Moroccan-born Osama Khallouf is a 20-year-old student with plans to become a full-time imam. As French mosques struggle to tamp out radicals, the likes of Khallouf are being nurtured and given on-the-job training.
BONNEVILLE — Osama Khallouf spends his week studying the Koran at a humanities institute here in eastern France, and come Friday preaches at the local mosque in Bonneville. A key to his message: true knowledge can't be found on the Internet.
Khallouf likes to use BlaBlaCar, a popular French car-sharing app, noting that "students are not very rich." Every Thursday at noon, Khallouf shares his car from his school to his parents' home in Macon 100 miles away, and back to Bonneville on Friday.
Outside the mosque, Khallouf looks like anyone else his age, wearing jeans, sneakers and a jacket. He also has a smile that makes girls swoon. But he typically doesn't shake hands with women, "not because they are inferior or unclean beings as some say, but out of respect, because the hand is a part of the body."
The mosque's prayer hall is narrow, and the faithful are gathering. Khallouf puts on his white Muslim cloth and covers his head with a white cap. From the minbar— the Muslim pulpit — he delivers a sermon about fraternity in both Arabic and French. Only 20 years old and already an accomplished preacher?
The elders who listen to him don't look disturbed. They respect the scholarly young man. At just 12 years old, he knew the Koran by heart. In 2014, he was a finalist in Paris for the 12th National Memorization Competition of the sacred texts. Nowadays, Khallouf's main studies happen at the European Institute of Human Sciences (EIHS) in Chateau-Chinon, in central France, which the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF) opened in 1992.
Every year, the school trains about 10 imams. The French government has encouraged more of this kind of professionalization since last year's Paris terrorist attacks. The teaching offered reminds students that they live in a secular society with various political, religious and philosophical currents. "This type of school is an alternative to overseas recruitment of imams who speak only Arabic and ignore the French culture," French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said recently.
"I was born in Morocco," Khallouf says. "But I joined my father in Macon when I was 13. He is also an imam. I wanted to get into this school to deepen my knowledge of Islam and transmit it to others."
Grooming the next generation
At the end of three years, successful students earn a bachelor's degree, and those with top results can begin a PhD. Each class is composed of 200 students, 60% of them men (most bearded),not all of whom will become imams, and 40% of women (most veiled), who are expected to be teachers, academics and researchers.
The young women sit behind the young men in classes. Why? "Before the advent of Islam, girls were not considered as human beings and many were killed at birth," Khallouf argues. "Muslims protected them and gave them a life, as does the veil."
Annual tuition fees amount to about 3,500 euros, expensive enough that Khallouf is struggling. The mosque in his hometown of Macon organizes collections for him, along with the Cultural Association of North Africans in Bonneville. "We pay for his trips and provide him food and accommodation," says Djamal Benchabana, a respected physician in Bonneville's local Muslim community.
Benchabana explains that it's important to have more young French-speaking imams. "Our imam is old and preaches only in Arabic," he says. "And we have young people here that cause us much concern. We thought that (Khallouf) might have a good influence on them."
There are about 20 radical youth who have created their own association with their own preacher, the elders say. "They started coming to the mosque, but they were misbehaving and we feared that they would influence the other children so we excluded them," Benchabana says.
The young imam says they have already come to him to "test" him. "The social misery and injustice are the main reasons for radicalization," Khallouf insists. In the 1970s, the flourishing companies in this industrial French heartland hired thousands of North Africans. But their grandchildren are living now in a different era, where job opportunities are scarce.
"I have met radical people," Khallouf says, many of whom "are not competent enough" to understand the words of the Prophet. "It seems impossible to convince them, but Islam is a religion of patience, so I rely on my patience."
The Muslims from Bonneville have required their own dose of patience, before local authorities agreed to sell public land so they could build a "real" mosque, which is now expected to open in 2018. It will be in a modern architecture style dome with 4,200 square meters and a capacity of 700 people, complete with a school to teach Arabic and the Koran.
Khallouf believes that having a bonafide home will bring pride and dignity, hopefully marginalizing the fundamentalist rhetoric. As for his own path, he's already considering adding a PhD to his resume.