The daughter of an Algerian Muslim and a French woman of Catholic and Jewish descent, Kahina Bahloul (Paris, 43 years old), swims against the tide. She is the first imam in France. But it is a liberal Islam, far removed from the prevailing Islamism and shaped by the mystical tradition of Ibn Arabí and by Sufism. He has just published the essay My Islam, My Freedom (La Llave editions) in Spanish.
ASK. How did you discover God?
REPLY. For me it was natural. I grew up in Algeria with my grandparents who were believers. Their religious practice of Islam is not what we imagine today. It was a belief in harmony with nature and society, simple and close to people.
P This has nothing to do with today’s Islam.
R no It was traditional Islam. I saw my grandfather praying under a tree. He had a mystical, romantic side. The holidays were a time of joy and conviviality. It was very different. I witnessed the turning point that came with the rise of Islamist fundamentalism.
P He saw it in Algeria.
R Algeria was one of the first countries to learn about Islam. In the 1990’s we saw the arrival of political Islam and the changes in society. One of the first signs of this transformation was the arrival of the Islamic veil, the hijab. I had known an Algeria without a veil.
P You don’t wear a veil.
R I have never worn a veil. And in my family it was never considered that I would wear it. My grandmother, yes, wore the traditional veil, a type of white fabric, silk or wool. But not my aunts’ generation anymore.
P What does the veil mean to you?
R It is clearly a tool of patriarchal domination. Not only that, it is far from being an exclusive symbol of Islam. The veil existed in all traditions long before Islam: in Judaism, in Christianity.
P It is now said that wearing the veil can be feminist and that if the veil is required by law then the woman’s body is regulated by law.
R Yes, and it’s very annoying. It is part of this movement of Islam as a means of asserting identity to Western modernity. I cannot understand this identity Islam that is behind a certain feminism that claims the right to wear the veil because the veil would be part of a Muslim identity.
P It comes as a surprise to many people to see a female imam.
R Whenever women in human history wanted to practice a profession that was forbidden to them, there were initially arguments. A pilot, a judge, a doctor, Marie Curie… Women have to fight for access to jobs that the patriarchal system forbids. In religion it’s even more difficult because there’s the idea of holiness.
P Why did he become imam?
R I didn’t wake up one morning wanting to be an imam. It was a journey of spiritual and personal quest. I wanted to share this experience that helped me a lot in life. Symbolically, it is helping to change society’s view not only of women but of Islam as well. Nothing forbids it in Islam, on the contrary.
P Did the Muslims in France get it?
R Depends on which. Conservatives or fundamentalists don’t understand this, but many progressive and liberal Muslims do. Sometimes they stop me on the street and tell me: “Keep going, don’t give up”.
P But fundamentalists dominate Islam in France.
R They dominate Islam in general around the world. Centuries will pass before liberal Islam is in the majority. Such was the case with Liberal Judaism, which was born more than a century ago and is now the majority in the United States, not yet in France. It is a matter of time. We are a small minority. But all revolutions begin with minorities.
P Were there any hostile reactions?
R On social networks, but nothing very serious.
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