Pray—but not outside

A new ban against street prayer in France sends Muslims looking for space to worship
PARIS, FRANCE - SEPTEMBER 16: Muslims take part in Friday prayers outside an old fire station barracks converted for the purpose on September 16, 2011 in Paris, France. A ban on street prayers has been brought into effect across France as of today, with Muslim men and women having to seek alternative spaces in which to practise their religious activities. The move has generated anger within elements of the French muslim population, already restricted in their display of religious symbols, and is viewed by many as a political move by President Sarkozy to attract support from far-right supporters within the French public ahead of the 2012 French presidential elections. (Photo by Franck Prevel/Getty Images)
Pray—but not outside
Franck Prevel/Getty Images

Just as Muslims throughout France prepared for their Friday prayers, the government passed a ban on Sept. 16 outlawing the increasingly common practice of praying in the street. Despite the ban being seen by some as an example of Nicolas Sarkozy’s government kowtowing to right-wing voters seven months before an election, and a small group of worshippers protesting the new measure in Paris, many among France’s five-million-strong Muslim population welcome the prospect of getting off the streets, provided they have somewhere else to pray.

France has enforced the separation of church and state since 1905, but a growing tide of anti-Muslim sentiment among the country’s more right-leaning groups has put pressure on Sarkozy to crack down on religious displays in public spaces. Particularly in cities, such as Paris and Marseilles, mosques are located in small buildings and storefronts with little space, leaving many worshippers no other option but to face Mecca in the street. Marine le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, has equated Muslims praying in Paris’s streets to the Nazi invasion of France in the Second World War, albeit “without the tanks or soldiers,” but instead with fundamentalist displays in a proudly secular society. “Praying in the street is not dignified for religious practice and violates the principles of secularism,” Interior Minister Claude Guéant told Le Figaro. “All Muslim leaders are in agreement.”

Mohammed Salah Hamza is one of those leaders. As the imam who leads some 2,000 Muslims at a makeshift mosque in a vacant fire station in northern Paris, which opened on the day the ban became law, he says that moving worshippers into an actual place of worship is “the beginning of a solution.” But Hamza called on the government to be more accommodating to France’s Muslim population—the biggest in Western Europe—and opposed being herded into makeshift spaces. “We are not cattle,” Hamza told France’s TF1 News. The 2,000-sq.-metre fire station was only handed over to worshippers under a three-year lease two days before the deadline, after an uneasy accord was reached with municipal authorities. In Marseilles, a disused hangar was set aside as a temporary mosque in a similar deal, but is in a state of such disrepair that it was unusable for the Sept. 16 deadline. Guéant estimates that half of the country’s 2,000 mosques have been built in the last decade.

The issue of integrating the Muslim population into a secular society has exposed a disturbing tendency of the French government to marginalize, and even sometimes criminalize, Muslim customs and rituals. Even Muslims who welcome the new prayer spaces fear the ban will leave many worshippers literally out in the cold, as the makeshift accommodations can’t fit everyone. While many said they would respect the new law, about 200 worshippers in Paris’s La Goutte d’Or neighbourhood defied the ban, even as Guéant said force could be used by police, and a group of young men calling themselves Forsane Alizza showed up to the fire station mosque in an attempt to disrupt prayer services. Many in France note the timing of the ban indicates the government is prepared to single out Muslims as the presidential election approaches. But most Parisian Muslims are happy to get out of the crowded streets. “We found a nice and clean place to pray,” one worshipper at the new fire station mosque told France 24. “That’s what we needed.” Whether other members of France’s Muslim population will find such a place before getting arrested remains to be seen.