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Iftar dinner, with a side of politics

Ramadan in France brings together Muslim and non-Muslim political leaders.

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.”