Project: Banlieues Ablaze

The Grand Mosque of Paris

by Joe Mulia and John Conrace

Mosques play important social rolls in Islam.
They are community centers and it is required
by the Five Pillars of Islam that every Muslim
give charity to the mosque, which the mosque
in turn uses to aide the community. Mosques
are also charged with teaching Muslim youths
about Islam. France has a very large Muslim
population yet very few mosques. According to
the Institute of the Arab World’s registry of
Mosques, there are only 121 mosque buildings
nationwide. This number is low when coupled
with the French government’s estimate of over
four million Muslims living in France. This
all means that there is one mosque for every
33,057 Muslims. Some people place the number
of mosques as high as 1,500, yet that still
points out a serious deficiency. Many
organizations which are classified as mosques
are no more than small prayer groups or newly
commissioned buildings still waiting to be
built and fully funded. Even more mosques are
parking lots and empty buildings simply being
used for prayer. Without such guidance it’s
no wonder that many Muslim youths are lost
and disenfranchised.

Hidden amongst the broad and historic streets of the fifth district is the Grand Mosque of Paris; a celebrated testament to French Muslims. As we traveled the streets of Paris we found many things to be testament to French Muslims but very few were as interesting or as glorious as the great mosque. It stands in the heart of Paris, little more than a mile from Notre Dame.

Notre Dame towers above you and leaves one aghast at the ancient glory of catholic France; it helps define the Parisian skyline. We were very impressed with Notre Dame as we passed it, making our way from our hotel to the mosque. It was our first day in Paris and we thought we would hit the ground running. Without Metro tickets or any more than a few euro crammed in our pockets we set out; all we had was our cameras and map of Paris with a big red circle encompassing “Mosquee De Paris.”

We had asked the hotel owner who checked us in and out where to find it and she sighed. She seemed confused and asked us if we wanted to see St. Chappelle, or MontMartre, or Notre Dame, she asked, “why would you see the mosque? It’s not very beautiful.”

When we found the mosque, I think we half agreed with her. The whitewashed stone walls were dwarfed by the surrounding townhouses. The mosque was not terribly grand by French standards, but we were impressed. At one point, I believe it would have been beautiful on the inside, but when we were there the gardens were overgrown and filled with derelict construction equipment.

We wandered around inside, passing very few welcoming faces. We felt like every eye was on us, we were two Americans with cameras in the mecca of French Islam. Many places in the mosque were very beautiful, I was aesthetically impressed by the detailed artwork. But I was even more impressed by the fact that there was a mosque in the heart of Paris.

The French did not seem to be the biggest fans of the mosque. A student we spoke to said, “I walk by it every day and I hate it. They hate us and we have given them a mosque.” The mosque was originally constructed because the French and the Muslims did not hate each other. Tthe mosque was a tribute to the Harkis, elite French soldiers conscripted from the Muslim population of Algeria. It’s interesting that in only a few generations the French have gone from building a mosque out of gratitude to filling one full of tea rgas out of bitterness.

The riots defiantly did not help the French/Muslim relations. When we were in the mosque we were given a tour of the building. The tour guide was a woman with a doctorate (An educated woman is the hallmark of civilization.) As she showed us around we made full use of our tape recorder and cameras. She must have thought we were journalists because when she was done with the tour, she was more than happy to speak with us.

 Muslim praying

Many French complain about Islam's record
on women's rights. Yet our tour guide was
a very well educated Arab woman. Perhaps
the Arabs are not always so backward...

We tiptoed around the riots and just asked her personal questions; where she was from and what she thought of life in France. She told us about her sister in the United States and she had never felt unwelcome in France. We had just arrived in France and we didn’t know exactly what we could expect to be able to ask people, so we tried to be diplomatic. But it was obvious that she knew why we were there. She had us turn off the tape recorder and we cut the small talk.

She told us in her eyes rioters were not Muslims but criminals. By their show of violence, they went from being poor and alienated to apathetic and ungrateful. By the time we were done speaking with her, she looked at our cameras and asked us if we would like to take pictures of her as she prayed. The room was empty and silent as she went through the prayer, the only sound was the mechanical clicking of our cameras. We left hoping that all of our interviews would go half as well.