by Soeren Kern
Its towering minaret, which has purposely been designed to change to change the suburb's skyline by being taller than any church steeple in the neighborhood, is supposed to become the "new symbol of Islam in France."
The Socialist government in France has inaugurated a new mega-mosque in Paris as a first step towards "progressively building a French Islam."
The new mosque, located in the northern Paris suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, is not only vast in its dimensions (photo here), but is also highly visible and symbolic: its towering minaret, which has purposely been designed to change the suburb's skyline by being taller than any church steeple in the neighborhood, is supposed to become the "new symbol of Islam in France."
The blue-domed mega-mosque also has an important political dimension. French President François Hollande owes his May 6 electoral victory to the large turnout by Muslim voters, who cast the deciding votes that propelled Hollande into the Élysée Palace. It is now political payback time, and the mosque at Cergy is one of at least 150 new mosque projects that the Socialist government has pledged to support.
Speaking on behalf of President Hollande at the inauguration ceremony of the mosque in Cergy, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls articulated the Socialist government's policy vis-à-vis the construction of new mosques in France. He declared: "A mosque, when it is erected in the city, says a simple thing: Islam has its place in France."
The 2,000 square meter (21,500 square foot) three-story mega-mosque in Cergy can accommodate up to 1,500 worshippers at a time; it has two main prayer halls (one for men and one for women), ablution rooms, two kitchens, a tea room, an apartment and office for the imam, a funeral hall, classrooms and a multipurpose room.
The mayor's office in Cergy, which is controlled by the Socialist Party, has tried to downplay local concerns about the size of the mosque, which has a price tag of €3.7 million ($4.5 million). It has justified the project by arguing that the mosque is being financed exclusively through local donations (many if not most of the major mosques in France and other European countries are financed by foreign governments such as Morocco and Saudi Arabia).
But the Socialist Mayor of Cergy, Dominique Lefebvre, has actively worked to make the mosque project a reality by circumventing French laws on secularism. Under his leadership the town council agreed to provide the mosque with a lease of land at very low rent for a term of 99 years. The town council also agreed to provide the mosque with a bank guarantee so it could obtain a €2.5 million loan for construction.
Lefebvre has justified his efforts on behalf of the mosque by saying he wants to "ensure the free exercise of religion." But at the ceremony inaugurating the mosque, he also joked: "I am often asked if the minaret is higher than the steeple of the church."
Separately, a French appeals court has granted permission for the construction of a mega-mosque in the southern city of Marseille, home to the largest Muslim community in France.
The ruling, which overturns an October 2011 decision by a lower court to annul the construction permit for the mosque, represents a major victory for proponents of the mosque, long touted as the biggest and most potent symbol of Islam's growing place in France.
The €22 million ($27 million) project would have the Grand Mosque -- boasting a minaret soaring 25 meters (82 feet) high, and room for up to 7,000 worshippers in a vast prayer hall -- built on the north side of Marseille's old port in the city's Saint-Louis district, an ethnically mixed neighborhood that suffers from poverty and high unemployment.
Several decades in the planning, the project was granted a construction permit in November 2009. At the time, city officials said the new mosque would help the Muslim community better integrate into the mainstream and foster a more moderate form of Islam.
The first cornerstone of the 8,300 square meter (90,000 square foot) project was laid in May 2010. The elaborate stone-laying ceremony was attended by Muslim religious leaders and local politicians, as well as more than a dozen diplomats from Muslim countries.
Full-scale construction of the Grand Mosque -- which will include a Koranic school and a library, as well as a restaurant and tea room -- was scheduled to begin in February 2012.
But the project has faced stiff opposition from local residents and businesses. Opponents of the Grand Mosque have argued that it would be out of harmony with the neighborhood's economic and social fabric. The appeals court ruling, dated June 19, means that construction of the mosque can now continue unimpeded.
In October 2011, the French newspaper La Marseillaise published extracts of a leaked intelligence report about the rise of Islam in Marseille, which is now home to some 250,000 Muslims.
The confidential seven-page document, drafted by domestic intelligence in the French region of Bouches-du-Rhône in March 2011, warns against construction of the grand mosque: "This building would dominate an entire part of the city…it would be visible from most of the surrounding main roads…the mosque is generally considered aggressive to the point where a local referendum on the matter would give results at least equivalent and perhaps more pronounced than the voting organized in the Swiss confederation last year [the Swiss vote to ban minarets]."
The report also states that although "the number of individuals [in Marseille] who have been radicalized to the point of supporting the jihadists is relatively low, Islamic fundamentalism has progressed to the point where it has won over the majority of the Muslim population."
The report describes the Muslim population of Marseille as a "marginalized population, poorly informed, uncultured and with a limited understanding even of their own religion, finding themselves in the hands of self-appointed imams who are no more competent than their flocks but sufficiently charismatic to obtain their obedience."
The document concludes by stating that Muslims in France appear to want the state to intervene in religious matters: "It is interesting to note that the majority of Muslims find it natural for the state to organize religious practice, even by force if necessary, and that many of them even declare that they do not understand the neutrality of France in this matter."
The same might be said of the French Socialist Party, which, thanks to ideology and political expediency, is increasingly inclined to accommodate Muslim demands. During his election campaign, Hollande offered an amnesty to all of the estimated 400,000 illegal Muslim immigrants currently in France. He also pledged to change French electoral laws so that Muslim residents without French citizenship would be allowed to vote in municipal elections as of 2014.
These measures, if implemented, would enable the Socialist Party tighten its grip on political power, both at the regional and national levels. As the politically active Muslim population in France continues to swell, and as most Muslims in the country vote for Socialist and left-wing parties, conservative parties will find it increasingly difficult to win future elections in France.
Soeren Kern is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.
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