Parisian Muslims escaped a government ban on street prayers Friday when some 5,000 worshippers piled into a makeshift mosque in the north of the capital.
By Sarah LEDUC / Sophie PILGRIM (text)
After years of unfurling prayer mats on streets, pavements and in bicycle lanes, Parisian Muslims on Friday were finally able to put their foreheads to the ground somewhere they knew they weren’t stopping traffic. Not quite a mosque yet, their new place of worship is a 2,000-square-metre disused fire station in the north of the capital.
The building’s inauguration Friday afternoon, which saw thousands of Muslims welcomed from across Paris, also marked the first day of a ban on street prayers that had long been promised by France's right-wing government. “Praying in the streets will stop [on Friday],” Interior Minister Claude Gueant told French conservative daily Le Figaro Thursday. “We could go so far as to use force if needed,” he added, although he said he believed it unnecessary.
The Muslim community had scrambled to find a suitable space for the capital’s growing number of worshippers after Gueant, a close ally of President Nicolas Sarkozy, gave them until September 16 to get off the streets. “Prayers in the street are unacceptable, a direct attack on the principle of secularism,” he told AFP last month. Just two days before the deadline and after complex negotiations, local Muslim leaders signed a three-year deal with the authorities for the disused hangar.
While it still resembles little more than a fire station, the new “mosque” was commended by participants Friday, who recounted times when thousands of worshippers were forced to pray under the rain, unable to squeeze into their local mosque. “We used to be squashed in like sardines!”, one woman told FRANCE 24. “At least there’s more room here. And after all, a prayer is a prayer, why not have it in a fire station?”
Only a small minority of worshippers complained about the move, in the form of a tiny protest by a group of Salafi Muslims. “Brothers, wake up!” shouted one. “They’ve put us in here so we don’t pray in the street. But we should be able to pray where we like!”
Most of the surrounding crowd disagreed, however, arguing that it was against Islamic belief to bother your neighbour or block someone from going their way – which is what had been happening for over a decade as thousands of bodies spilled out from mosques onto the roads every Friday afternoon.
No praying in public before the election
French law stipulates that no show of religious allegiance is allowed in public, which is what makes praying in the street a punishable offence. But until recently, the law had only been enforced in state schools, where Jewish skullcaps, Muslim headscarves and Christian crucifixes are banned.
In spring this year, the government introduced a notorious “burqa ban”, banning women (and men, supposedly) from wearing the full Muslim veil. The move was widely viewed as a political one – an attempt by the unpopular Sarkozy administration to appease far-right voters before the presidential election next year. Gueant’s promise to rid the streets of praying Muslims is considered a similar ploy.
One woman visiting the mosque told an AP correspondent that while she was “really happy,” she didn’t believe it was “by chance that this plan is coming just before the presidential election ... this site has been sitting unused here for years.”
Most of the worshippers who turned up on Friday were largely unaware of any political implications, worrying more about practical matters. “It’s not clear where we should put our footwear,” one man told FRANCE 24, clasping his leather moccasins as he peered nervously at a mountain of shoes. Another mused about the building not facing directly towards Mecca, and another, about the cold in the winter.
But Sheikh Salah Hamza, an imam involved in the project, has got grand designs for the hangar. He’s pledged 80,000 euros towards the building, promising to turn it into a “five-star mosque” in the next three years.