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Meet France's first female imam who is on a mission to modernise Islam

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France's first female imam Kahina Bahloul leads a friday prayer in a rented venue of the 11th arrondissement of Paris on February 21, 2020.
France's first female imam Kahina Bahloul leads a friday prayer in a rented venue of the 11th arrondissement of Paris on February 21, 2020.   -   Copyright  LUCAS BARIOULET / AFP
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Kahina Bahloul says she didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become an imam but rather that “it’s been a long journey”.

Indeed, the law graduate used to work as an insurance broker.

Born in France to a Muslim-Algerian father and a French mother with Christian and Jewish backgrounds, the 42-year-old grew up in Algeria where she witnessed the rise of fundamentalism and its twisted version of her faith.

Upon her return to France, she pursued a doctorate in Islamic studies from the prestigious École Pratique des Hautes Études and says a “crisis of meaning within Islam” is what pushed her to engage.

"I believe that this crisis comes mainly from the fact that there is a sclerosis of the Muslim thought. That is to say that today we are still living an idea that was produced in the Middle Ages," she told Euronews.

"The legal schools of Islam today, or the whole normative part of the Muslim religion, emanates from medieval thought. That is no longer possible."

Bahloul says in order to sort the crisis, “Muslims must reclaim their sacred text and give themselves the authorisation to read it and interpret it with the tools we have today in the twenty-first century”.

Perhaps the most concrete way to exemplify how Bahloul set out to “reclaim Islam’s sacred texts” is her decision to become an imam, something she says is not forbidden: “because it is not practised, people think it is forbidden”.

Bahloul says patriarchal readings and interpretations of sacred texts led to the idea that women cannot be imams, “but the Koranic text does not prohibit a woman from being an imam".

"In reality, it does not speak of this role at all. It is a role that was created later to organise Muslim worship. And when we go back to the prophetic tradition, we find the example of a woman who has been appointed by the Prophet himself to be imam," she said.

Fatma Mosque

She didn’t attend a special course or training centre, nor did she get a certificate.

"In Islam, there is no central clerical authority that names imams, so it is up to the community to accept you or not… to give you legitimacy,” Bahloul explained.

In 2018, she announced the creation of "Fatma Mosque", a place of worship where men and women pray together, where prayers are led by both male and female imams, where sermons are delivered in French, and where non-Muslims are welcome.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, however, most activities of this "inclusive mosque” have been transferred online.

“A mosque is not a place, but a community,” she said, however, emphasising that they "continue to gather".

Secularism and the role of religion

The community that embraced Kahina Bahloul and made her an Iman, witnessed first-hand France’s latest conundrum over the place of religion in society.

In recent months, France has experienced a resurgence in violent extremism in the shape of terror attacks that shook the country to its core - and reignited a debate about secularism.

President Emmanuel Macron declared war against what he described as “Islamist separatism” and vowed to restore republican values in the country.

His administration announced the closure of mosques, opened investigations into the financing of religious institutions, and called on Muslim representatives to sign a charter on the principles of the Republic.

A so-called ‘anti-separatism’ bill has passed both houses of parliament but will have to be debated by lawmakers again - in view of the dozens of amendments proposed by both the assembly and the senate.

And while some members of Europe’s largest Muslim community criticised the latest measures accusing the government of antagonising Muslims, Bahloul says it is time for an ‘Islam of France’.

"We need to create institutions representative of an Islam of France. This was still not quite the case until today, since the CFCM (or French Council of the Muslim Faith) represented a ‘consular Islam’, that is to say an Islam that was funded and managed by one of the Muslim countries like Algeria, Turkey, Morocco or the Gulf countries,” she added.

Bahloul says the key is, once again, for French Muslims to reclaim their faith “with readings and interpretations of texts that emerge from French thinkers and Muslims in France."

"That is what we are trying to do," she said.