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Last Updated: Friday, 18 April, 2003, 16:58 GMT 17:58 UK
France's Islamic heartland

By Hugh Schofield
Burgundy, France

The wooded hills of deepest Burgundy are the unlikely setting for a place that could play a key role in the development of a European Islamic identity.

Women students
The sound of Arabic mingles with the birdsong

The unhelpfully-named European Institute for Human Sciences (IESH) is in fact a theological college, which for 13 years has been training up a new generation of indigenous imams for France and the rest of the continent.

In the heart of what the French call "La France profonde" (deepest France) - amid the herds of cream-coloured cattle and the breathtaking scenery of the Morvan natural park - veiled young women sit studiously at their texts.

The sound of Arabic mingles with the birdsong.

Here a generation has grown up with French as its mother tongue
Zuhair Mahmoud

"Why are you surprised to find us here? Religious institutions have always sought remote locations to encourage contemplation and inner thought.

"Here we are dead in the centre of France," said Zuhair Mahmoud, 51, the IESH's founder and director.

New generation

Zuhair Mahmoud is a former Iraqi nuclear scientist, who was sent to France by Saddam Hussein 20 years ago as part of a co-operation deal with Paris.

But prompted by his misgivings about atomic weapons he underwent a religious conversion and stayed in exile.

Zuhair Mahmoud
Zuhair Mahmoud: We live in France and accept its laws

"In the 1980s it became clear that the Muslims of France and Europe were integrating definitively in their adopted countries.

"Here a generation has grown up with French as its mother tongue," he told me in his office in the institute's main building - a converted holiday centre.

"These people need imams to pass on the religious values of their parents.

"Leaders from elsewhere cannot do it because they do not understand the language or the customs and habits that prevail here. They have to come from inside."

The 170 students take a two-year Arabic course, and then can stay on for a four-year qualification in Islamic jurisprudence, Koranic studies, history and preaching.

Three-quarters are French, and the rest from elsewhere in Europe.

Western freedoms

"I was very surprised to learn this place existed because I always thought France was intolerant of Muslims," said Adil Rehman, a 33-year-old computer programmer from Stratford in east London, who is in his fourth year.

Signpost in French and Arabic
The silence of the national park encourages contemplation

"The first time I came here, I got completely lost. I was wandering round the countryside at two o'clock in the morning."

According to Adil Rehman, the college plays a vital role by creating a generation of Muslims capable of interpreting Islam to the West and vice-versa.

"The irony is that this type of institute can only really develop in the freedom provided by the West.

"But the reason is clear if you think about it. Here the political systems have no understanding of Islam, so they cannot direct it or make people think in a particular way.

"In the East, it is different. Governments there are well-versed in manipulation. They know what they want you to learn and what they don't want you to learn," he said.

Another British student, Kazi Luthfur Rahman, 19, from Poplar, came to the IEHS after giving up his ambition to study in the holy city of Medina.

It has been easy for men in our society to tell us what to do by saying it comes from religion
Aziza from Strasbourg

"It is certainly a bit isolated after London, but you get used to it. My only problem is at mealtime. I cannot stand French food!" said Kazi Luthfur Rahman, who last year took third prize in the International Holy Koran Competition in Egypt.

Around 70 students are young women - they wear headscarves but share classes with the men.

Many said their aim was to return to their communities to teach Arabic and share their new knowledge of Islam.

"What we have learned is to distinguish between law and custom," said Aziza from Strasbourg in eastern France.

Liberal anxiety

"It has been easy for men in our society to tell us what to do by saying it comes from religion. But things like forced marriage are not in Islamic law. They are only customs and can be discarded," she said.

The IEHS is fully supported by the French Government, whose policy is to encourage a homegrown Islamic identity and wean the five-million-strong community away from its financial and doctrinal dependence on foreign states.

These people are a real threat to secularism
Antoine Sfeir, Paris Middle East Studies Centre

Last week elections were held for a French Council for the Muslim Religion - which is set to become Islam's first ever official representation in France.

Zuhair Mahmoud was himself chosen for the Council's general assembly.

However not all Muslims are happy with the course Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy has taken, nor with the growing influence of the IEHS and its parent body, the Union of Islamic Organisations in France (UOIF).

Progressives note that the UOIF is linked to the highly conservative movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, and fear that Sarkozy has taken the easy option by dealing with the traditionalist establishment instead of working with more liberal forces.

"For a long time the UOIF has been trying to infiltrate the cogs of state and assume control of the Muslim community by marginalising secular Muslims," said Antoine Sfeir, president of the Middle East Studies Centre in Paris.

"These people are a real threat to secularism," he said.

But Zuhair Mahmoud is quick to retort: "Have we done anything to counter France's humanistic values?

"We believe that to live in a country you must accept its laws. If we didn't accept them, then we would live elsewhere."

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