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Kahina Bahloul, France’s first female imam who wants to modernize Islam

Bahloul told media outlets that she didn’t just wake up one day and decide to become an imam but rather that “it’s been a long journey”.

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Kahina Bahloul is France’s first female imam who has an objective to modernize Islam. Bahloul told media outlets that 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,” she added.

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.

“A mosque is not a place, but a community”

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”.

The State of Islamophobia in France and Europe

The European Union and France have, in recent years, become increasingly Islamophobic. A study in 2009 labeled “Muslims in the European Union” by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism, and Xenophobia found extensive evidence that Islamophobia was on the rise in Europe.

Another experiment was done by Marie-Anne Valfort, Associate Member at the Paris School of Economics, and professor at the University Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne found the following results:” In 2009, we experimented on CVs, which was the first to test for discrimination based on religion.

More precisely, to attribute possible differences in our fictive candidates’ response rate to their religion, we gave those candidates all the same country of origin (Senegal). We concluded from this CV trial that the assumption that someone is Muslim rather than Christian is a significant factor in discrimination in the French labor market. With the same CV, a French person of non-French background (in this case, Senegalese) is two to three times less likely to be called to a job interview if he or she is assumed to be a Muslim rather than a Christian.”

A more recent 2015 study called “Anti-Muslim Discrimination in France: Evidence from a Field Experiment” by the same author reached a consensus among experts on Islam in France and beyond that anti-Muslim discrimination works as a catalyst in the radicalization process.

Read More: France debates bill against ‘disease’ of Islamist extremism

Ironically, French President Emmanuel Macron clearly expressed this view in the aftermath of the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015: “Discrimination is not the main cause of jihadism – that is down to the madness of men, and the totalitarian and manipulating spirit of certain people. But it provides fertile ground.”

French Muslims are routinely discriminated against

The study also further found that Muslims qua Muslims are discriminated against in France: the callback rate of Muslim culture applicants (11.7%) is 6.7 percentage points lower than that of their Christian countries. This general finding masks substantial variation concerning religiosity, gender, and quality. Although non-religious Muslims show consistently lower callback rates than non-religious Christians (12.9% vs. 16.1%), this difference is modest and not statistically significant. But Muslims lose more ground when they are religious unless they show an outstanding profile. This “religiosity penalty” leads religious Muslims to be discriminated against relative to non-religious Christians. This gap further widens when religious Muslims are compared to religious Christians.

Read More: Islamophobia in France-from the past to the present

While religiosity constitutes a penalty for Muslims, it works as a premium for Christians: their callback rate is boosted when they are religious. Consequently, religious Muslims must submit twice as many applications as religious Christians before being called back by the recruiters. Male applicants largely drive this result due to the strong “religiosity premium” experienced by Christian men: the callback rate of religious Muslim men (4.7%) is nearly four times lower than that of their Christian counterparts (17.9%). These findings suggest that anti-Muslim hiring discrimination is statistical: recruiters do not discriminate against non-religious Muslims, but they discriminate against religious Muslims unless they are outstanding.

This pattern is consistent with religious Muslims being linked to a risk of problematic behavior in the workplace that leads to discrimination when their CV’s quality is not sufficient to counterbalance this risk. By contrast, and consistent with the fact that stereotypes are context-dependent, religiosity helps Christians convince the recruiters.

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