Focus on Substance: Here’s what’s happening at Mosque

Focus on Substance: Here’s what’s happening at Mosque
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Many people associate a mosque with terrorism and question whether mosques are safe or are actually brainwashing young Muslims to become urban Jihadists

By Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi

Hearing the negative discourse about Arabs and Muslims that has been increasing in French society, many people associate mosques with terrorism and question whether mosques are safe or are actually brainwashing young Muslims to become urban Jihadists.

During the month of Ramadan, Muslims gather for sermon and prayer services every night for Tarawihs prayer and for the Eïd prayer which concludes the observance today when Muslims greet each other and pray for world peace.

It has become a ritual habit for many thousands of Muslims in France to make an extended effort to attend Tarawihs (nocturne prayer) and eventually Eïd prayer in the hope they will find the ideal mosque and Imam they have been seeking, some for decades, in their life in exile and in diaspora for others. Depends on whom you speak with…

As far as the ideal mosque and Imam go, the Muslim community in the Île-de-France region could not find a better one than the one in the northeastern Parisian suburb of the denigrated neuf-trois (93) Department, Seine St-Denis, Aulnay-sous-Bois city. I’ve visited a great many mosques within the 93rd Department including the historical and official Mosquée de Paris located in the Fifth Arrondissement — yet the newly built and inaugurated Es-Salam Mosque of Aulnay-sous-Bois seems to promise a prosperous spiritual and cultural future, a positive impact for both communities host and guest alike.

Inside a Mosque

Inside a Mosque

This two-story white building bears a glass dome and a mid-sized tall minaret in the Andalou style. Build on a 3500m square interior that could hold at least 10,000 worshipers, the interior is wide and spacious and agreeably decorated in the Ottoman manner. A turquoise blue/light beige carpet shines like clear water on a sunny day, and classic tall chandeliers hang like beautiful hortensia plants over the heads of the fervent worshipers — women in the upper story line up in rows facing the Qebla (Mecca direction) like radiant orchids seeking Allah’s indulgence and forgiveness.

On Destiny Night (Leïlat al-Qadar), I witnessed the conversion of three young women to Islam, coming from a Christian faith. This has been going on for a while, practically very month a conversion ceremony is held at the Friday prayer.

The men attend in their different djellabas, every one displaying his native nationality, self-identity and national pride through this elegant religious dress.

Mosque prayers

Mosque prayers

One might assume from these vivid images that the odds are great that FN party leaders and sympathizers, some conventional politicians and fellow pure French citizens (Français de souche) may be among the attendees. Indeed, of these that are advocating the closure of all mosques in France, most have never visited a mosque before or are simply hypocritical politicians.

If they did, they might learn that the biggest challenges mosques face have little to do with making bombs in the basement and preaching intolerance/jihad against the infidels.  On this point, on the day of Eïd the city Mayor Beschizza, the MP representative of the Seine St-Denis (93) constituency and local city councilors arrived at Es-Salam Mosque to congratulate and greet the Muslim community.

For some, it is an enviable place and day for a political seduction move toward the Muslim community since its vote counts in the local election.

Mosque services

Mosque services

During the evenings and the Eïd prayers I attended, I noted that the Es-Salam Mosque organizers have a serious organizational mind-set from certain worshipers — the Imam (who is a pediatrician in the city public hospital) is more a religious community leader (minister) than a conventional dogmatic Imam. In every appearance before the worshipers he cautions them not to park on sidewalks and grass lawns and not to disturb the neighbors when leaving the Mosque.

On a personal note, what is going on with the parking? Give me a break…parking lots are limited and shared with the Mosque’s next-door building tenants, it does not give you the right to block others. I know may people rush, but it is those same people that block others and then take their time socializing before leaving in their cars afterwards.

The Mosque’s organizers warn mothers about their infants and small kids yelling and jumping and distracting everyone in the women’s section from praying and concentrating on spiritually getting closer to Allah. Another annoying moment comes when the eloquent and calm young official Imam, who divinely leads the Tarawihs prayer, asks the worshipers to turn off their cell phones.

One could see between the two ending Raka’at of the prayer, worshipers comfortably checking and replying to their e-mails and sending short messages… Phones are supposed to be off, but there is always at least one person during the prayer whose phone goes off. How frustrating to hear an I-Phone or Samsung ringing tone in mid-prayer!

Another noteworthy event at Es-Salam Mosque that can’t be missed is the fundraising held every night to cover the monthly cost. According to Muslim community leaders in the city and its agglomeration, the Mosque was built exclusively by Muslim community money, some 5 million euros, sourced mainly from the community itself. The French secular principal of separation between State & Mosque oblige!

Charity (Sadaqa) is optional, during Ramadan, yet due to the Mosque leaders’ persistence, the worshipers share a competitive mood and at some point the Minister’s table looks like an auction podium. Inside the Mosque countless worshipers are making a pledge and handing envelopes to the organizers who wear a florescent green jacket and asking for invocations, prayers for their parents, children and peace for the world.

Outside a typical mosque

Outside a typical mosque

However, I overheard young male worshipers arguing for more productive lectures and pedagogical courses on the biography of the Prophet and His companions and His doctrine insisting on acceptance and unity. There is a huge lack of understanding of basic Islamic practices and doctrine, notably among the teenagers and young brothers and sisters who are in deep existential crisis but who, in fact, seek in the Mosque a safe refuge for their questions and clarity in understanding the basis of their faith.

Undoubtedly the young are proudly manifesting a belief in their religion as a result of their acculturation, unlike their grand-parents who seek the Mosque as an answer to their homesick dilemma.

Es-Salam Mosque of Aulnay-sous-Bois is also in the process of opening an Islamic Center that will have a library, conference rooms and a school for Islamic and language studies. A welcome addition certainly for the younger members in need of a firm foundation in the basic tenets of Islam.

The argument among the young males continued, in lieu of taking up the half-hour ceremony before the E’echa prayer to fundraise, how about teaching Muslims how to behave and co-exist? Fairly the Imam and all the lecturers who speak at the Mosque during the Friday sermon insist on these survival topics for the Muslim community, not only in Aulnay-sous-Bois, but in the entire country.

Despite all the clichés and sensational reports by a biased media, so far the Muslim community in Aulnay-sous-Bois has found a decent location where they can comfortably perform and practice their belief, unlike before in basements with lack of safety and dignity. This is a positive response to those who view mosques in general as dangerous places of recruitment for urban Jihadists.

Nonetheless the French media has “creatively” invented a new media lexicon to include concepts like “proximity” and “urban Jihad.” Consequently many Muslims are fighting Islamophobic elements by standing for “proximity” and “urban E-djteehad” through interfaith discussions and action.

Today it is increasingly important for Es-Salam Mosque leaders to speak about identity and cultural differences in a society where anti-Arab and Muslim sentiment and Islamophobia have risen exponentially. The creation of the Islamic Center surely speaks to these issues at Es-Salam Mosque. 

In the face of such challenges, the Muslim community should be aware that fundraising and maintenance of the Mosque itself goes beyond the concrete walls. What truly holds

the Mosque together is that which binds together the pure and generous heart of each in the community.

This post has been viewed 13669 times.

Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi

Abdennour Toumi:
- France correspondent for The Arab Daily News.
- www.bareed-areej.com Editor-in-Chief
رئيس تحرير مجلة بريد الأريج
- Political consultant at IMPR a Think-Tank based in Ankara, Turkey.
- Member at the European Observatory for Arabic Language Teaching based in Paris, France.
- Affiliated with Sociology of Islam Journal and contributor at Middle East Studies / International Studies, Sociology of Islam and Muslim Societies Center, Portland State University in Portland, OR.

EDUCATION: Diplôme des Études Approfondies (DEA) in Political Science from Toulouse University I, France. Master’s degree in Law from Algiers University, Algeria.
Abdennour Toumi
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