An imam who supports the French veil ban

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Amid fears that radical Islam is growing in Europe, one imam in France is making waves by being too moderate. The imam of the Paris suburb of Drancy endorsed President Nicolas Sarkozy's ban on the full face-covering Islamic veil. The move resulted in death threats.

He's also calling on French Muslims to embrace their own form of Islam, one compatible with Western values.

Eleanor Beardsley met the Imam and sent this report.

(Soundbite of a conversation)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Imam HASSEN CHALGHOUMI (Mosque of Drancy): With pleasure. With pleasure.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: Elegant and at ease in a dark suit and white prayer cap, Imam Hassen Chalghoumi says the death threats dont bother him anymore. Maybe thats because two French government security agents are sitting with him in his office. They follow him everywhere, and a police car is permanently parked outside the home he shares with his wife and children.

(Soundbite of a call to prayer)

Unidentified Man: (Singing)

BEARDSLEY: The 40-year-old Tunisian-born Chalghoumi is rector of the Mosque of Drancy and president of the Conference of French Imams. Chalghoumi says he wanted to become an imam since childhood, but was horrified by the Islamist terror in neighboring Algeria. After a 14-year spiritual journey through the Middle East and Europe, Chalghoumi settled in Paris.

He has just published a book called "An Islam for France." Chalghoumi says the vast majority of French Muslims are moderate, integrated and peaceful, but they are afraid of the radical minority. He says France needs to build its own form of Islam.

Mr. CHALGHOUMI: (through translator) There is often a huge gap between imams in France and their congregations, because most imams are foreigners, here for a few years and paid by their home governments. They aren't familiar with French Muslims' worries, hopes and fears. The West must educate its own imams and make them citizens who share the values and beliefs of their congregations.

BEARDSLEY: Chalghoumi believes a French Imam should be able to cite Jean Paul Sartre and Voltaire as well as the Quran. But only 200 of the country's 1,500 imams were schooled in France.

(Soundbite of men arguing in foreign language)

BEARDSLEY: Last February, Chalghoumi publicly endorsed President Sarkozy's plan to ban the face-covering veil, known here as the burqa. Chalghoumi says the tribal garb has no theological basis in Islam and it imprisons women and their children. After he supported Sarkozy's ban, police guards had to be stationed around his mosque to keep back groups of Muslims calling him a traitor to Islam.

(Soundbite of arguing)

BEARDSLEY: But Chalghoumi also says the deep-seated racism against Muslims in Western societies helps to feed the radical movement.

Mr. CHALGHOUMI: (foreign language spoken)

BEARDSLEY: How can Muslims be expected to share values when they face daily discrimination and are lumped together to live in ghettos, he asks?

Chalghoumi says France must have confidence in its Muslims. The sporting world embraced Algerian-born French soccer star Zinadine Zidane, he says. Now, it's time to give the Zidanes of the political and economic world their chance.

Several hundred faithful leave the Drancy mosque after Friday prayers on a recent fall afternoon. One of the worshipers, Abded Abdullah, calls Chalghoumi a good man.

Mr. ABDED ABDULLAH: (through translator) He tries to bring people together and makes no differences between religions. That's why some don't like him. He even brings Christians and Jews here to the mosque.

BEARDSLEY: Chalghoumi's closeness with the French Jewish community is what appears to enrage his detractors the most. Some snidely call him the imam of the Jews. When Chalghoumi called on Muslims to respect the history of the Holocaust, his home was vandalized. But he says being the imam of Drancy carries a special responsibility.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

BEARDSLEY: Chalghoumi visits a rail car that stands as a memorial in the center of Drancy. During World War II about 77,000 French Jews were held here in a transit camp before being deported to Auschwitz.

Mr. CHALGHOUMI: (through translator) Sometimes when I come here, I just imagine all the men, women and children who left from this spot and had no idea where they were going. I tell my children to listen to their voices and respect their memory. This act of barbarism is not only Jewish history, it's the history of all of us.

BEARDSLEY: Chalghoumi says hundreds of Jews were saved by hiding in the Paris mosque during the Nazi occupation. He says Muslims have a moral imperative to remember what took place at Drancy and make sure it never happens again.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Drancy, France.