Paris Ramadan radio raps Muslim ignorance of Islam

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PARIS, Oct 10 (Reuters) It's late of a Ramadan evening in Paris, the iftar dinners are finished and Muslims from around France are calling Ahmed el Keiy to ask questions about Islam.

''Can I wear perfume during Ramadan?'' a young girl asks. ''How about hair gel?'' a boy wants to know.

El Keiy, a lawyer-turned-journalist, devotes his nightly radio phone-in show to Islam during the holy month and wants to discuss big ideas.

But his listeners keep asking about details.

''Why do we get so many questions about how to practise Islam?'' he asks listeners and three imams invited to the cramped studio of Beur FM, a popular station for ''beurs'' -- the French-born sons and daughters of North African immigrants.

''Nobody teaches us religion,'' says one caller named Nacera.

''Our parents were illiterate,'' caller Najet adds, ''so you see people who don't know how to say their prayers properly, or exactly what to do during Ramadan.'' France has Europe's largest Muslim minority. Thanks to a long tradition of relations with the Arab world, it is home to many Muslim intellectuals -- both foreign and French -- and experts on the Islamic world.

But in the poor areas where many of the country's 5 million Muslims live, ignorance prevails.

Illiterate elders follow a sketchy folk Islam, many imams preach at Friday prayers without any training and many young people construct a do-it-yourself religion.

Most of the 1,200 imams in France have no formal training and one-third do not speak French.

SMALL-MINDED ''The Muslims of France don't know their religion,'' said Abdelhak Eddouk, an imam and prison chaplain invited to join el Keiy and field listeners' questions at Beur FM one evening.

''I'm the son of immigrants, so I can say it: my parents didn't teach me religion, school didn't teach me religion and we didn't learn about religion out on the street.

''So everyone tries to understand religion however he can.'' Ghaleb Bencheikh, another guest who presents a weekly Islam programme on French television, complained that ''most questions we get are really small-minded''.

''We lack men and women who know how to teach the young,'' he said. ''Educated teachers could reassure them that the essence of spirituality is what is in the heart. The rest is important, certainly, but secondary to what you have inside.'' France has long been concerned about the lack of trained imams and religion teachers because it allows uneducated prayer leaders to present backward or radical views as mainstream Islam without being challenged by an informed congregation.

But the legal separation of church and state means Paris has no way to directly help the Muslim community which -- unlike France's Christians and Jews -- does not have the schools or funds to turn out educated clerics and lay religion teachers.

The Paris Grand Mosque and the city's Catholic university have just launched a hybrid degree programme for about 30 student imams who will study Muslim theology at the mosque and French law and politics at the private Catholic Institute.

It was third time lucky for the Grand Mosque, which had failed to convince the Sorbonne and another Paris state university to join hands with it. Both refused because it would have meant mixing secular and religious education.

''TALIBANISATION'' Tarik Bengarai, imam of a Sufi association, told Beur FM listeners that excessive concern about how to perform Islamic rituals was being whipped up by ultra-orthodox preachers known as salafis who spread a message of ''tout haram'' (everything is forbidden).

''There is a massive presence of salafis here,'' el Keiy's third guest explained. ''This growing movement is trying to make the Scriptures say what they don't actually say.'' During her call, Nacera said her teenage brother had fallen under the influence of a salafi preacher and begun telling their uneducated father he was saying his prayers the wrong way.

''This is painful to see,'' she said, clearly shocked by her brother's challenge to the traditional authority of an Arab father.

''These boys leave school and hang around with these preachers who teach them two or three things. I think it's sectarian.'' Sylvain, a young French convert to Islam, said some confused Muslim youths grasped at scattered bits of learning to find some security. ''They go off to study in Syria or Yemen and come back as confused as before, but armed with more arguments,'' he said.

Bencheikh said the salafi focus on trying to recreate Muslim life as it was at the time of the Prophet Mohammad had led to ''a real Talibanisation of the mind'' among their young followers.

Eddok compared it to radical political movements. ''Radical lefties used to wear a little goatee like Lenin,'' he said. ''Just wearing a jellaba doesn't make you an imam.'' El Keiy said his programme, which reaches an audience of about half a million daily, had opened his eyes to widespread ignorance about Islam among many French Muslims.

''Moderating this programme is better than going out reporting in the field,'' he said.

''I've discovered a huge gap between what is offered by media and schools about religion and what people are looking for.

''If they don't find what they're seeking, they listen to people who don't have culture or education or expertise. That's dangerous.'' Reuters SZ GC1158

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