France's Army Embraces Its Muslim Soldiers

September 18, 2009

Author: Susan Sachs

Source: The Globe and Mail


Muslims in France's army who go on the pilgrimage to Mecca this year will not have to travel on private commercial flights or bunk with ordinary civilians. In a break from tradition, the Defence Ministry will provide a plane to fly them to Saudi Arabia and organize their stay.

For any western government to arrange a hajj trip would be unusual. It is especially so here, in a country so protective of its secularism that it regulates what Muslim girls can wear in school and is considering a blanket ban on the face-covering Islamic niqab.

But for Mohamed-Ali Bouharb, a spit-and-polish gendarmerie captain who put together the final pieces for the pilgrimage last week, it is one step toward making Islam as “banal” in France as any other religion.

“The army is always in advance of society,” said Capt. Bouharb, one of the 30 Muslim chaplains recently recruited by the armed forces. “And it is anaesthetized from all the social questions and debate outside.”

While religion and state remain firmly separated in the rest of French society, the military has started accommodating its Muslim personnel in ways that would be unthinkable outside the barracks.