WASHINGTON, Feb. 25 (UPI) -- The officially non-existing tie between religion and the secular state in France has been dealt an arcane twist as a result of Islam's rapid growth in that country.
The government was the midwife at the birth of the equivalent of a nationwide Muslim church -- a birth preceded by 20 years of labor.
Although church and state are more rigidly separated in France than even in the United States, a succession of French governments has arm-twisted seven Islamic federations into launching an umbrella organization called French Council of Muslim Faith.
Its members will be chosen in congregational elections April 6 and 13. There are approximately 1,500 mosques in France, where the number of Muslims is estimated at 4 million to 5 million.
In December, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy expressed the hope that the umbrella organization would lead to the emergence of "a French Islam with French-speaking imams" supporting "values commensurate with the values of the Republic."
This is indeed the new council's most important task, according to Bruno Guideroni, a prominent Muslim scholar and research director at the Paris Institute of Astrophysics. At present, each of France's seven Muslim organizations is linked to a different foreign country -- and financed by it.
One is loyal to Algeria, another pays allegiance to Morocco, and a third one receives funds from the Gulf States. One is tied to Turkey and one to African nations. Yet another one is close to Pakistan's hard-line "madrasas," or Koranic schools.
This is not healthy, Guiderdoni told United Press International Tuesday. Tariq Ramadan, a Geneva-based scholar who has spent the last years trying to persuade Muslims in French-speaking countries to become loyal and active citizens in their respective nations, is pleading for their independence from foreign influences.
In his new book, "Les Muselmans d'Occident et l'Avenir de l'Islam" (Western Muslims and the Future of Islam), Ramadan explained: "Western citizens of Muslim faith must think for themselves and develop theses that are adapted to their surroundings.
He reminded his readers that "Islam feeds on three sources: the Koran, the Sunna (habitual practice of the community) and the state of the world and our society (al-waqi)."
The new council, which is to be organized on the local, the regional and the national levels -- much like the Protestant Federation of France -- could serve as a model for other Western nations with large and growing Muslim minorities, Guiderdoni believes.
Its most urgent task is twofold, according to this prominent convert to Islam:
First, the construction of mosques: "France's mayors desire the well-ordered establishment of mosques in their towns," Guiderdoni said, "This is one way of preventing congregations from falling into the hands of radicals." But so far there existed no umbrella organization with which the town fathers could cooperate.
Second, the training of clergy and other congregational leaders. According to a 1996 survey by Michele Tribalat, all 1,000 imams in France were educated abroad and only nine were French citizens. Said Guiderdoni, "It is essential that we build an educational facility for our clergy as quickly as possible."
Hence the growing impatience of French governments, be they left wing or right wing. They all were concerned that other countries might -- through clerics trained in their universities and seminaries -- impose their ideologies on France's Muslims.
This impatience was shared by the arguably most influential Muslim leader in France, Dadil Boubakeur, rector of the Paris mosque, the largest Islamic sanctuary in the country.
"It was time to make haste," the told the Journal de Dimanche newspaper, "it's taken too long already."
Given the otherwise sharp separation between the secular and the spiritual realms in France, it seems ironic that the government is literally urging the Muslims to hurry up in establishing their equivalent to the Catholic, Protestant or Jewish "institutes," which are religious universities in all but name.
Though the state does not recognize their diplomas, master's degrees or doctorates, it supports these "institutes" financially, justifying this with their cultural accomplishments. Comparatively, you don't have to be Protestant or even a believer to attend the Protestant Institute of Paris and Montpellier. You can do so out of pure intellectual curiosity; thus the state does not favor any particular religion with its generosity.
This principle, Guiderdoni explained, would also apply to a future Islamic Institute.
In a sense, Muslim intellectuals in France hope to reconnect with the tradition of the Islamic universities that flourished a millennium ago. "Not that we can copy these great schools of the past," Guiderdoni said, "but like them, the new institute must teach other subjects as well, not just theology and Islamic law but also science, geography and cultural studies."
Guiderdoni hopes this new Muslim Institute will be located in Paris. If not, there would be another option, in Strasbourg, whose state-run university is the only one in France with Protestant and Catholic divinity schools -- just as Alsace-Lorraine is the only region whose pastors and priests receive their salaries from the state.
That's because in 1905, when the French government decided on a total separation between church and state, Alsace-Lorraine was part of Germany. For this reason, this region of an utterly secular state still has state churches.
Quipped Guiderdoni: "Wouldn't it be amusing if one day we Muslims became beneficiaries of this strange quirk of history?"