France: New publications about women, fundamentalisms and the state.

Short abstracts of two, recently published, controversial books.
Soheib Bencheikh, Marianne et le Prophète: l'Islam dans la France Laïque, Grasset, 1998

Born in Algeria in a very religious and very enlightened family, the author, Great Mufti of Marseilles, trained in Algiers Islamic Institute, then in Al Azhar university in Cairo and is also holding a doctorate in religious sciences from Paris university; he is well known for his combat against fundamentalist interpretations of Islam and his stand for secularism. He is one of the founders of the Movement of Secular Muslims of France, founded in Paris in 2003.

In this essay, Soheib Bencheikh argues that secularism in France, understood - à la française - as a total separation of the State from religions is a chance for Muslims living there, on the one hand to live their faith in a context of religious freedom and on the other hand to live it as a private affair. He argues against the veil in France, analyses the historical and cultural context in which it was born which is totally different from the one of France in the XX° century, and gives it as an example of very needed ijtehad.

He stigmatizes the absence of proper training for imams and argues for developing an Islam of France where imams would be trained locally rather than imported from other countries where the culture is different.

He positions himself as a man of faith and points at the space for believers to rethink and deepen their faith in a context of freedom guaranteed by French secularism.

Martine Gozlan, Le Sexe d'Allah, Grasset, Paris, 2004

In wake of the rise of fundamentalist movements and armed groups, and in particular of their "fundamentalist obsession with women" (as Fatima Mernissi put it) which cost the lives 15 000 Algerian women in the 1990s at the hands of GIA, the author revisits the two trends in Islam: the one that glorifies and enjoys sex, gives women freedom, autonomy and the right to pleasure - represented by the Prophet -, and the other that purports to dominate women and puritanically rejects sex and pleasure, even more so for women - represented by Omar -; the trend that led to the erotic literature of the Golden Age of Islam and the other that gave birth to wahabism and salafism and to present-day fundamentalists.

There are three main paths for those progressive men and women who attempt to recover and rejuvenate the legacy of the Prophet: reinterpreting (ijtehad) of the Qur'an; analyzing history and culture; and claiming human rights and equality between men and women regardless of religion, culture and history. Marine Gozlan chooses to look into history and culture.

She refers to the Golden Age, to the love and benevolence of the Prophet vis-a-vis women and its tolerance and enjoyment of sex. She attributes to Omar the introduction of anti women ruling. She points at the parallels between the Prophet's private life and the injunctions in the Qur'an and shows as the latter follow suit specific events in the former. Moreover, she states that the erotic freedom was the privilege of the upper classes while people were poor and miserable, and she attributes to class difference and to a spirit of rebellion of the have-not against the have the taste of people for fundamentalist ideas, whether then or today. Similar causes producing similar effects, whether in the XII° or in the XXI° century.

In her words: "I wanted to understand how the qalam of the calligrapher was replaced by the sword of the executioner. How Islam of lovers was hunted out of the sky and led into darkness. How the Thousand And One Nights of Islam became the thousand and one death of islamism. This book is the story of this metamorphosis."

Born in Algeria, Martine Gozlan is a journalist in Marianne, a French weekly that gives a voice to anti fascists and anti fundamentalist Algerians.