The Basement and the Mosque: The History and Politics of Islam in Marseille

Friday, January 4, 2013: 2:30 PM
Chamber Ballroom IV (Roosevelt New Orleans)
Ian Coller, La Trobe University
Recent studies estimate the Muslim population of the French Mediterranean city of Marseille from a quarter to a third of the total population. Yet Marseille has no official mosque. Only four small establishments can be considered to be mosques alongside more than 50 overflowing prayer rooms in houses, garages and basements. A project to build 20 million euro mosque in Marseille on the site of a former abattoir has recently come unstuck in part as a result of the global financial crisis and the revolutions in North Africa and the Middle East. But fundamental problems had already arisen in this project, problems which are deeply anchored in unsettled and contested memories that historians have until recently done very little to address. The project has been prey to right-wing fear mongering about a future Muslim dominance in France, the so-called “Islam of a thousand mosques”. But the Great Mosque is also problematic for many Muslims because of its close links to a new politics of Islam in France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s campaign against the “Islam des caves” (Islam of the basements) represented in the establishment of the Conseil Français du Culte Musulman. Some Marseille Muslims resist what they see as the imposition of an official and hierarchical Islam, to be controlled by certain state-sponsored groups. But in this struggle, little account has yet been taken of the long history of Islam inMarseille, the Muslim presence stretching back for centuries, and the “Mosque” itself, which has had a half-real half-phantom presence since the first alliance of François I with the Ottoman Sultan that shocked Europe in the sixteenth century. This paper explores that entanglement of politics, history and memory to suggest directions toward a new reading of Islam in France.
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