CAIRO – Filling a spiritual gap in their secular homeland, a growing number of French are reverting to Islam, defying government and public hostile attitudes toward the Muslim faith.
“The conversion phenomenon is significant and impressive, particularly since 2000,” Bernard Godard, who is in charge of religious issues at the Interior Ministry, told The New York Times on Monday, February 4.Estimates show that about 150 Muslim conversion ceremonies are held annually in the snow-white structure of the Sahaba mosque in Créteil.
Though it is relatively small in France, this number of converts presents a growing challenge to French government after doubling in the past 25 years.
According to Godard, of an estimated six million Muslims in France, about 100,000 are thought to be converts, compared with about 50,000 in 1986.
Muslim associations say the number is as high as 200,000.
Highlighting the increasing number of converts, many experts referred to a major change in the nature of conversions.
In Marseille, on the southern coast, “conversions have increased at an incredible pace in the last three years,” said Abderrahmane Ghoul, the imam of the Marseille mosque and the president of the local branch of the French Council of the Muslim Faith.
Ghoul signed about 130 conversion certificates in 2012.
Other Muslim imams think conversions have also been propelled by France’s official secularism, which breeds spiritual emptiness.
“Secularism has become antireligious,” Hassen Chalghoumi, the moderate imam of Drancy, another suburb near Paris, said.
“Therefore, it has created an opposite phenomenon. It has allowed people to discover Islam.”
Many experts, however, note the influence of celebrity converts who found Islam, particularly football players like Nicolas Anelka, who converted in 2004, and Franck Ribéry in 2006.
Providing more structure and discipline than other religions, Islam was finding a larger base among poor neighborhoods surrounding Paris.
“In poor districts, it has become a reverse integration,” said Gilles Kepel, an expert on Islam and the banlieues, the poor, predominantly Muslim neighborhoods that ring Paris and other major cities.
Kepel said a growing number of young people are now seen to be converting to be better socially integrated in neighborhoods where Islam is dominant.
Charlie-Loup, 21, a student from nearby St.-Maur-des-Fossés, reverted to Islam at 19, after a troubled adolescence and strained relations with his mother.
“Conversions have become a social phenomenon here,” Charlie-Loup, who grew up Roman Catholic but had many Muslim friends at school, said.
Some convert simply “out of curiosity,” he added.
In some predominantly Muslim areas, even non-Muslims observe Ramadan fasting, because they like “the group effect, the festive side of it,” said Samir Amghar, a sociologist and an expert on radical Islam in Europe.
In these poor neighborhoods, researchers and converts said Islam was becoming a sort of refuge and an alternative to the ambient misery.
It is a way to “refuse modernism,” get back to a society with more family values and a clearer distinction between men and women, Amghar said.
“Islam has a peaceful effect on the converts.
“The world looks clearer after they’ve converted,” he added.
The growing influence of Islam in France was stocking fears and anxiety among politicians, who found an easy win and support by criticizing the expansion of Muslim customs into the wider public sphere, including halal food or women-only sessions in public swimming pools.
These tactics were worrying to new Muslims in France, who wanted a peaceful integration between French and Islamic culture.
“We must get rid of an imaginary Islamic culture,” Rafaello Sillitti, the owner of the bookstore Averroès, which occupies a small space in the Créteil mosque, said referring to the clichés and misapprehensions connected to Islam in France.“We must show that French culture and Islam can live together in peace.”
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