In an attempt to turn back the tide of fundamentalism among France's 5 million Muslims, the government set up the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) in late 2002. The organization was supposed to encourage a homegrown, more liberal strand of Islam and improve communication between the government and the Muslim community. But the CFCM leadership is stacked with traditionalists, and those at the top can't seem to communicate among themselves, much less with the state. By the time Dounia Bouzar, one of just two women on the 17-member board, quit last month, the CFCM had degenerated into a clutch of squabbling factions supported by Algeria, Morocco and groups linked to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Bouzar says she quit because the mostly foreign-born leaders are out of touch with the needs of the more than 2 million Muslims who, like herself, are French-born. "They bring with them the tradition of the Arab world that weaves the Koran and its teaching within history," says Bouzar. "Rather than square Islam with our reality, they reinforce the terrible perception among non-Muslims that Islam is inherently irreconcilable with French society."
Other countries' experience of such bodies is no better. In Belgium next month, the country's 370,000 Muslims will elect representatives to the Muslim General Assembly (MGA), created in 1998. The MGA elects the Belgian Muslim Executive, the state's official Islamic interlocutor. Many consider both bodies as feckless and torn by internal rivalries as their French counterpart. "They blamed the government for all their problems, but they failed to make any progress of their own," says Kamal Adine, head of Brussels' Al-Ghofrane mosque and president of the Euro-Moroccan Cultural Center.
So how can European Muslims create religious institutions that meet their needs? Bouzar and Adine suggest approaching the problem from the bottom up. Instead of allowing state-sanctioned bodies to dictate Islam from on high, they say, Muslims in Europe must themselves adapt the religion in response to the priorities, pressures and prejudices they encounter every day. But such a grassroots movement is difficult to get off the ground when the small group of traditionalists and fundamentalists is far more organized. New elections to the CFCM have been postponed to an unspecified date amid worries that government tinkering risks alienating Muslims and opening the door to an even more conservative board. "All you can do is urge people not to let others either non-Muslim politicians or Islamic leaders rooted in antiquity think in our place," Bouzar argues. "We must be the experts who define who we are."