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Terror in Europe

After Charlie Hebdo, A Day In The Life Of A Paris Imam

One month after the nation-changing attacks on the French satirical magazine, a look at the daily life of a Muslim religious leader of good faith.

Imam of Montigny-les-Cormeilles Tahar Mahdi,
Imam of Montigny-les-Cormeilles Tahar Mahdi,
Nathalie Bensahel

MONTIGNY-LES-CORMEILLES — Tahar Mahdi, imam of Montigny-lès-Cormeilles, a town of 20,000 in the northwestern suburbs of Paris, opened the doors of his mosque to us just days after the Paris terror attacks.

"You can come tomorrow," he wrote in a text message. "There won't be any problem. We'll be among brothers, friends, citizens. And you'll finally get to see how things go and how we work."

Like other imams in and around Paris, Mahdi is convinced that "it's become urgent to show what's going on inside Muslim places of worship if we are to fight against Islamophobic fantasy."

There are 3,500 mosques in France, and troublemakers are just a "minuscule minority," he adds.

As is customary for Muslims, Friday is prayer day at the An Nour mosque, and Mahdi arrives hurried but smiling, clad in a brown suit and light shirt with a "very long list of things to do and people to see." In the days since the Jan. 7 attacks on Charlie Hebdo, the life of Montigny's imam has changed. He is "under pressure," he says, and called upon day and night by worshipers demanding protection, scared for their children's safety.

"Considering the many anti-Muslim incidents in past weeks, we've been asking for increased police security at the mosque, but we haven't seen much change yet," says Mohamed Oukaid, president of the local association that manages the site. "And yet, we're constantly in touch with the intelligence services. We help them, among other things when we need to identify young people in distress.

"You'd believe the state doesn't do its job," he adds. "They've sent 900 police officers to protect synagogues. They could do the same for mosques."

As a result, access to the mosque's five daily prayers has been restricted for the past two weeks. The site opens just 15 minutes before each prayer and closes five minutes after. As for the children's Koran classes — on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays — a group of parents have volunteered to handle security.

Beyond prayer

Mahdi multitasks. He answers the many text messages and emails he has been receiving since the attacks, meets with people who've requested time with him, and talks security and management with the town's first deputy mayor, Odile Cantin, and even acts as a tour guide. The 1,700-square-meter mosque opened in November 2014 with two great prayer halls — one for men, the other for women — an ablution area and classrooms where 350 children aged six to 15 gather to learn about the Koran.

Before then, the site was just a cabin and a prefabricated building where those who wanted to pray, never more than 100 people, gathered in crowded conditions. The area is much nicer now, surrounded by houses and small public housing buildings. An Nour can welcome more than 500 people, with the number of worshipers growing every year.

Inside the prayer room of the An Nour mosque — Photo: mosqueeannour via Instagram

"The Islam we preach here is moderate, fair and balanced, an Islam based on the writings," Mahdi says as he puts on his preaching robes for the great prayer at 1:30 p.m. "This mosque is a place of gathering, where we can explain what it is to be a citizen, the difference between the non-religious and the spiritual. Going to the mosque doesn't make you a radical. It's the exact opposite. It means learning, knowing, rising."

This erudite 51-year-old was born in Algeria and came to France when he was 28, after 10 years of Islamic studies in Damascus, Syria. A married father of four, his life is divided between his work as imam and his many lectures on the Koran outside of Paris. He was in Nice recently, in the center of France, and in Orléans the week after that. "I even taught at the Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium," he says.

In Cergy-Pontoise, a nearby town where he worked until last year, worshipers were "under the backwards influence of Saudi Arabia," he says. There, people reproached his "different opinions," especially the fact that he talked too much about women in his sermons.

"Women are a shame for them," he says, so he decided to leave. He feels more at ease in Montigny.

Charlie in sermons

It's 12:45 p.m. The worshipers take their places in the prayer halls for the weekly Koran class before the sermon begins. The imam uses the occasion once again to revisit the recent "suffocating" events through verses of his choice, which he reads alternately in French and Arabic. In the women's hall, we hear his voice from the loudspeaker. There are about 50 women in the room, some young, others not so young, some with their children. All are wearing a jilbab (a long, loose veil) and are listening, meditative and calm.

"One must not answer provocation," the voice says. "Even if some draw the Prophet a thousand times, we must ignore it. Charlie Hebdo attacked us with a pencil. We must respond with a pencil, not with bullets. To kill those who disagree with you has a name. It's called the mafia. And look at us today, how disoriented we are. Some of us feel as if we'd been put on trial, as if we had launched a fatwa against ourselves. It's absurd."

Zohra, a grandmother to three young children, listens. Her eyes filled with tears, she explains how her longtime neighbor didn't say hello to her the day after the Charlie Hebdo attack. Instead, he looked the other way.

"We're all in the same boat in France, are we not?" she says. "I'm French. I've been living here for 40 years. My daughter teaches French in a secondary school, and her class recognized a moment of silence. So why did he look away?"

For the past two weeks, Mahdi has been condemning the attacks in his many addresses, repeating that mosques are not "the dens of terrorists but places of peace" and that this must be explained "because the French don't understand anything about all that."

Diverging opinions

As for what worshipers think of his sermons, "I know all don't agree with me," he says. "Some feel excluded by those who marched on Jan. 11 and personally insulted by the caricatures. They're not necessarily Charlie, but they will never say that in front of me."

On a recent Friday the association that manages the mosque asked him to shorten his sermon. The worshippers had let it be known that they wanted to focus more on religion and less on Charlie Hebdo. The customary question-and-answer session after the prayer therefore revolved around everyday life, about what's halal (authorized) and haram (prohibited). There was a question about whether it's acceptable to use perfume that contains alcohol given that the Koran forbids alcohol. There was another on whether a Muslim is allowed to finance his pilgrimage to Mecca with credit, since the texts forbid debt.

On this day, there's another prayer after 3 p.m., the third of the day. The halls are almost empty now. But Mahdi's day is by no means over. He puts on his robe again. After that, he will still have to prepare an upcoming class for students of the Institute of Islamic Studies in Orléans.

"Salafis," he says. "These people listen to me because I've studied, but they also say that I sold out to the French state, that I'm not literal and rigorous enough in my practice. They say that Muslims cannot like the non-believers. I tell them that they can, provided they can read the texts properly."

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