Cablegate: Muslim Outreach -- Senior Advisor Farah Pandith's

Published: Tue 14 Aug 2007 07:03 AM
DE RUEHFR #3402/01 2260703
P 140703Z AUG 07
E.O. 12958: N/A
PARIS 00003402 001.2 OF 008
SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. Please handle accordingly.
1. (SBU) In meetings in Paris July 25 - 26 with a wide range
of figures from France's large and diverse Muslim community
and France,s new government, EUR Senior Advisor Farah
Pandith underlined U.S. interest in respectful dialogue and
exchange of ideas with France's Muslim population, the
largest in Europe. In their meetings with her, civil
servants, elected officials, ordinary citizens, community
activists, religious leaders and intellectuals focused on the
French "Republican model" for immigrant minority integration,
whether or not this model can work to solve the social
problems of France's immigrant-origin (largely Muslim)
underclass, and whether or not President Sarkozy's proposed
reforms to state-religion relations in France are likely to
make any difference in the economic prospects of the
country's largely Arab and Black Muslim minority.
Interlocutors all cited the potential for radicalization of a
small, but potentially dangerous, fraction of Muslim youth.
Some of S/A Pandith's civil society interlocutors were
concerned about the lack of any authoritative "voice of
moderation" able to counsel ordinary, middle-class Europeans
(who happen to be Muslim) on matters of religious practice
and cultural identity in their new social environment. Asked
if they had considered the possibility of a "learning center"
for reformed, European, contemporary Islam, most of S/A
Pandith's civil society interlocutors responded
enthusiastically, while others (and in particular some
government officials) worried that it would soon fall prey to
factionalism among "national communities" or infiltration by
radicals. Nonetheless, as it has for many years, discussion
of such a center continues, and post will continue to follow
the issue. Muslim outreach is an MSP priority for post; S/A
Pandith's round of meetings greatly advanced post's Muslim
engagement efforts. Targeted program funding -- in the
tradition of SEED programs -- for grants of various kinds
would be a welcome addition to post's efforts to complement
Washington-based outreach in this critical field of public
opinion. END SUMMARY.
2. (SBU) There are about five million ethnically Muslim
people in France (out of a total population of nearly 64
million.) Both in absolute size and in proportion to the
total population (between 8 and 9 percent), France has the
largest Muslim population of any country in Europe. Over 70
percent of the Muslims in France have their roots in the
Maghreb, primarily Algeria, but also Morocco, reflecting the
dominant pattern of migration to France in recent decades --
from colonies/former colonies to the mother country. More
recently, a steady stream of immigrants, also Muslim, have
come from the countries of sub-Saharan Africa, such as
Senegal and Mali. France is also home to relatively small
communities of Muslims from Turkey and Iran, and communities
from countries in the sub-continent and the far east. Some
of Paris' predominantly Muslim neighborhoods are microcosms
of the Muslim world's diversity.
3. (U) Given that the French "Republican model," with its
constitutional injunction against distinguishing among
citizens on the basis of race or religion, precludes the
state from collecting census data on religious affiliation,
there are no truly accurate statistics on the size of
France's Muslim population. Some estimates put France's
Muslim population at 6 or 7 million, and beyond. Vast
diversity prevails among France's Muslims with regard to
inward religiosity, outward piety and the extent to which a
social and cultural identity as "a Muslim" is central to
their self-conception. "French first" is the general rule,
and French Muslims often express frustration at the
mainstream community's persistent identification of them as
"immigrants," "foreigners," "Arabs," "Muslims," etc. About 3
million of France's Muslims are French citizens. Though
two-thirds observe Ramadan, only about one fifth are
considered continuously observant.
4. (SBU) In her July 25 - 26 meetings with officials from
PARIS 00003402 002.2 OF 008
the Prime Minister's office, Foreign Ministry, and Interior
Ministry, and with politicians, religious leaders, academics,
businessmen and community activists, S/A Pandith outlined the
two overarching goals of U.S. engagement with Europe's
Muslims: countering the widespread conviction that the U.S.
is somehow "at war" with Islam, and initiating a constructive
dialogue about Muslim integration in European societies aimed
at sharing America's best practices with regard to providing
equal opportunity to disadvantaged, racially distinct
5. (SBU) During her two days of meetings in Paris S/A
Pandith met with:
French government officials:
-- Prime Minister's Office: Laurence Marion, Civil Rights and
Public Liberties Advisor to the Prime Minister
-- Foreign Ministry: Justin Vaisse, Special Advisor for
Transatlantic Relations; Yves Oudin, Deputy Director for
North America; Denis Fromaget, Special Assistant for
Religious Affairs
-- Interior Ministry: Christophe Chaboud, Director,
Coordination Unit for the Fight Against Terrorism; Anthony
Bernardi, Chief of the Foreigners and Minorities Section of
France's Internal Intelligence Services (RG), Fabienne Duthe,
Extremism and Counter-Terrorism specialist of France,s
Intelligence Service (DST)
-- Najat Azmy, political activist and official of the
National Agency for Social Cohesion and Equal Opportunity.
(Azmy has led numerous campaigns against discrimination in
her home area of Pas-de-Calais.)
-- Chafia Mentalecheta, one of the EU delegates to the
European Agency of Fundamental Rights in Vienna. (She aimed
to run in the last legislative elections under the Socialist
Party (PS) banner, but resigned from the Party in frustration
at the short shrift given to minorities in the PS, and ran as
an independent.)
-- Faycal Douhane, former IV grantee, a PS spokesperson, and
General Secretary of the Association of Mayors of the Paris
Region. (In 1997 Douhane founded the Club Averroes, an
association dedicated to promoting diversity in the French
media and to fight discrimination.)
-- Ali Zahi, City Councilman in Paris suburb of Bondy and the
International Relations and Communications Director for the
Mayor of nearby Clichy-sous-Bois. (Clichy-sous-Bois is the
suburb where the urban unrest of November 2005 began.)
Academics and Journalists:
-- Said Branine, Chief Editor of France's leading,
mainstream, Muslim website (
-- Omero Marongiu, sociologist, specialist on "Muslim
Brotherhood" in France. (Marongiu, a convert to Islam, is
employed by a number of mosques as their legal counselor; he
is also a consultant for social projects for the city of
Roubaix, where Muslims may soon be a majority of the
-- Moussa Khedimellah, sociologist, specialist on Tabligh and
Salafism in France (Kedimellah, with Marongiu, worked for the
Ministry of the Interior on sensitivity-building training
modules for police and prison guards.)
-- Nourdin Mabil, Antione Menuisier, and Chou Sin, all
journalists and all leading lights of Bondyblog, a news and
commentary website from the viewpoint of suburban youth.
(Menuisier, who works for the Swiss news weekly L'Hebdo,
during the unrest of November 2005, pioneered, through
Bondyblog, coverage of the events through cell phone video
clips and other reports "from the street," as opposed to
PARIS 00003402 003.2 OF 008
"from the mainstream media behind the police.")
-- Aziz Zemouri, journalist at Le Figaro. (Zemouri is the
author of Marianne and Allah, a book that explores the birth
of the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), a
government-sponsored representative committee of Muslim
institutions in light of France's much vaunted separation of
church and state and integration of Muslims into French
society according to the "Republican model."
-- Hassina Ambolet, Deputy Mayor, Bondy
Community and Business Leaders:
-- Adda Bekkouch, chairman of the Movement for Active
Citizenship (MCA). (Bekkouch, known as a gadfly in his
political opinions, regularly excoriates the left for failing
to act on discrimination and minority issues. According to
Bekkouch, though the left "initiates the debate," it has been
the right that "takes the plunge," for example, giving the
vote to women, independence to Algeria, and, now, greater
minority representation in government.)
--Eduardo Rihan Cypel, Chief of Staff to Mayor of Bondy
-- Said Hammouche, CEO of APC recruitment, the first minority
placement agency in France (Hammouche was born in Bondy, and
created his agency, which is quite successful, to offer the
French minorities an opportunity to hone job-landing skills
and facilitate their recruitment by employers)
Leaders of Religious and Representative Institutions:
-- Abderahmane Kebir, Director for International Relations of
the Great Mosque of Paris
-- Mohamed Timol, chief administrator of the CFCM
-- Haydar Demiryurek, Secretary General of the CFCM and
President of the French-Turkish Community's Representative
Committee (CCFTM)
6. (SBU) Hardly surprisingly, the government officials that
met with S/A Pandith defended France's "Republican model" of
minority integration. The "Republican model" of integration
posits that equal opportunity and integration will ensue if
the state remains assiduously blind to race, creed and
national origin as it strives to secure individual rights.
The "Republican model's" emphasis on individual citizens and
their equality flies in the face of the social reality of
group identities and the economic inequality of, for example,
much higher school dropout and unemployment rates among
immigrant, mostly Muslim, youth. Because the bulk of
France's urban underclass poor are Muslims, discussion of the
integration of this disadvantaged minority invariably brings
up France's way of separating church and state. President
Sarkozy has suggested modifying the relationship between
state and religion to harness the community-building capacity
of faith-based organizations, while also -- in connection
with Islam -- reducing the potential spread of political
7. (SBU) Laurence Marion of the Prime Minister's office
focused on two key government initiatives: modifying the laws
that define religious organizations so as to "expand their
presence in the community" and provide for
government-subsidized training of Imams. Both of these
initiatives have been championed by President Sarkozy and are
part of his effort to engender "debate without taboos" about
the place of religion in a France that Sarkozy sees as
leaving behind a long history of antagonism between the
Republic and the Catholic church. Marion discussed, at
length, the 1905 law that is the cornerstone of the legal
status of religious organizations in France; she said that
that law relegated religion to the personal, private sphere.
Marion said the government was considering proposals to
PARIS 00003402 004.2 OF 008
loosen the law's limitation of "religious associations"
(associations cultuelles) to worship activities only. This
would allow religious associations (such as mosques) to
expand their social and charitable community-building
activities. In addition, Marion said the government was
considering modifications to the law that would allow local
associations (as opposed to recognized, organized religions)
to build places of worship. The runaway growth of
unregulated prayer-rooms and "basement mosques" is part of
what Sarkozy would like to see reined in by what he has
called a "public" (that is, officially recognized and
supported) French Islam.
8. (SBU) Marion went on to detail another key pillar of,
possible, Sarkozy administration reform of France's current
framework for state-religion relations: government-funded
training of religious leaders, possibly even the
establishment of a study center for that purpose. The first
option would involve providing curriculum materials and
subsidies to ensure that foreign-born Imams were familiar
with "Republican values," French government institutions and
the French language. This training would be mandatory. and
there would be some sort of state-administered verification
that Imams had assimilated the training to passing standards.
A second, more ambitious -- though still highly notional --
option, according to Marion, would include facilitating the
creation of a state-sponsored theological institute of sorts,
that would be capable of offering courses on Muslim theology,
non-fundamentalist in outlook, and compatible with "liberal,"
Western values, among them religious pluralism.
9. (SBU) Marion underlined that the Sarkozy administration
was keen on finding ways "to support faith-based groups,"
while at the same time, "not radically departing from the
tenets of the 1905 law." In connection with the problem of
how to pay for the proposed Imam training and theological
institute, Marion said that the government would need to
"find creative solutions." As an example of a funding
mechanism, Marion cited the Foundation for Muslim Works in
France, created in 2005, as a possible means of channeling
resources to Muslim projects in a way that could be
considered analogous to how state funds are channeled into
the historic preservation of Catholic churches.
10. (SBU) Foreign Ministry officials Justin Vaisse, Yves
Oudin, and Denis Fromaget, in their defense of the
"Republican model," stressed that the "problems faced by
Arabs and Blacks" in France have much more to do with
ethnicity and education than with religion. Vaisse said that
the French "Republican model" did not recognize race as a
proper "political distinction," and observed that France was
more inclined to address the evident social realities of
poverty and marginalization on a "geographical basis." He
cited, as an example of that, the Priority Educational Zones
(ZEPs), that benefit from considerable special funding and
other programs, to the benefit of their predominantly
immigrant populations.
11. (SBU) Vaisse, Oudin and Fromaget expressed understanding
of U.S. Muslim outreach goals. Vaisse (who will be a fellow
at the Brookings Institution in Washington beginning in
September) called the goal of refuting the notion that the
U.S. is at war with Islam and of enhancing communication and
cooperation with Europe on Muslim integration an "accurate
approach." He added that outreach along those lines could be
"enlarged to reflect the reality that it's not just the U.S.,
but the West in general, that is perceived by many to be at
war with Islam." Vaisse however, then went on to emphasize
the "cultural specificity" of Islam in Europe and cautioned
against assuming that a standardized approach could be
applied across European national borders. As an example of
the cultural differences among Europe's Muslims, Vaisse
recalled a conference he recently attended in Berlin at which
French and German representatives had difficulty establishing
common ground for a discussion of how to reconcile religious
and political identity, because both are approached so
differently by French and Germans. For example, citizenship
PARIS 00003402 005.2 OF 008
and self-identification as French are, overall, much more
easily accessible to foreigners than in Germany.
12. (SBU) In addition, Vaisse bemoaned what he called the
"negative influence" of foreign, itinerant Imams. Alluding
to the French government's bind between keeping itself sealed
off from the religious activities of citizens and its
responsibility to monitor potential radicalization that could
lead to terrorists acts, Vaisse lamented the "negative"
influence of itinerant Imams who, he said, frequently operate
with foreign funding and tended to be fundamentalist, as
opposed to moderate, in their doctrinal outlook.
13. (SBU) All interlocutors stressed that the potential
radicals may be few in number, but that these few could still
wreak havoc by mounting terrorist attacks or fomenting
violent unrest. Violence would be bad for civil peace and
for France in general, and it would aggravate religious
prejudice against Muslims. The danger of angry, frustrated
youths turning to religion, and becoming radicalized under
the influence of fundamentalist Imams or other zealots, was
evoked by Ministry of the Interior intelligence professionals
and by sociologists and other representatives of civil
society. The Interior Ministry's Chaboud and Bernardi
stressed that fundamentalist extremism was a problem only in
a tiny fraction of France,s roughly 1,800 mosques (fewer
than 100 of which are linked to Salafist or radical Turkish
influences). However, echoing the comments of their MFA
colleagues, Interior's counter-terrorism experts also cited
itinerant, charismatic preachers as the most serious
"radicalization" threat because their constant movement makes
it difficult to monitor the effect they may have on malleable
followers. (Note: Since 2003, French security forces have
expelled 21 radical imams for preaching jihad or expressing
opinions that contravene France,s hate crime legislation.
END NOTE.) Similarly, the worry that "desperate" suburban
youth might fall prey to radicalization was specifically
mentioned by Grand Mosque official Abderahmane Kebir,
sociologist Moussa Khedimellah and web-based editorialist
Said Branine.
14. (SBU) The government counter-terrorism professionals and
the sociologists S/A Pandith met with both emphasized that
the radicalization process has changed recently. Contrary to
the usual pattern in the past -- radicalization beginning
with religious "conversion" -- today many "radicalization
cases" bypass religious extremism and move straight to
political extremism, ever more frequently via
"self-radicalization" through contacts made on the internet,
via networks formed among childhood friends, prison inmates,
or around charismatic, advocates of jihad who do not claim to
be religious leaders. Khedimellah observed that the motors
of radicalization among poor, suburban youths and better off,
and more well-educated, "middle-class radicals" were quite
different. "Escape to a different life" by volunteering to
go off to "resistance fighter" training camps seems to often
motivate the poor, whereas, according to Khedimellah,
middle-class radicals are more "ideologically motivated" --
by identification with the Palestinians and by anti-Semitism,
for example. Khedimellah said that, since the beginning of
the U.S.-led intervention in Iraq, about 100 individuals per
year have departed France as recruits to Jihadist ranks.
--------------------------------------------- ----------
15. (SBU) Throughout S/A Pandith's numerous exchanges with
civil society representatives and political figures, the
message came through loud and clear that French Muslims
support France's "Republican model," earnestly wishing it
would deliver on its promise of "liberty, equality and
brotherhood" for all. Equally consistently, they warned that
failure to diminish the prejudice experienced by suburban
youths and improve job opportunities for them would lead to
another round of the sort of urban unrest that shook France
in the fall of 2005. Journalist Assiz Zemouri and politician
Chafia Mentalecheta were among those who -- even as they
excoriated France and French society for "marginalizing
PARIS 00003402 006.2 OF 008
without a future" the suburban immigrant poor -- also made a
point of underlining their pride in their own achievements
and their gratitude to the "Republican model" for the
educational and professional opportunities that had been
extended to them. The power of the promise of equality under
France's "Republican model" should not be underestimated.
The controversy that continues to swirl around Sarkozy's
proposals of affirmative action and official recognition of
"communitarian" identities, among Muslims and others in
France, is evidence of the "Republican model's" deep roots in
the French character, a character aspired to and shared by
most immigrants to France, including most Muslim immigrants.
Again and again in S/A Pandith's conversations with French
Muslims, the observation recurred about how travel "back" to
Algeria, Morocco etc. made them intensely aware, in
Mentalecheta's phrase, of how "French we are."
16. (SBU) One odd twist in the thread of discussion about
the "Republican model" was provided by Mohamed Timol, an
official of Paris' Grand Mosque, who is a leading member of
the (tiny) Muslim community that traces its roots to 19th
century immigrants from India to the French territory of
Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Timol remarked that one
effect of the "Republican model" and its "refusal" of
communitarian identities was to protect communities like his
own from dominance by the much larger "national" communities
-- Algerian, Moroccan, etc. -- that are still the main
building blocks of the larger, Muslim community.
17. (SBU) The primary focus of the range of interlocutors
canvassed during the visit was the pros and cons of the
"Republican model," whether or not the model is part of the
solution for the social problems of France's immigrant
(largely Muslim) underclass, and whether or not Sarkozy's
proposed reforms to state-religion relations are likely to
make any difference in the lives of those who, above all,
need jobs. However, when the subject of Europe and a broader
identity as European Muslims came up, S/A Pandith's civil
society interlocutors found the idea intriguing, though
somewhat novel to them. Europe's Muslims share a common
experience, both as immigrants and as the first, large Muslim
population to live in modern Europe. Awareness of that could
be gathering currency among Europe's Muslims, possibly
generating a broader identity as European Muslims. Civil
society interlocutors greeted this as something that could be
very positive, even though it was still quite an unfamiliar
notion. Haydar Demiryurek, for example, an official of the
CFCM and leading member of the France's Turkish Muslim
community said that he hoped a European Muslim identity could
overcome the country-of-origin national divisions that, he
said, still deeply divide Europe's Muslims.
18. (SBU) Another approach to the question of a growing
Muslim identity came up in the meeting with sociologists
Marongiu and Khedimellah. They said they had observed a new
"dynamic" in social identity -- growing self-identification
as "Muslims" going hand-in-hand with growing use of the
religious identifier, "the Muslims" by the mainstream
majority (as opposed to the heretofore more common ethnic and
racial terms of "the Arabs and the Blacks"). Marongiu and
Khedimellah also remarked that there is a resurgence of
interest in Muslim heritage and "cultural" Muslim identity
among France's immigrants of Muslim extraction. The net
result of this could be a growing self-awareness as members
of a Muslim minority in France, and beyond France, in Europe.
--------------------------------------------- ---------
20. (SBU) Discussion of the possibility of an identity
common to European Muslims led to inquiring if there was a
need for a Europe-wide, authoritative "voice of moderation"
able to provide information to ordinary, middle-class
Europeans (who happen to be Muslim) on matters of religious
practice and Muslim history, science, art, culture and
identity. S/A Pandith's suggestion of a "learning center" in
the heart of Europe for modern, European, contemporary Islam
was enthusiastically greeted by many of her civil society
PARIS 00003402 007.2 OF 008
interlocutors. The imperative to insure transparency within
the organization to prevent its radicalization was discussed.
Some stated their worry that it would soon fall prey to
factionalism among "national communities" or infiltration by
radicals. Additional concerns included potential dismissal
of the center by Muslims as yet another state-sponsored
attempt to guide their religion and criticism that such a
center was superfluous because it would have no impact on the
Muslim community's social ad economic problems. There was
general agreement, however, that if the experience of
immigration to Europe and the experience of being a minority
religious community were to engender a version of Islam
suited to contemporary, decidedly secular, Europe, then some
sort of center for religious studies that could
authoritatively propose interpretations of the Koran and
modes of religious observance might find constructive,
widespread use among moderate European Muslims. The need for
instruction in local languages was also mentioned as a
critical component. As Said Branine, who heads up the
website, observed about the queries about
religiously correct behavior and ritual practice that users
post to the site, "a lot of these questions just don't come
up" in traditional Muslim countries. Thus, there is a need
to fill the vacuum so radical ideology does not.
21. (SBU) "Muslim websites" -- ranging from the obscurantist
and hate-mongering to the rational and conciliating -- abound
in France. Websites are among the most influential resources
used by French Muslims, especially youth, in search of
guidance "balancing their identities" as Muslims (religious
and/or cultural) and patriotic French citizens and
contemporary kids shaped by popular mass culture, etc. ( is probably the most widely
used, and reform-oriented in its religious outlook. As
Branine put it (quoting from his website's own homepage)
"France's Muslims need a rational perspective -- that is both
appreciative and critical -- of their religion and their
culture." claims about six million hits per month,
and a big spike in users during Ramadan, showing that its
guidance with regard to religious practice is heeded as
authoritative by many. reflects the outlook of the
professional elite of immigrant Muslim background that was
educated in France's public school system -- and speaks and
thinks -- in French.'s Francophone, indeed,
Cartesian, outlook testifies to the truth of that commonplace
about the immigrant experience everywhere that full
assimilation of the new country's language is the most
powerful engine of integration.
22. (SBU) A/S Pandith's visit to Bondyblog -- to which the
site gave considerable coverage
sommet-usa-bondy-blog-a-la-sabliere) -- provided insight into
a more youth-oriented use of the internet. Bondyblog does
provide news and commentary tuned to the sensibility of
youthful members of France's immigrant community. The
anti-American, chip-on-the-shoulder attitude so common among
immigrant youth was very much in evidence in the -- otherwise
fulsomely laudatory -- coverage of S/A Pandith's visit in its
evocation of disagreement with key aspects of U.S. foreign
policy. The Bondybloggers were clearly thrilled to receive a
U.S. representative concerned about Muslim issues, and also
conflicted by their reprobation of many U.S. policies. As
one poignantly put it, "Look at us -- our dress our habits
our music. We are American. If you put us in America no one
would know we were French. But we have fallen out of love
with America" -- over Iraq, Guantanamo/Abu Ghraib, and what
is felt as different standards applied Israelis and
Palestinians. In France, among young French Muslims in
particular, the depth of the anti-Americanism generated by
distorted perceptions about the U.S. and the U.S. role in the
world should not be underestimated. These misperceptions are
insistently fueled by widely-watched French-language, "Arab"
television stations.
PARIS 00003402 008.2 OF 008
23. (SBU) Anti-Americanism in France, particularly with
regard to U.S. foreign policies, and especially among
France's Muslims, persists. As came through loud and clear
in S/A Pandith's exchanges in Paris, France abounds with
thoughtful, articulate voices -- of individuals who happen to
be Muslim -- willing to question distortions about America's
role in the world. Particularly during the past two years,
outreach to France's Muslims has been the unifying theme of
post's minority/diversity/women's issues Public Diplomacy
programming. The impact of France's predominantly Muslim
underclass on social peace, and government efforts to better
the situation of this population, have been a reporting
priority of the Political Section, as has continuous advocacy
of U.S. policies in the Middle East about which, French
Muslims in particular, harbor such suspicions. Some
SEED-style funding for post's outreach programs would allow
for grants aimed at amplifying voices of moderation and for
creating an action network of like-minded Europeans. Indeed,
a relatively small investment in France of between $100,000 -
$200,000 directed to minority youth NGOs could have a highly
positive impact on youth opinion in the immigrant community.
24. (U) Senior Advisor Pandith cleared this message.
Please visit Paris' Classified Website at: fm
View as: DESKTOP | MOBILE © Scoop Media