Paris (AsiaNews) – The Paris massacre highlights once again the crisis of the model of coexistence between the West and the Muslim world, laying bare the full extent of the failure of the model of integration of young Muslims, in particular in European societies where marginalisation and poverty have become a pretext for radicalisation and the rediscovery of religion as the answer to all social ills. To take stock of the French situation, AsiaNews asked a New Zealander journalist for her thoughts on the issue.
Catherine Field, a Paris-based journalist, has a Bachelor's degree in Religious Science from the Institut catholique de Paris. She is an expert in social studies and interreligious dialogue. In the first months of this year, she completed an 18-month research project with the University of Cambridge centred on the revival of religion in the public sphere in England and France.
In 2010, I set out on a journey to learn more about the Muslim community here in France and view, from a journalist perspective, inter-religious dialogue. It was a journey that was meant to last five months. But it continues to this day. I have visited mosques, Islamic cultural institutes and madrasas in Paris and its suburbs to understand more about religious landscape in France. At the outset, I joined four Catholic priests and seven lay Catholics delegate to expand their knowledge of Islam and to nurture inter-religious dialogue.
Once a week, the group met with imams, educators and social workers, with each side seeking to understand a bit about the other. To this day, I am still in contact with members of the group. I watch from the sidelines now though, curious at how despite the goodwill of so many inter-religious dialogue still has a long road ahead in France.
Looking at France's religious communities close up means confronting two unique sides of French life. Two religious communities sharing the same country, but who rarely seemed to meet. On one side, those from the Christian majority, comforted by their ancient roots in France and a cultural, social and economic capital amassed over centuries. On the other, members of the Islamic religion followed by immigrants and their descendants -- faster growing than Catholicism, but lacking the confidence, knowledge base and advantages of the native religion.
Some remarkable figures are behind this attempt at dialogue. One is Mohamed-Ali Bouharb, who in 2005 became the first Muslim chaplain to the National Gendarmerie, part of the defence ministry. In his daily work, Bouharb wrangles with his military superiors, often having to explain to them simple things such as religious rituals, practices and diet, and administered to Muslim troops fretting over being sent to fight in Afghanistan or the Sahal.
Another is Hubert de Charge, who has spent more than a decade trying to bring Catholic and Muslim communities together. A quiet, charming and gentle man from an aristocratic family, de Charge had a brother, Christian, who was one of seven Cistercian monks kidnapped and murdered in Algeria in 1996. The monks' severed heads were found but their bodies have never been recovered.
Despite the skills of these bridge-builders, reality always seems to get in the way. There is lots of talk, but little common ground, and words rarely seem to be followed by action. Neither side seems to want to give ground, move out of their comfort zone.
One particular meeting stands out as an example of the extent of the work that still needs to be done. I visited a madrasa, an Islamic educational and cultural institute, in the grimy suburb of Saint Denis. Here, shoddy high-rise housing estates, thrown up in the 1960s and 70s to accommodate the influx of cheap manual labour from North Africa, are dotted around the ancient basilica where the kings and queens of France are buried.
The madrasa is located in an industrial estate built during the "Trente Glorieuses" economic boom of half a century ago, carved up by a four-lane highway – a no-man's-land of wind-strewn fast-food wrappers where even the graffiti looked tired.
In an evening class, teachers explain to a group of young Muslim in their twenties about aspects of French life. They do not talk about the freedoms and concepts so important to France's intellectuals, nor about the arts and food that are so important to its bourgeois bohemians. Instead, it is the basic stuff of survival: how to deal with bureaucracy at the town hall. Women sit on one side of the classroom. Men on the other.
I spoke at length with the madrasa's deputy head, an Algerian-born man who I thought looked wary of tokenism. He aired a long list of problems. Not enough was being done to integrate young Muslims into French society, he said. "You French do not understand us," he said – the words of the eternal outsider.