"Islam Is Not Standardised"
What was the motivation for founding an institute for Islamic culture in Paris? Does the French capital really need such a thing?
Véronique Rieffel: The idea for the foundation of the institute came from the Mayor of Paris Bertrand Delanoë. He was born in Tunisia and has many good memories of the culture of his homeland. It was his idea to find a location where various Islamic cultures interact with French culture. An open forum, not just for Muslims, but for everyone regardless of whether they are religious or not. In this context, culture fosters dialogue and knowledge, understanding and mutual respect.
Today, Islam is the second largest religion in France, and plays a significant role in public life, especially in Paris. There are more than six million French people with an Islamic background living in France. They are a feature of this city, but little is known about them, or they are regarded in a negative light.
Islam is not standardised. It comprises a variety of diverse cultures. The largest mosque in Paris was built in 1926 with the support of the city authorities, in recognition of the Muslims who fought for France during World War One. That was the first Islamic project in France. During the era of François Mitterrand, the Arab World Institute was founded in 1980, focusing on Arab culture. But Islam does not just pertain to Arab nations. The majority of Muslims are not Arab. And this led to the idea of setting up an institute concerned with all the cultures of Islam. This is the French nation's third project.
It is extraordinary that a country such as France decides to finance an institute for Islamic cultures. After all, in France, the "mother of laicism", there is a strict separation of state and religion.
Rieffel: The 1905 law separating the churches and state was passed to end the power of the Catholic Church over the state. It is not a law against religion, on the contrary, it stands for pluralism and diversity. We at the Institute for Islamic Culture respect the fact that there are several religions and faith communities represented in France, and that Islam is just one of these. We are not striving to launch a religious project. Our understanding of laicism does not position us against religion, but against the power of religion.
But in France there is a law that prohibits all religious symbols in the public domain; religious instruction is even forbidden in state schools. And your project is financed by the taxpayer. Would it not be fair to raise legal objections?
Rieffel: The institute's aims are not religious, but cultural. This cultural cause means it supports the fostering of a better understanding of Islam. Like any religion, Islam has a strict orthodox side and a politically inoffensive cultural side. If you visit the Louvre, you will find entire galleries full of religious symbols.
If a young person sees a painting of Mary and child there, he may perhaps wonder who this woman is. He has learned very little about religion and its historical context at school. But he wants to know who this woman and child are. In this sense, the picture with the religious dimension becomes a cultural symbol.
Is the institute limiting its activities to the situation in France, or does it plan to extend its work on a European level?
Rieffel: To this day, the French associate Islam with the nation's colonial traditions and migration. Everything changed after the fall of the Wall in Berlin, in France too. We must now reassess all our ideas about Islamic culture. To do this, we need to work together with other European capitals, such as Berlin or Madrid, to foster the creation of what could be termed a "European Islam", which could then become a facet of European culture. We must conduct a dialogue to enable Islam in Europe to gain autonomy from other Islamic nations.
In many countries with a Muslim majority, there are also people of other faiths and religions. They are also an integral part of the cultural structure of these nations. Many of them also live in France. Is the institute's work also aimed at such people?
Rieffel: We differentiate between the religion Islam and Islamic culture. We are trying to make a connection between the two concepts, so that religious Islam opens itself up to laic and cultural Islam. When we speak of cultural Islam, we also mean people who are not Muslims, but who come from these Islamic nations. We aim to provide information about the Islam that had an influence on other cultures and even interacted with other cultures.
Take for example the famous French artist Francois Morellet. When he visited Andalusia for the first time in 1965, and set eyes on the Alhambra and the architecture in Seville, he was enthralled. We are about to begin organising an exhibition showing how Morellet engaged with Islamic architecture in Spain. It is a way of exploring the broader-based theme of the relationship between modern western art and Arab-Islamic art.
We also find examples of this interaction with Islamic culture in the works of Paul Klee, Henri Matisse and Eugène Delacroix. They were heavily influenced by art in Islamic culture. This influence was for the most part denied by the West. There are even individuals who believe that the cultures of East and West have nothing in common. We are endeavouring to revive this ancient and current relationship between East and West and its mutual stimulation.
Interview: Suleman Taufiq
© Qantara.de 2010
Translated from the German by Nina Coon
Editor: Lewis Gropp/Qantara.de