France: Army organizes hajj trip

France: Army organizes hajj trip

Muslims in France's army who go on the pilgrimage to Mecca this year will not have to travel on private commercial flights or bunk with ordinary civilians. In a break from tradition, the Defence Ministry will provide a plane to fly them to Saudi Arabia and organize their stay.

For any western government to arrange a hajj trip would be unusual. It is especially so here, in a country so protective of its secularism that it regulates what Muslim girls can wear in school and is considering a blanket ban on the face-covering Islamic niqab.

But for Mohamed-Ali Bouharb, a spit-and-polish gendarmerie captain who put together the final pieces for the pilgrimage last week, it is one step toward making Islam as "banal" in France as any other religion.

"The army is always in advance of society," said Capt. Bouharb, one of the 30 Muslim chaplains recently recruited by the armed forces. "And it is anaesthetized from all the social questions and debate outside."

While religion and state remain firmly separated in the rest of French society, the military has started accommodating its Muslim personnel in ways that would be unthinkable outside the barracks.

It now provides halal meals and, where possible, prayer rooms. Last week, the Muslim chaplaincy published the first edition of a new magazine, splashed with photos of mosques, recipes for meals to break the Ramadan fast and an article that would not raise an eyebrow in any French magazine. Its subject: How do you say "I love you?"

"What is really interesting is that while completely respecting France's secular spirit, we are nevertheless not very far from Anglo-Saxon vision," Capt. Bouharb said. "To have a photo of a mosque in a magazine from the secular public service – that's new."


Soldiers and police officers who go under the auspices of the military will have to pay about €3,000 – roughly $4,700 – less than most private travel agencies would generally charge, and their housing and guides will be provided by their counterparts in the Saudi Defence Ministry.

The trip is scheduled for November, unless it is cancelled over concerns about swine flu.


Source: Globe and Mail

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