Tunisian-French imam says tolerant Islam should be defended by ‘acts on the ground’
Paris - Hassen Chalghoumi is no ordinary imam. The Tunisian-born religious preacher has stirred controversies over his close relations with France’s Jewish community and visits to Israel, and is outspoken about the need for Muslims to face the threats posed by religious extremists.
“It is high time the Arab world awakes up and starts to fight terrorism,” he says.
The 43-year-old imam of the Drancy mosque in Seine-Saint-Denis, near Paris, advocates an assertive posture in promoting a tolerant Islam.
“We can correct this unbecoming image of Islam through acts on the ground, through strong messages and strong relationships that assert the desire for coexistence and prioritise the humanity of mankind,” Chalghoumi said in an interview.
He sees the power exerted by the narrative of extremists as emanating from the passivity of most Muslims.
“The reason is that the Muslims in their majority, though innocent of what is being done in their name, keep silent about it. They must come out and condemn those who, in their names, are killing humanity; we have had enough of the conspiracy theories, enough of blaming others for our misfortunes,” he said.
Chalghoumi says time has come for action on many fronts. “Take the example of the African migrants who die in the sea.
Why don’t we do like the Europeans and send ships to help the migrants?” he asks. “I wish that one or two Arab ships sail to the Mediterranean carrying a message of peace, which is something easy to do.”
He says Europeans have assumed their responsibility in rescuing migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. “Europe has contributed its share when it contributed billions of euros, and it is time the Arabs and Muslims shoulder their responsibilities,” Chalghoumi said.
The Tunisian-French imam also calls for tangible initiatives in support of religious minorities persecuted by jihadists in the Middle East.
“Why don’t we rebuild the churches that ISIS (the Islamic State) had destroyed?” he asks noting in contrast the freedom of worship enjoyed by Muslims in the West. “In France, we have more than 2,300 mosques.”
Chalghoumi says the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo magazine offices and the kosher grocery store in Paris in January heightened tensions between religious communities in France. But, he says, “The will for dialogue was not affected and the French social fabric remains as strong as ever in spite of the rise of the extreme right.
“We should not be intimidated and should continue to talk to each other and not give up.”
The imam said he is very much aware of the problem of jihadist radicalisation of Muslim youth in Europe. He sees education as crucial to protecting young Muslims.
“Six-thousand Muslim citizens of Europe had gone to Syria and Iraq. The most important thing we can do to these people is to try to change their way of thinking through communicating with them with a view to educating them,” he says.
He also wants Muslim families in Europe to do their part. “We must start a dialogue in every house involving every member of the family,” he says. Chalghoumi says he is doing his part to curtail extremism.
“Very soon,” he said, “we are going to start a campaign that we shall call ‘the campaign of mercy against terrorism’ involving religious leaders from Tunisia and Egypt during which we shall visit as many mosques as possible.”
Chalghoumi, who in 2009 founded the France-based organisation the Conference of Imams, says he looks forward “to establishing a centre for training imams and another for teaching civilisations where the true Islam is preached and the distorted ideas about Islam are repudiated so that non-Muslims come to know that those who kill have nothing to do with Islam.”
Chalghoumi defends attending the Jewish pilgrimage to the Tunisian island of Djerba, last April. “The Jewish synagogue has been there for more than 14 centuries, a testimony that Islam is a tolerant religion and that respect for the minorities is in its core contrary to what some of the misguided groups like ISIS and others are doing.”
He is, however, critical of Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who warned against Jews taking part in the pilgrimage because of terror threats. “Some people, like Netanyahu, promote a policy of spreading fear,” he said.
Chalghoumi sees the fates of religious minorities in the Arab world and the West as intertwined.
“I told the pope in 2013 that if you leave the Christians of the Orient unprotected you will be doing the same to the Muslims of Europe,” he said.