Paris, city of dreams. And of memories. I wander through the familiar streets I once called my own, overcome by the nostalgia of lost moments. I had forgotten how beautiful this city is – it’s air of mystery, of something ephemeral and eternal hidden just out of reach. It is almost as if every window, every facade, is hiding some sort of secret pleasure in its shadows, far away from the eyes of strangers.
One building that evokes this feeling of secrecy more than others is the Grande Mosqueé , or Great Mosque, its white windowless walls scouring a path through the grey smudge of the 5th arrondissement. The mosque itself was built shortly after the First World War by the French government (a symbol of the nation’s gratitude to the 100,000 Muslim soldiers who died for the sake of their imperial colonisers), and as such it is somewhat of a strange testament to the French principle of laïcité, in which religion is entirely divorced from public life. Because of this, it is forbidden for the mosque to distribute religious material to visitors. Indeed, if it weren’t for the steady trickle of men and women through the great wooden doors to perform their religious duty, it could almost be mistaken for a museum or other such stark and austere building – a significant contrast, may I add, to the hustle and bustle of mosques I have visited in the Islamic world where it is usual for whole families to enjoy a picnic in the relative shade of the courtyards.
Within this context, I am more than a little surprised to come across a young man handing out leaflets on tawhid (the concept of the unity of God, according to Islamic teaching) at the entrance to the mosque, defying the heat of the midday sun and the disinterested glances of tourists. It is this surprise that prompts me to strike up a conversation with this odd figure, who, in turn, is surprised when I address him directly in Arabic.
Hakim is a 25-year-old Parisian of Egyptian origins, well-built with a closely trimmed beard and large brown eyes that refuse to look me directly in the eye. He addresses me in a combination of French, Arabic and English, all of which he speaks faultlessly, and tells me about his life – his experiences studying Economics in America, the fact that he now finds himself back in Paris with no job and no prospects, all of which, in his eyes, is down to “the providence of God.” He tells me that between caring for his ageing parents and looking for a job, he spends his spare time here on the threshold of the Great Mosque, handing out leaflets to anyone who will take them and attempting in his own small, human way to spread the message of “truth” he feels to resonate so strongly in his heart.
Despite being a little put-off by the ferocity of his belief, and the fact his eye continues to avoid mine, I am nonetheless impresses with his story and the breadth of his knowledge (he says, for example, that he re-discovered his faith in Islam after having become disillusioned with the “angry socialist literature” of Marx and Engels, and having been unconvinced by the scientific arguments for evolution put forward by Darwin in his Origin of Species - which he says is full of “logical inconsistencies”. When I try to argue this point, he asks me if I have read the tome, to which I must confess that I have not, and so my objections die on my lips), and the sincerity of his conviction. I realise that this man is not merely a sheep following the message he has been indoctrinated with, but an educated individual who has come to religion of his own free will and made a conscious choice about the way he would like to live his life. It may well not be a choice I personally agree with, but it is one I must respect.
I ask him his thoughts on the popular perception of Islam in France and, almost on cue, a young French man walks past – slicked back hair, leather jacket, air of swaggering arrogance. “Fuck of back home you fucking Muslims,” he spits, “go fuck yourselves in your fucking pigsties.” I look nervously to Hakim (who just a minute ago had been preaching about the need to overcome evil in the world by any means necessary, including force), expecting a retort to escalate the situation. He remains impossibly calm and waves his hand at the youth. “May Allah have mercy on your soul,” he says, “and peace be upon you my friend.”
I can do nothing but stare blankly at this accommodating and accepting attitude coming from a religious fanatic who, in another time and place, might well have been labelled an Islamic fundamentalist.