In Marseille, unease rises before France’s ‘cathedral mosque’
November 28, 2009
Notre Dame de la Garde, an elegant Roman Catholic basilica, has stood for 150 years on a promontory south of Marseille’s Old Port, symbolising this fabled Mediterranean city. Soon, however, a new and very different symbol is scheduled to rise on another promontory, on the north side of the Old Port. It is the $30 million Grand Mosque of Marseille, a dramatic reminder of the Islamic heritage that is grafting itself on to France’s cultural landscape.
The mosque, a place of worship for the metropolitan region’s over 2,00,000 Muslims, will be a 92,500-sq ft colossus, France’s largest. Already, it has become an emblem for many native French people who feel uncomfortable with an immigrant population that seeks to live by its own religious rules. Nor is Marseille alone; across Western Europe, growing communities of Muslim immigrants have created unease among native populations by seeking to affirm their own identities — by building mosques or wearing veils in the street.
In Switzerland, voters will vote on Sunday in a referendum on a proposal to ban mosque minarets (WNY Thread on the Swiss proposal). The referendum underlines the fear of many Swiss people that minarets may join cowbells as symbols of their culture.
Similar fears were stoked in Marseille two weeks ago when swarms of North African youths destroyed cars and boats to vent their feelings over Algeria’s mixed luck in a pair of qualifying matches for the football World Cup. The French national team did not seem to interest them as passionately.
Marine Le Pen, daughter of Jean-Marie Le Pen, who heads the right-wing National Front, said, “We must demand that those youths choose. You cannot have two nations in your heart, two allegiances.”
Marseille politician and right-wing lawyer Ronald Perdomo said the planned “cathedral mosque” would be a “symbol of non-assimilation”. Perdomo’s and others this week filed a third lawsuit to block its construction.
Recognising the unease — and seeking to capitalise on it — President Nicolas Sarkozy’s government has launched what it calls a “national identity debate,” in which French people are encouraged to reflect on what it means to be French.
But for men like Elias Djeddeh, a 44-year-old barber who immigrated to Marseille from Algeria 11 years ago, the Grand Mosque will provide the city’s Muslims with their first purpose-built place of worship.
© 2009 The Indian Express Limited