Iftar dinner, with a side of politics

PARIS — Between bites of chicken tagine and spoonfuls of chorba, the traditional vegetable and meat soup eaten during Ramadan, political leaders debated and digested. Some called the topic the Muslim question in France while others described it as the struggle of French Muslims to strike the right balance between practicing their faith and living fully in a secular republic.

During the holy month of Ramadan devout Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. After sunset, they meet for iftar dinners, which are often intimate and familial — but not always. The guest list for this iftar dinner at Paris' Grand Mosque stretched well beyond the faithful. Muslim and non-Muslim lawyers and lobbyists, activists and a few dozen of the more than 1,200 mayors representing the greater Paris metropolitan area gathered to celebrate the Muslim tradition and implicity endorsing Muslims' seat at the political table. 

Addressing the mayors, many of whom serve towns with large Muslim populations, Dalil Boubakeur, the mosque’s rector and the dinner’s host, said the evolution of the country’s Muslims, which number more than 5 million, was on the right track given that the community was establishing deeper roots in French society. “It’s no longer an immigration community but one that is staying put, one that is adapting, prospering and one in which families are growing,” Boubakeur said. As an example of the community’s evolving permanence in France, he pointed to the need for special burial sites for Muslims. “Little by little, a place is created for this former immigrant to exercise his French civic responsibilities” socially, economically and even politically.

As the wireless microphone was passed from person to person, the remarks became more pointed. One speaker broached the topic of school lunches and pork being served to students with dietary restrictions. Islamic dress and the current debate over the burqa and niqab also came up during the debate, as did the words diversity, integration and access in reference to Muslims.

Bariza Khiari, an outspoken senator, said that despite French Muslims' prominence in business, sports and other areas, “access to the political world remains difficult.” The much ballyhooed “diversity needs to enter into larger spaces, like the National Assembly,” she said. 

“There are people fighting against social exclusion, what about political exclusion?” Khiari said later. She noted that many young people, especially from North Africa, who were once relegated to the sidelines of political discourse and excluded from dialogue were beginning to show their presence. “Being a citizen is being able to participate in all aspects of life.”

The stream of active young Muslims has not gone unnoticed at the residence of the newly-appointed United States ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, who, along with his wife Susan Tolson, hosted his first iftar dinner for Muslim and non-Muslim leaders. Among the 100-plus guests, there was a government minister, a few senators, a prison chaplain and a young Green Party deputy elected recently to the European Parliament.

While some guests mingled in the backyard, others headed to a lounge turned prayer room where a mufti, or religious teacher, led an evening prayer. Outside the lounge, a presidential speech by Barack Obama played on a loop on a laptop computer. Once the fast was broken with dates, milk and orange juice, a lone musician strummed an oud before dinner.  Speaking in fluent French, Rivkin told guests that seeing all the young faces at the dinner filled him with optimism. He said the country’s diversity, “enriched France.” Then Nora Berra, the 46-year-old secretary of state for the elderly, who was born in France to Algerian parents, told the crowd that the “sacred month” of Ramadan was the perfect time to “learn to respect and nourish differences.”

Several attendees said they were honored by the ambassador’s invitation, a goodwill gesture regarded as an extension of Obama’s June speech in Cairo.

Faycal Djari, a 55-year-old radiologist, said such an action only bolsters America’s tarnished image in the Muslim world and “clips the wings” of would-be terrorism extremists, who argue that the U.S. is anti-Muslim.

Abder Kebir, a dinner guest who continued raving about the president’s candid Cairo speech to the Muslim world said, “I see that there is a willingness to change the foreign policy of the United States,” but he acknowledged that Obama needed to go beyond mere words. “Is he going to succeed or not is another question.”

Kebir added: “The question that upsets is always the same, the question of Palestine.”

And with that, a new exchange began at the table, among the contented guests.