Too Radical for France, a Muslim Clergyman Faces Deportation

France was hardly passive toward extremism in the past; the Interior Ministry kicked out 40 Muslim clerics from 2012 to 2015, and another 52 people, including clerics, over the last 28 months. Not all of those recent expulsions have come during Mr. Macron’s time in office, yet his government seems determined to make clear that France now has a far lower tolerance for radical preaching.

“It’s not just the terrorist organizations, the armies of Daesh, the imams of hate and death that we are fighting,” Mr. Macron said, referring to the Islamic State, in a speech last week honoring Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame, a police officer who died in terrorist attack at a supermarket in southern France after swapping himself with a hostage.

“What we are fighting is also is this subterranean Islamism, which advances through social networks, which accomplishes its task invisibly, which works silently on the weak and the unstable, betraying even those it claims to represent, who, on our very soil, indoctrinate through proximity and daily corrupt,” Mr. Macron said.

Too Radical for France, a Muslim Clergyman Faces Deportation
Too Radical for France, a Muslim Clergyman Faces Deportation

The expulsion of Imam Doudi was recommended by the Marseille authorities under a French law regarding “deliberate acts tending to provoke discrimination, hatred and violence toward an individual or a group.”

In a confidential investigative report seen by The New York Times, the authorities blamed Imam Doudi’s “patient and insistent proselytizing” for helping to turn a quarter of Marseille’s practicing Muslims — the largest concentration in France — into practitioners of Salafism, an ultraconservative movement within Sunni Islam. For the country as a whole, the proportion of Muslims who are Salafists is much lower, about 5.5 percent.

Imam Doudi’s influence, the report noted, extends all over France and even “goes well beyond the country’s frontiers” and throughout Europe, as other countries, in particular Germany, have had their own troubles with Salafist preachers and monitor them carefully.

Yet few seem as bewildered that the government would turn on the preacher now than Imam Doudi himself, a slight, worried-looking man who pulled at his straggly beard occasionally in an interview at a pastry shop.

He was greeted without special ceremony as he strolled through his low-rise immigrant neighborhood north of the old port of Marseille, though everyone seemed to know him.


The Sounna mosque, where Imam Doudi preached in the Third Arrondissement of Marseille, was shut by officials in December.Credit Boris Horvat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“Of course I know they were listening,” Imam Doudi said, speaking in Arabic through an interpreter. “I’ve got nothing to hide.”

“The relationship that I’ve had with the population and the authorities has always been clear and correct,” he insisted.

“And suddenly they are saying that Salafism is a danger for France,” he said indignantly. “Obviously, I challenge that idea.”

Marseille — France’s second-largest city, one-fifth Muslim — is not especially radicalized. Other cities in the south of France, like Nice, have had higher numbers of young people leave to fight in Syria, and greater proportion of Muslim residents on the government’s terrorism watchlist.

But virtually all of the fines in Marseille for wearing a face-covering, head-to-toe veil — which is illegal in France — have been imposed in the vicinity of Imam Doudi’s mosque, the police say. The authorities are growing increasingly concerned about the potential for radicalization — especially since two young women were killed in a knife attack at the city’s main train station in October.

The Sounna mosque where Imam Doudi preached, on the Boulevard National in the Third Arrondissement of Marseille, was closed by officials in December. They cited Imam Doudi’s sermons, saying they could “provoke acts of terrorism.”

Here and elsewhere in France, Salafism is increasingly seen as the enemy, a menacing way-station to terrorism. Five members of Imam Doudi’s flock left to fight jihad in Syria, the police say, though the imam denies knowing them.

His sermons are “exactly contrary to the values of the Republic,” said Marseille’s prefect of police, Olivier de Mazières, a terrorism specialist who has led the case against the cleric, in an interview in his office. “We think he’s preaching hatred, discrimination, violence.”

“That neighborhood is the epicenter of Salafism,” Mr. de Mazières added. Yet on the streets it feels calm, like any other working-class immigrant neighborhood in Marseille, with its fruit stalls, garages, subsidized housing blocks, multihued citizenry and pastry shops where both men and women are customers.

Newsletter Sign Up

Continue reading the main story

Thank you for subscribing.

An error has occurred. Please try again later.

You are already subscribed to this email.

View all New York Times newsletters.

  • See Sample
  • Manage Email Preferences
  • Not you?
  • Privacy Policy
  • Opt out or contact us anytime

Scholars see a more ambiguous relationship between Salafism and jihad than the police do. “The source of radicalization is not Salafism,” Olivier Roy writes in the book “Jihad and Death. “There is a common matrix, but not a causal relationship.”

Similarly, Mohamed-Ali Adraoui, an expert at Georgetown on the French Salafists, notes that Salafism and jihadism do not neatly equate.

“Scholars will tell you that Salafism does not lead to jihadism, sociologically,” he said. “You can get to jihadism without having passed through a Salafist mosque.”

Those distinctions are being lost in a renewed wave of public anxiety in France, however.

“We must forbid the spread of Salafism, because it’s the enemy,” the former prime minister Manuel Valls said in a radio interview last week.

The newspaper Le Figaro said in a front-page editorial that “our country must launch a vast operation to eradicate Salafism.”


A memorial in the French town of Éguilles for one of the victims of an attack at the Marseille train station last year.Credit Anne-Christine Poujoulat/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The government cited numerous sermons in its lengthy investigation of Imam Doudi. Jews are “unclean, the brothers of monkeys and pigs,” he said. Adulterers “must be punished by stoning to death or decapitation,” while women “must not leave the home without authorization.” The apostate “needs to be eliminated by the death penalty, to protect Muslims.”

Most damning, the government report said, Imam Doudi “explicitly” justified jihad. Yet the texts it highlights, in bold in its report, are ambiguous — not in their content, but in their context.

“That defeat be visited on unbelievers and the unjust,” Imam Doudi said in one of them. “Oh God! Decree defeat, humiliation and unbelief to the unbelievers. Oh God! Send to the fires of hell all the envious and the plotters who wish, and do, harm to Islam and Muslims!”

While Imam Doudi acknowledges having once been a follower of Osama bin Laden and the radical Algerian leader Ali Belhadj, the preacher denied that he, or Salafism, was extremist.

“Salafism is merely the reasonable middle ground between extremism and negligence. There are sects that pretend to be Salafist — Al Qaeda, Daesh — but are not,” Imam Doudi said. “These are extremists, and in our preaching we are opposed to them.”

Imam Doudi and his lawyer insist that many of his preachings are merely stock phrases taken directly from Islam’s sacred texts and are not meant to be taken literally.

“In the Quran, you’ll find verses justifying lapidation” — death by stoning — “and jihad,” Imam Doudi said. “Sooner or later, I’ll read them.”

His lawyer, Nabil Boudi, supported the assertion. “It’s a formula you’ll hear in every sermon,” Mr. Boudi said. None of the phrases cited by the government explicitly justify terrorist attacks. Imam Doudi said he is resolutely against such assaults.

Some scholars beyond their tight circle agree that his teachings are not exceptional. “These are sermons that can easily be heard from Casablanca to Cairo,” said Romain Caillet, an expert on French Salafism. “In the Arab world, his discourse is totally banal.”

“The government has understood that to expel a Salafist Imam, that is a plus for them,” Mr. Caillet said. “They gain points for that.”

Mr. Geisser, the Islam expert, is among those who say that, if anything, Imam Doudi was known as a government stooge.

“He was best known for having good relations with the security services,” Mr. Geisser said.

“He thought that to collaborate was to be protected,” Mr. Geisser added. “He’s someone who stuck out his hand, and it ended up getting burned.”

Sitting with him at the pastry shop, three of Imam Doudi’s flock, bearded and wearing loose robes, were downcast over his possible expulsion.

“It could be dangerous for France,” said Fayçal Mansari, a mason, who called Imam Doudi “ a barrier” against Islamic radicals.

“Very few people truly know Islam,” Mr. Mansari said. “If they get rid of a truly learned professor, people will find themselves disarmed.”

A version of this article appears in print on April 6, 2018, on Page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Macron’s Fight on Radical Islam May Lead to Exile of Vocal Imam. Order Reprints|Today’s Paper|Subscribe

Continue reading the main story

Similar Posts