Paris's oldest mosque is the epicentre of France's Muslim community and serves as a bridge between the state and its Muslim citizens
PARIS - Behind the Jardin des Plantes, a solitary minaret overlooks a quiet avenue in heart of the 5th arrondissement. A heavy wooden door welcomes visitors.
“As-salamu alaykum,” said the man at the front desk, greeting a worshipper.
Perched on a chair in his office, Dr Dalil Boubakeur perfects his speech for an upcoming event. His aide transcribes the dictation, switching one word for another, adding a more nuanced phrase.
“I need to make sure I get this right. What can I say, I am a perfectionist,” he said, laughing.
Dr Dalil Boubakeur, head of the Great Mosque in Paris, a role he inherited from his father (MEE/Kait Bolongaro)
Born to an elite Algerian family in Skikda, the 76-year-old mufti is the current head of the Great Mosque of Paris.
After moving to France during the Algerian War, he trained as a physician. Boubakeur has been leading the mosque since 1992, a role his father Si Hamza Boubakeur held before him.
'The Great Mosque of Paris plays an important role as a symbol of Islam in France'
Since opening in 1926, the Great Mosque has been considered the epicentre of France’s Muslim community. It is the oldest mosque in the country, originally founded in homage to the tens of thousands of Muslim soldiers killed while they were fighting for France in World War I.
Shortly after the deadly attacks in France and Germany that left dozens killed and hundreds injured in the last few months, The Islamic State (IS) group announced its responsibility for both incidents. This left the mosque to contend with a French society rife with mounting Islamophobia, according to Boubakeur.
The inter-ministerial delegation in the fight against racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia (DILCRA) stated that violence against Muslims has tripled, as 425 cases of aggressions were reported in 2015 in comparison to 133 cases in 2014.
With a tense presidential race scheduled for May 2017, the mosque is turning to its past to find the answers for its role in modern France.
A look back in time
In 1830, France seized territory in north Africa – beginning with the invasion of Algeria - and many Muslims became French subjects.
The population grew further as France occupied parts of the Middle East after the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
“France was considered a large Muslim power at the time because of its colonies,” said Boubakeur. “With many Muslims from around the world visiting Paris, it was decided they should have a place to worship.”
In 1905, legislation was passed to protect secularism in the country, preventing the state from funding any religious buildings. In order to circumvent the law, in 1921, the cultural associations of "The Habous Society" and the "Holy places of Islam," jointly funded the mosque.
“This was a critical moment in the history of Islam in France,” Boubakeur said. “Many politicians promoted the project and society welcomed the religion.”
The courtyard of the Great Mosque in Paris. In 1940 the Great Mosque saved some Jews from persecution and deportation (MEE/Adrien le Coarer)
In 1940, when France surrendered to Nazi Germany, eyewitnesses said that the Great Mosque of Paris saved some Jews from persecution and deportation. The head of the mosque, Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit offered certificates of Muslim identity to mostly Sephardic Jews from North Africa and they were able to escape detection as a result of their religious and cultural affinities.
The most famous case involved Jewish Algerian singer Salim Halali, whose story was immortalised in the 2011 film Free Men, which was described as fiction inspired by true events and true characters.
As Europe struggles with the largest refugee crisis since World War II, France has seen streams of refugees on the streets of Paris and in places like Calais.
France has been a major centre for recruitment for IS, with hundreds of people travelling to the region since announcing a caliphate in 2014.
In September of last year, France's interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said that there had been a "fourfold decrease" in the number of French nationals travelling to join IS in the first half of 2016, with just 18 French people recorded travelling to the area under their control in 2016, in comparison to 69 in the corresponding period in 2015.
Cazeneuve explained that this was because of IS's recent losses on the ground, but also due to France's "enhanced anti-terrorism efforts".
A total of 689 French citizens were still in the region in 2016, including 275 women and 17 underage fighters, according to interior ministry figures.
Serving the community
Within the broader French Muslim community, the Great Mosque of Paris serves as an umbrella organisation for a federation of several hundred mosques throughout the country.
“Our role is to defend the presence of Islam in France,” Boubakeur said. "We are there for all Muslims, but much of our community is Algerian. France colonised Algeria for more than a hundred years and there are about three million people of Algerian descent living in this country.”
At the same time, the institution also stays true to its Parisian roots. Every day, hundreds of Muslims gather from across the city to pray. The congregation now numbers in the thousands.
Fatima Slimani is one devotee. The 46-year-old office worker comes to the mosque as often as possible – especially for Friday prayers. While she does not attend every week, she considers the space her religious home.
'I feel connected to God here. I’m not very religious, but it is a place I can pray in peace. My father is from Algeria, so it also brings me back to my roots in a way'
It is the second time Karim Boudjedra has prayed at the Great Mosque. A PhD student from Tunisia, the 28-year-old has spent the past few months visiting different mosques in the French capital trying to find one that aligns with his values.
“I consider myself a liberal, but I also appreciate the Quran’s teachings. I am looking for a mosque that incorporates both into its teachings,” he explained. “This community seems quite moderate, but I haven’t made up my mind yet.”
Non-Muslim Parisians also find comfort inside the mosque’s premises.
Great mosque's restaurant in Paris is popular with people from all walks of life (MEE/Adrien le Coarer)
In a building adjacent and affiliated with the mosque lies a hammam that offers a hot sauna and showers, as well as massages and waxing services. Additionally, there is a restaurant that is a popular destination for all. Inspired by the grand salons of North Africa, it serves specialties such as fresh mint tea and different dishes like couscous and tagine.
“I like to come here with my friends. We have mint tea and eat different types of baklava,” said Mélanie Martin, a nurse and an atheist.
"I went to Morocco once and being here reminds me of my wonderful experience there."
Bridging the gap
From a political perspective, the Great Mosque of Paris serves as a bridge between the French state and its Muslim citizens. Politicians frequently attend events at the site and regularly liaise with Boubakeur about sentiments in the community regarding current affairs or government policies.
“The Great Mosque has always had very good relations with the authorities,” he said. “Paris is proud of its mosque.”
The gardens of the Great Mosque of Paris (MEE/Adrien le Coarer )
This alliance has been key in the government’s strategy to combat increasing radicalisation among French youth.
Boubakeur said that many of the would-be militants come from a migrant background and grew up in impoverished banlieues, the most underprivileged neighbourhoods in the country.
“This fanaticism has spread to immigrant Muslim communities here. Despite the social and economic disadvantages and racism Muslims face, we need to oppose this radical and now terrorist vision of Islam.”
He sees the rise in Islamophobia as a sad development in his adopted homeland, and a threat to national dialogue and unity. However, he also sees it as a natural consequence of radicalisation that has made Muslims the scapegoats for terrorism and other problems within French society. Political parties - particularly the populist National Front under Marine le Pen – have capitalised on such sentiments, according to Boubakeur.
“Politicians often blame Muslims to hide their own responsibility,” he said. “But this Islamophobia is rooted in a deeper rejection of business as usual in politics. Citizens have the impression the government doesn’t listen to them or take their needs into account.”
For the head of the Great Mosque of Paris, the ultimate goal is to foster interreligious understanding and respect in French society.
“France is a nation that includes all individuals where we can live together,” said Boubakeur. “I favour the integration of Muslims so that in the end, Muslim or non-Muslim, we are all French.”
This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.