In France, Some Muslims Seek To 'Adapt' Islam To Secular Culture : Parallels Many French Muslims believe it's time to create a uniquely French brand of Islam that is compatible with the country's secular values and responds better to the needs of modern Muslims.

In France, Some Muslims Seek To 'Adapt' Islam To Secular Culture

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Recent terror attacks in France have focused attention on what's being taught in the country's mosques. Some French Muslims say it's time to create a new type of Islam, one that is distinctly French. They want something that better reflects their views or responds to their needs and fits in with the country's secular values. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: The main mosque in the southern city of Bordeaux is full for prayers on a recent Friday afternoon.

TAREQ OUBROU: (Foreign language spoken).

BEARDSLEY: The popular imam here, Tareq Oubrou, gives his sermons in French, as well as Arabic, but most imams in France are foreign and speak only in Arabic, a language most young French Muslims don't understand. Oubrou says this is one reason why imams are out of touch with a generation of French Muslims. He's working to change that.

OUBROU: (Through interpreter) We have to rethink Islamic doctrines in light of our times. One of the reasons for the violence is that some people are interpreting these medieval canons literally. So we have to take Islam out of the context of ancient Arab Muslim civilizations and adapt it to a modern, globalized, secular society. This reformation is long overdue.

BEARDSLEY: Oubrou came to France from Morocco when he was 19, originally to study medicine. Now 52, he's raised four children here and says he's proud to be French. He quotes enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to describe French society's model of assimilation where differences are meant to be erased. Oubrou says France emphasizes equality rather than liberty, which is the opposite of Britain and the U.S.

OUBROU: (Through interpreter) In the Anglo-Saxon model, there's a preference for liberty, so it doesn't promise equality and equal salaries. France promises equality but falls short, and this is what creates the frustration that can lead to violence.

BEARDSLEY: Oubrou says young Muslims face discrimination and often don't feel they're fully French. And their Muslim culture is a big reason for that rejection.

OUBROU: (Through interpreter) In France, any kind of religion in the public sphere is suspicious because French secularism was won by opposing the Catholic Church. The French thought they'd solve the problem of religion in public, and then along came Muslim immigrants in the '70s whose religion was part of their culture. So the old demons have been awakened, and French society views the Muslim faith as a threat.

BEARDSLEY: Oubrou says many young people from Muslim families are ignorant of the spiritual side of their faith. They embrace Islam as a cultural identity and to protect themselves from a hostile society.

HAKIM EL KAROUI: For young people with Arab origins, if you want to express revolt, you're Muslim - fundamentalist Muslim.

BEARDSLEY: That's Hakim El Karoui, a business consultant and the Muslim author of a recent study called "A French Islam Is Possible." To complete his study, El Karoui and his team did something illegal in a country where everyone is supposed to be equal. They collected demographic statistics.

EL KAROUI: I don't know how to deal with a problem is you not able to have a clear picture. So making statistics about who are as the French Muslim - it was compulsory.

BEARDSLEY: El Karoui says half of French Muslims are integrated into society and more or less secularized, even if they do practice Ramadan and avoid eating pork. When his report came out last fall, one statistic shocked the French - that 25 percent of Muslims do not believe in core French values such as equality between the sexes and separation of religion and the state.

EL KAROUI: They use religion to send a message against French values. So this group is of course the group which retains the attention of media and politicians. My interpretation is that you will find some radicalized people in this group of course. But not all of them are radicalized, and most of them are very young.

BEARDSLEY: El Karoui's study, published by the influential Montaigne Institute, proposes eight pragmatic solutions for developing a French Islam that is in line with the country's values and free from foreign funding. Proposals include recruiting French-born imams and training them in France and teaching Arabic in public schools so kids don't have to go to the mosque to learn it. And El Karoui says that French leaders should do more to embrace French Muslims.

EL KAROUI: Saying you are French, you are not a foreigner and you are a part of the national community is very, very important.

BEARDSLEY: El Karoui says it's also important to remind the rest of the population that Muslims are French and that their problems are everybody's concern. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.


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