The Conseil Français du Culte Musulman (French Muslim Council) have asked mosques across France to open their doors to non-Muslims the weekend of 9 - 10 January. The idea is to acknowledge the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings by offering the opportunity for visitors to learn more about Islam and help to bridge the gap between cultures.
The Great Mosque of Paris.
In fact the Grande Mosquée de Paris has always allowed non-Muslim visitors. The mosque is a complex covering a hectare in the 5th arrondissement that is religious, cultural and commercial. It includes a café, restaurant, courtyard gardens, beauty parlour and hamman as well as prayer rooms, library, school and other religious facilities. The building was finished in 1926 in the Moorish style you see in North Africa and Spain. According to the mosque's website groups may visit for guided tours, the mosque offers courses for children and adults in subjects such as the Arab language, art and culture as well as the study of the Koran. The guides are instructed to answer any questions that may arise during a tour and the library and the commercial enterprises are open to anyone who wishes to use their resources.
The interior of the café.
We have never been inside the mosque proper, but we enjoyed mint tea and North African cakes in the café garden a decade or so ago. Had we been inclined we could have tried a hookah too. The decor is splendid and the atmosphere calm.
The top of the minaret, decorated in green and white tiles.
As I understand it the Grande Mosquée de Paris is run by the Institute Musulman. This organisation was created in 1917 with the aim of building the mosque as well as providing an intellectual centre for Islam in France after the First World War. There was considerable gratitude felt by the French post-war government for the support of the French Muslim community and acknowledgement that more than 100 000 French Muslims had died in the conflict. It was felt that a mosque would be a fitting memorial and tribute to the actions of Muslim soldiers. By law the Institute is apolitical, and they concentrate on cultural and humanitarian work.
During the Second World War the Rector of the mosque was Si Kaddour Benghabrit one of the founders of the Institute Musulman, and the man appointed to run the mosque from the beginning. Under his leadership and that of the senior Imam Si Mohammed Benzouaou, the mosque served to protect hundreds of French Jews, hiding and feeding them and providing them with fake Algerian birth certificates declaring them to be Muslim to give them an Arab identity and protect them from arrest. They also protected the lives of Allied paratroopers and arranged for their medical care in the nearby Muslim hospital.
I don't think the Muslim Council's call for an open weekend is going to bring much of a response however. Whilst I don't doubt that the idea is coming from a genuine wish to be open and share their culture in a non-threatening way, I think they have gravely misjudged the timing. Many non-Muslims are going to feel distinctly uncomfortable about visiting a mosque as a way of honoring the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo killings. Not because they will feel unsafe but because they will think it is inappropriate, not least because most of those killed were atheists, quite apart from the fact that the killers were Islamists who believe that everyone should be their particular brand of Islam. The Muslim Council is trying to distance their religion from the killings, but by choosing this particular weekend is tacitly acknowledging that there is a connection. They would have been much better to have chosen any other random weekend and just promoted an ordinary open day. They would also do well to update their website a bit more often and fix the 'mosque finder' function if they want people to take it seriously.