Reunion island serves as model for Islam in France

Country's oldest mosque, 9,300km from Paris, could be template for Macron's Muslim ideal, with prayers said in Arabic and French

An aerial view of Noor-e-Islam mosque on the island of Reunion. Franck Alfirevic
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More than 9,000 kilometres from Paris, the stained-glass windows of the Noor-e-Islam mosque bear the colours of the French flag, a symbol of hope in the troubled history of France’s attempts to assimilate its large Muslim population.

The design reflects the gratitude of the mosque's founding fathers for official approval of the house of worship at the end of the 19th century. It also highlights an attachment to the French republic.

In the name of battling separatism and rejection of the state, the French President, Emmanuel Macron, is pursuing policies to uphold secularist values against what he calls “political Islam”.

M13Y7G France, Reunion island, Saint Denis, Noor e Islam Mosque
The stained glass windows of the Noor-e-Islam mosque bear the colours of the French flag. Alamy

In seeking a working model, he would do well to study the community in Saint-Denis, capital of the volcanic Indian Ocean island of Reunion.

In this far-off French outpost, prayers at the oldest mosque in France are said in French as well as Arabic.

There is no overseas influence or funding. Annual running costs of more than €1.3 million (Dh5.7m) are met from donations and income from shops adjoining the mosque and other properties it owns.

The imam takes responsibility only for worship with administrative functions undertaken by a management committee elected every three years.

"It's a very good example of the capacity of a mosque, school and religious institute to be in perfect understanding with the French republic and its values," Chantal Manes-Bonnisseau, Reunion's chief education officer, told The National.

“It is one of very few such examples in France and the achievements are due to a number of reasons.

"Imams are recruited on the island and trained by the Islamic community itself. Leaders of this community are attached to the idea of being completely independent of foreign funding.”

K6X274 Reunion, Saint Denis, Noor-e-Islam Mosque, Inaugurated in 1905, 21 years before the construction of the Paris mosque, the Noor-e-Islam Mosque is a Sunni confession and one of the five great mosques of France, designated by the French Council of Muslim worship, Friday's prayer: prayer room reserved for men
Friday prayer at Noor-e-Islam mosque. Alamy

Ms Manes-Bonnisseau acknowledges that the affluence of many from Reunion’s Islamic community, including long-established entrepreneurs, is in contrast to the lives of most Muslims in mainland France.

But she feels their guiding principles, “completely in touch with the spirit of the republic", are not reliant on wealth.

The association that manages the mosque also runs an independent school that is recognised by the state and attracts some public funding.

There are nearly 300 primary and middle school pupils and expansion is planned.

“You couldn’t guess it’s a private Islamic school,” Ms Manes-Bonnisseau said.

“The girls are not veiled and when I visited in December, there was Christmas tree.”

The ethos of the mosque finds an echo at a theological institute at Le Tampon, an hour’s drive away, where 60 trainee imams learn about French history and civics, as well as studying the Quran.

All 32 imams leading prayers on the island are natives of Reunion, whereas a common complaint in mainland France is that too many are born outside the country.

After a French history teacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded by a Chechen refugee outside his school near Paris last October, Reunion’s branch of France’s Muslim Council immediately published condemnation of an act of “unmitigated horror that disgusts our humanity”.

It is a far cry from fears that the religion operates apart from French society.

The relationship between Islam and the republic is rarely out of the news, not solely because of terrorist attacks that have hit France for decades.

Last week, a poster appeared at the entrance of the Sciences-Po campus in Grenoble accusing two professors of Islamophobia.

The gesture was condemned as “an attempt to intimidate” by Frederique Vidal, Minister for Higher Education.

Ms Vidal was last month the target of a petition by 600 academics demanding her resignation over a planned inquiry into “Islamo-leftism” in universities.

The phrase is used by France’s far right to denounce what they perceive to be an alliance between “fanatical Islamists” and the left.

The example of Noor-e-Islam has won recognition from influential sections of the French media.

Its leaders make no claims of special achievement but tell The National that there is no conflict with French laws.

"We do not pretend to be a model for Islam in France,” said Igbal Ingar, president of the management committee.

“The history of the Muslims of Reunion and those of metropolitan France is not the same.

“However, elements in our operation could be taken up at national level and we can say Islam is fully compatible with the laws of the republic, and we have been proving this for decades.”

Mr Ingar says that without foreign involvement, there is no possibility of pressure to adopt “religious orientations that don’t correspond to our practice of Islam”.

PCW9WE Colorful bougainvillea in full bloom in the tropical mountains of La Reunion, France on a clear sunny day with puffy clouds hanging on the peaks
Colourful bougainvillea in full bloom in the tropical mountains of La Reunion. Alamy

The mosque was financed by Gujarati traders who settled on the island, 550km east of Madagascar and 175km south-west of Mauritius.

The original building, replacing an informal place of worship that operated from the early 1890s, was completed in 1905, 21 years ahead of the Great Mosque of Paris and a few days before France passed its keystone law separating church and state.

A petition to the island’s French governor, leading to permission to build being granted in 1898, promised it would be "surrounded by walls and arranged internally in such a way as to spare the susceptibilities of other denominations".

As-ad Mogalia, the imam, is comfortable with a “complimentary” arrangement that frees him “to focus on the main objective, the exercise of worship, allowing me to be more available to the faithful”.

M13Y7C France, Reunion island, Saint Denis, Noor e Islam Mosque
A view of the street where Noor-e-Islam mosque is found on Reunion island. Alamy

He says the mosque’s approach could easily serve as a source of inspiration to others, although he hesitates to claim it is the only viable model.

“For it to work, all stakeholders must have the same goal: to act sincerely in the interests of the Muslim community while respecting the laws of the country,” he said.

“As an imam representing the Muslim faith, but also as Reunionese and a French citizen, I am proud my island’s Islam finds such a favourable echo at local, metropolitan French and international level.”