World News

02.10.14

Moral Courage: Imam for Peace

A Muslim cleric from France hopes to unite Muslims, Christians and Jews in the fight against fanaticism.

By Irshad Manji and Antonia Marrero for the Moral Courage Project

As right-wing rabble rousers throughout Europe make themselves known to media, it’s time to tell the more surprising stories. Here’s one: in France, the most radical voice of social cohesion may very well be an imam. Yup, a Muslim cleric. Hassen Chalghoumi deserves to become a household name in America.

Chalghoumi is the imam of Drancy, a suburban Parisian town that deported Jews to their death during World War II. Imam Chalgoumi seeks to preserve this history so that it’s never forgotten. In fact, we met him at the Holocaust Memorial in Drancy, where he recited the opening verses of the Qur'an. The imam later told us that the Holocaust isn’t only a Jewish issue; it’s a human one that Muslims must honestly grapple with if they want credibility when complaining about Islamophobia. Coming from an imam, such a statement is more than rare. It’s refreshing.

But Chalghoumi’s platform doesn’t end in Drancy. He founded the French Conference of Imams, has written several books in French and Arabic, and intends to speak with American audiences as his English improves. We can only hope that he’ll be welcomed, since he seeks to unite Muslims, Christians and Jews to conquer what he calls the real enemy: fanaticism, including the Islamist kind.

His message of peace has its detractors. Opponents sarcastically describe Chalghoumi as the “Imam of the Jews.” He frequently faces death threats via voicemail. His house was trashed soon after he led a 2006 Holocaust remembrance. Later, vandals doused his car with gasoline. More polite pushback comes in the form of counsel to stop appearing publicly and to end interfaith dialogue. Translation: shut up and pray.

Chalghoumi follows half that advice. The other half, Chalghoumi flouts: He brought 20 French imams to Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where they proclaimed that life is more important than doctrine.

The intensity of his moral courage doesn’t really reveal itself in Chalghoumi’s background. Born in Tunisia, he served as a conflict mediator for France’s national rail system. Then he opened a pizzeria, which became a neighborhood hotspot. In a gesture of sweetness but not necessarily backbone, Chalghoumi reached out to the local cops bearing gifts of pastry.

On further reflection, though, we detect a pattern. The imam’s adult life is suffused with his intention to open lines of communication between seeming rivals. It’s a pattern rooted firmly in faith: in Islam, proper intention (known as “niyyah”) is at least as significant as action. But Chalghoumi also walks the talk, embodying the bold declaration that human dignity trumps religious identity.

Think we’re exaggerating? Watch this video clip from Moral Courage TV. For English subtitles, click “cc” at the bottom of the video:

Video screenshot