Islam in Paris

We arrived in Paris with a good awareness of how various constituencies understand the place of Islam, Muslims, and immigrants in German society. We  expected to hear similar voices in Paris, knowing, however, that the history of French colonialism has shaped French relations with immigrants from Muslim majority countries in ways different from that of Germany.

We spent our first morning in Paris visiting the museum at the Arab World Institute (Institut du Monde Arabe). The Institute was hosting a photography exhibit depicting life in the Arab world by artists from all over the Middle East. The exhibit challenged American and European representations of people from this part of the world, Muslims in particular, that frequently reduced them to mere caricatures, emphasizing their “strangeness” or their inferiority. The photographs underscored the similarities of day-to-day life in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Turkey to that of people anywhere in the world. We were pleasantly surprised to discover that the museum also contained a number of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim antiquities arranged together, intending to underscore, perhaps, that these three Abrahamic traditions share much in common.

In the afternoon, we had a tour of the Grand Mosque of Paris (la Grande Mosque de Paris), a beautifully adorned mosque inspired by the el-Qaraouyyin Mosque in Fez, Morocco. Unlike the Omar ibn Al Khattab Mosque in Berlin, the Grand Mosque stood out impressively from the other buildings in the neighborhood. We toured the prayer hall, the library, gardens, and conference room. In the conference room, we had the pleasure of talking at length with Mr. Kebir, an assistant to the new head of the Mosque, Mr. Chems-eddine Hafiz.  Students asked him many good questions regarding the role that the mosque plays in the Muslim community in Paris, its relationship to the French government, and Mr. Kebir’s understanding of the French concept of laïcité. Our host patiently answered all of our questions and went out of his way to suggest that the Mosque and Muslims in Paris have a close and cooperative relationship with the French government. This view, however, would be later challenged in other conversations and experiences we had in Paris.

For our second morning in Paris, we attended another art exhibit at the Institute of Islamic Cultures (Institut des Cultures, d’Islam) entitled “Eyes and the Night” (L’Oeil et La Nuit). The exhibit featured contemporary artists from Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia as well as artists that live in various European countries who’s heritage is rooted in these places. The artwork highlighted Islam’s relationship with the night and night time sky, and demonstrated the artists’ agency in the representation of life as a Muslim in Europe and the Middle East. Our guide, Tess Juan Gaillot, talked with us after the tour, explaining in some detail about laïcité and the French state’s role in policing Muslim communities in the country.

That afternoon we attended a tour of “The Golden Drop” (La Goutte d’Or) neighborhood. This neighborhood is primarily made up of Muslim immigrants who came from a variety of places including Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia, and Somalia. It has been labeled by a number of news outlets in the U.S., such as Fox News and CNN, as a “no-go zone” after the shooting in Paris of Charlie Hebdo in 2015. We learned not only how arbitrary such labels are,  but also how much damage they can do to a community. Our guide explained that despite what the media and police say, people in the neighborhood work together to overcome the challenges they face; he pointed out that the neighborhood is safe and welcoming—this certainly was our experience there.

For our last official event in Paris, we went to the US Embassy to talk with representatives about the role that the French government plays in Muslim life. We discussed the Grand Mosque, laïcité, and headscarves. We were joined by the President of Coexister, Radia Bakkouch.  Coexister is an organization that celebrates religious diversity and encourages unity in action. Members from a variety of religious traditions and no religious tradition come together to establish interfaith conversations, community projects like blood drives, and programs for schools about the value of religious diversity. Radia, herself a Muslim, spoke passionately about the difficult situation of Muslims in France. She also spoke in favor of laïcité, but pointed out that the concept has been misunderstood and misused to support discrimination of religious groups, particularly Muslims. These conversations proved invaluable for our understanding of Islam in France.

The interior courtyard of the Grand Mosque of Paris.
Class members gathered outside the American Embassy in Paris
he first sunrise of our time in Paris
Sheep from a community garden in La Goutte d’Or, maintained by a neighborhood association.