A Place to Remember the Immigration

Using a Muslim cemetery near Paris as an example, journalist Marie-Ange d'Adler has written a book examining France's contradictory attitude toward Muslims. Goetz Nordbruch reports

Using a Muslim cemetery near Paris as an example, journalist Marie-Ange d'Adler has written a book examining France's contradictory attitude toward Muslims. Götz Nordbruch reports

photo: Larissa Bender
Marie-Ange d'Adler: "The thousands of graves stand for thousands of families that make up a part of France today"

​​In the Old Town of Damascus, people burned to death in mosques where they had taken refuge from the bombardments of the French army.

With "revolting cynicism" – the July, 1926 editorial in a communist newspaper of French colonial soldiers went on to comment – French colonialism was now celebrating the opening of a large mosque in the Parisian Jardin des Plantes: "They take the Muslims for fools, for dogs who let themselves be beaten and then lick your hands for a piece of sugar."

A new book, published early this year by the French publisher Autrement, examines the history of France's contradictory policies toward Muslims in France as well as in its former colonies and mandated territories.

In her book, Le cimetière musulman de Bobigny. Lieu de mémoire d'un siècle d'immigration, journalist Marie-Ange d'Adler takes the history of the Muslim cemetery founded in 1937 in the Parisian suburb of Bobigny as a point of departure for illuminating France's policy toward its Muslims.

"A walk through the cemetery," Adler writes, "takes you through nearly a century of Muslim emigration to France. […] Every grave stands for an uprooting, a transplantation, a recreation. The thousands of graves stand for thousands of families that make up part of France today."

Personal narratives

By telling some of the life stories of the people buried in the cemetery, the book illustrates the different epochs of this Muslim immigration to France. In brief biographies pieced together from the archives, d'Adler describes the lives of young soldiers who were recruited from North African villages during World War Two and died liberating Paris, or while imprisoned in one of the German Stalags on the front.

But most of the cemetery tells the story of individuals or families who settled in France for a variety of reasons. For example, the grave of the Zeroug family, who immigrated to France in 1937, stands for the diverse range of experience which confronted French Muslims over the past decades. In 1946, the burial of the family's infant son Salah in the Bobigny cemetery represented a decision for life in France and against returning to Algeria.

Yet developments in Algeria, especially the Algerian struggle for independence from France, left their mark on the family's daily life. Both parents and the family's uncle were among the 4000 people who fell victim to terrorist attacks by rival Algerian organizations in France in the 50s and 60s. Of the children who are still alive today, Atman and Zoulara have chosen to live in France, while daughter Salima returned to now-independent Algeria in 1962.

At the urging of her daughter, who is now studying in Paris, she recently applied for French citizenship in addition to Algerian citizenship.

But for Adler the cemetery is more than just an opportunity to explore the biographies hidden behind each grave. The history of the cemetery also represents the interests and goals of French policy toward Islam and Muslims.

A cemetery just for Muslims

Aside from two other cemeteries on the French island of Réunion in the Indian Ocean, to this day these grounds on the edge of an industrial area near Paris represent the only cemetery with exclusively Muslim graves.

Only recently did some public cemeteries begin to offer areas designated for burials according to Islamic ritual. However, these denominational concessions must not interfere with the non-denominational character of the cemeteries.

D'Adler shows that the Muslim cemetery in Bobigny, like the Paris mosque, built in 1926, and the French-Muslim hospital, built in 1935, stands for France's attempt to define its relationship toward the Muslim "sujet" in the colonies.

Respect toward colonial inhabitants

When the armistice came in 1918, 100,000 Muslims were among the dead and missing on the side of the French, along with nearly 900,000 other soldiers from the French colonies.

In the wake of World War One Senator Edouard Herriot set off a lively debate about the possibilities for making a symbolic gesture of appreciation for the Muslim soldiers' sacrifice for France.

Gestures of this kind were crucial for maintaining the loyalty of the colonies; for all their purely symbolic value, they were meant to express a certain respect toward the colonies' inhabitants.

Official circles cited this appreciation of Islam and its adherents as a central motive for establishing the Muslim hospital and, a little later, the Muslim cemetery. The French were even willing to break with fundamental principles of the modern French state to make official gestures of French-Islamic friendship and underline France's role as a guarantor of Islamic interests.

Official interest in monitoring activities

Like the state-sponsored construction of the mosque, the establishment of the Muslim hospital and cemetery contradicted the strictly secular separation of church and state. Still, as a private cemetery administered by the French-Muslim Hospital, it managed to officially legitimize these gestures, which had significance for colonial policy as well.

At the same time, the institutionalization of Islam which went along with the creation of such facilities was not necessarily in the interest of the Muslims themselves. Taking the example of the French-Muslim hospital to which the cemetery was annexed, Adler demonstrates the state interest in subjecting the Muslims' religious and political life to police monitoring:

"Handling and monitoring, those were the two tasks – painstakingly combined – implemented by the approach [toward the Islamic community] in Paris."

For example, the task of managing the hospital was initially given to the head of the Paris police department, whose purview included the monitoring of the North African population in France. The original blueprints for the hospital made no bones of the fact that a police station was integrated into the building.

"Stop speaking of 'immigrants'?"

The history of the Bobigny cemetery provides many examples of the contradictions involved in the institutionalization of Islam, going all the way up to the present day. Nonetheless, a site like this one opens up perspectives that go beyond traditional attempts to "domesticate Islam".

After all, French Muslims have emphasized lately, a cemetery is above all a "place of integration": those buried in France were and remain part of French society.

Adler herself comes to a similar conclusion. She winds up her epilogue about the history of the cemetery as a "place to remember a century of immigration" with the very legitimate question: "Shouldn't we stop speaking of 'immigrants'?"

Goetz Nordbruch

© Qantara.de 2005

Translation from German: Isabel Cole


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