A new class of French imams
Zuhair Mahmoud was an Iraqi nuclear scientist before his religious conversion. Now he runs a theological school in Burgundy, training imams for a 'lost generation' of young Muslims in France. Hugh Schofield reports.
In this unlikely bucolic setting, the European Institute for Human Sciences (IESH) has operated since 1990. Despite its name, it is a theological college whose aim is to train up imams and religious scholars capable of representing a modern Islamic society emerging across the continent.
"In the 1980s it became clear that the Muslims of France and Europe were integrating definitively in their adopted countries. Here a generation has grown up with French as its mother tongue," said Zuhair Mahmoud, 51, the Institute's founder and director.
"These people need imams to pass on the religious values of their parents. Leaders from elsewhere cannot do it because they do not understand the language or the customs and habits that prevail here. They have to come from inside," he said.
Mahmoud is a former Iraqi nuclear scientist who was posted to France 20 years ago as part of a cooperation programme between Paris and the government of Saddam Hussein. But contemplating the enormity of atomic weapons prompted a religious conversion, and he became a dissident in exile.
Today he is a senior figure in the Union of Islamic Organisations of France (UOIF), which is set to play an influential role in the country's first ever government-recognised body — the French Council for the Muslim Religion. He himself was voted onto the Council's general assembly in its first elections in April.
Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who has been the driving-force behind the new body, hopes it will encourage a home-grown Islamic identity and wean French Muslims off their financial and doctrinal dependence on foreign governments and donors. The Institute is seen as a key element in this strategy.
"Our aim is the same as Sarkozy's, if seen from a different angle," said Mahmoud.
The IESH is based in a former holiday centre a few kilometres (miles) from the town of Château-Chinon, political fiefdom of the late Socialist president François Mitterrand. Three-quarters of the 170 students are French, and the rest from other European countries. There are around 70 young women, all in headscarves.
A staff of 11 provides a two-year course in Arabic language, and then a four-year qualification in Islamic jurisprudence, history, Koranic studies and preaching. Some 90 percent of the administration costs come from fees, and the rest from donations.
The undisguised hope of the government and the IESH is that a new class of French-speaking imams, attuned to the reality of the country's poor city suburbs, will succeed in controlling the so-called "lost generation" of young Arab males — many of whom are succumbing to the attractions of crime or Islamic extremism.
"If there is no indigenous leadership, then there are two risks - first that our community will prove incapable of passing on its values," said Mahmoud. "But second, that more young people will become what I call Muslims by racism. In other words they are Muslims only because their fathers were, with no understanding of what it means, and these are the people attracted to violence and terrorism."
France's Muslim community — the country's second largest religious group — has grown up in haphazard fashion via waves of immigration mainly from the country's former North African colonies.
Unlike Jews or Protestants, they have until now had no official line of contact with government and one result has been a stubbornly close relationship with their mother countries. Algeria for example funds around 200 mosques, and most Friday sermons in France are conducted in Arabic, even though ever fewer worshippers understand it.
However not all French Muslims are happy with the growing influence of the UOIF and its training institute in the Burgundy hills. For the Islam it promotes is unmistakeably traditionalist, and the UOIF is itself linked to the the originally Egyptian movement, the Muslim Brotherhood.
Liberals say Sarkozy has taken the easy option by granting undue importance to reactionaries, whose attachment to France's secular traditions is highly questionable. "These people are a real threat to secularism," said Antoine Sfeir, president of the Middle East Studies Centre in Paris.
But Mahmoud differs. "Have we done anything to counter France's humanistic values? We believe that to live in a country you must accept its laws. If we didn't accept them, then we would go elsewhere."