they're defending their country and their values, they're defending themselves against the war's criminals. A round of applause.
And what is Israel? asks Ramadan, and obligingly provides the answer himself: "A murderer state, a criminal state." The applause rises to new heights.
Ramadan touches also on the term ”integrisme”, which is the usual French expression for what people in other Western countries call “fundamentalism”. It's, he claims, just a way of branding those who want to keep their muslim identity as dangerous.
Ramadan signs off in typical mild UOIF style: A good muslim is necessarily a good citizen, and “France is a good country”, says Ramadan about the country that in 1997 denied him entry partly because of his vocal support of the Algerian terrorist movement GIA.
The president of the Federation of Islamic Organisations in Europe, FIOE in its short form, now takes over.
Chakib Ben Makhlouf is possibly a less dynamic speaker than Hani Ramadan, but he is president of the perhaps most important muslim organisation in Europe just now. The initiative to the establishment of the European Council for Fatwa and Research was taken by the FIOE, and the UOIF is one of the organisation’s more important sub-organisations.
The FIOE, which is preparing a sharia-based constitution for Europe's muslims, also has supporters in Denmark. Earlier this year imam Ahmed Akkari (who became famous during the Muhammed crisis as one of the imams who travelled to the Middle East to stir up resentment against Denmark) promoted the organisation at a meeting at Krogerup Folk High School in Denmark.
Makhlouf talks about the history of the EU, the Treaty of Rome and a Europe which needs to show in practice that it favours tolerance, because “tolerance is a basic factor of stability”. Makhlouf has this piece of advice to Europe’s muslims: ”Organise yourselves.”
The Road to Hell
Now it's time to go back to Paris. Before we get on UOIF’s busses to Le Bourget’s bus station, we take a last look at the exhibition's book section, where publishers like Tawhid, Essalam and others have their books on show each year. There are also cassettes, videos and DVDs with the conferences of earlier years, including speeches by the popular Egyptian preacher Amr Khaled, who visited Denmark in 2006 as part of the Danish Foreign Ministry’s frantic attempt to improve its image in the muslim countries after the Muhammed cartoon controversy. (The Conference is reported on in Danish on Sappho, )
Sappho buys a lecture cassette by the Belgian convert Yahya Michot, who calls the 14th century jihad-theologian Ibn Taymiyya “a religious and political human being”. In a 35 page pamphlet inspired by the same theologian and written under pseudonym, Michot has defended Algerian terrorists' murder of seven Christian monks in 1996. This has not prevented Hani Ramadan's brother, Tariq Ramadan, (whose cassette “Malcom X – identity and justice” Sappho also acquires) from characterising Michot as a “brother and a friend” in a foreword to one of his books.
Sappho also needs to purchase a couple of Said Ramadan's books for the journey home as well as an odd book by Hassan al-Banna and a copy of a book about the right way to handle menstruation in prayer, pilgrimage and other situations. Naturally written by a male muslim. Among the multitude of other books on sale we find Youssouf al-Qaradawi's books, including the popular work on what is allowed and what is forbidden in islam, books about the oppression of the Palestinians, about the djinn (desert spirits that have a special status in Islamic jurisprudence) and demons, hadith collections, Koran editions and a few books Sappho bought in Islamic bookshops elsewhere in Paris.
One of them explains how one gets to heaven and avoids eternal hellfire. Paradise is also for those who make “jihad in the way of Allah against the non-humans and the hypocrites”. Another is from the children's book series The Little Muslim’s Path with stories like the one about the woman who went to hell because she treated her cat very badly, and about a child that was pursued by the devil but got rid of him by saying “bismillah". We're a long way from the West in Le Bourget.
Translation: Geoffrey Cain