At 6:30 AM on Saturday morning, a chirpy flock of children descends on the Koranic school in Tsingani. As the musty odour of night gives way to the perfume of fragrant vegetation, the boys and girls crowd into a roughly constructed concrete building, where their teacher beats the blackboard with a stick to establish a semblance of calm. The assembled rabble then launches into a monotonous recitation of verses from the Koran which re-echoes through the institution that is half school and half daycare centre. Upstairs in a much more studious atmosphere, segregated groups of girls and boys, study the sacred text with another teacher.
And so the work of God continues in Mayotte, which on 31 March, became the 101st department of France. Since refusing an offer of independence in 1975, the Indian Ocean territory has sought to reconcile Islam and the laws of the French republic. This quest, which no one wants to perceive as contradictory, is aptly illustrated by two figures: 90% of Mayotte’s 200,000 population are Muslim and, in 2009, 95% of them voted to make the territory a French department, which would give them full access to French citizenship.
While the debate on Islam and the secular state continues in Metropolitan France, in Tsingani, Adinani Zoubert, age 72, does not see any discrepancy or incompatibility: "It goes without saying that this is a secular state, but the point of a secular state is that it guarantees religious freedom. We don’t have to live in an Islamic republic to practice our religion." Every afternoon, the leader of Mayotte’s Islamic religious council teaches his faith to children aged between 6 and 15 who spend the first part of the day attending the official state school. He is also a veteran of the campaign to make the territory a French department. "Making Mayotte a fully fledged part of France was goal I fought for,” he says. “It was my dream for 40 years."
To obtain this status, the island population was obliged to accept certain compromises between the Koran and the French civil code. Unilateral repudiation is now forbidden and the legal age for marriage has been set at 18 years. Polygamy, which was already proscribed by a 2003 law, has been abolished, although existing polygamous marriages will still be officially recognised. As one islander famously remarked to the French Prefect Hubert Derache, "We will make do with having mistresses, like you Westerners." In the matriarchal society, the new rules have been widely accepted. However, women’s groups will have their work cut out to obtain fully equal rights.
Anti-burqa law was very well received
In 2010, in a bid to be that little bit more French, the natives of Mayotte also agreed to abandon the practice of appealing to the authority of qadis or Islamic judges who traditional acted as notaries, magistrates and social facilitators for the island population. The qadi justice system, which in Mayotte dates back to the 14th century was recognised by France when it annexed the Comoro archipelago in 1841, a decision that was later reconfirmed in 1939 and 1964.
The qadis will now become more of tradition than an authority, as more and more of the islanders opt to get married in front of the mayor, take their disputes to judges appointed by the Republic, and their inheritance and conveyancing to official French notaries.
Proponents of an Islam with a strong dash of animism, which is supervised by dynamic brotherhoods, the people of Mayotte adhere to moderate reading of the Koran — a fact which adds to the exasperation of Abdoulatifou Aly, an independent representative of Mayotte and the only Muslim to have a seat in the French National Assembly, who is offended by the ongoing debate in Metropolitan France. "In some French suburbs, there are people who want to use Islam as a weapon against the West, but that doesn’t mean that our religion is by nature opposed to the Republic." According to the MP, the Islamic territory of Mayotte is in fact a glorification of France. "Here, the values of the Republic make more sense than they do in Metropolitan France, because they demonstrate their capacity to integrate difference and assume a fully universal dimension."
"We have an Islam that functions in harmony with the Republic,” confirms Hubert Derache. “People are very opposed to any radicalisation. For example, the anti-burqa law was very well received." Only about 20 women on the island wear full hijab, and salafists from the neighbouring Comoro Islands and Metropolitan France are not welcome in Mayotte’s 285 mosques.
"We have our own distinctive society"
A meeting with Abdou Madi, head gynaecologist at Mamoudzou hospital offers further evidence of religious moderation. "I have never had any difficulties examining patients here, not like the ones I had when I was working in Marseille," he remarks. However, the midwives in his department told us that polygamy is still common and that young mothers have no qualms about their involvement in polygamous relationships. There is still a considerable difference between the law and the reality of life as it is lived in Mayotte.
However, Mouhtar Rachidi, age 66, who has been the imam at the M’Tsapéré mosque since 2001, remains sceptical about the notion of a perfect harmony between Islam and the Republic. Like other religious leaders, he opposed the campaign to make the territory a French department. Irritated by the concessions that his fellow citizens continue to make for their French nationality, he points out that the local ulamas have expressed a number reservations. "I don’t find secularity shocking if I can practice my religion,” he explains. “What bothers me is that they want to restrict certain aspects of it. We cannot change the Koran. It is blasphemy to modify inheritance law that has been laid down by God. It is like saying God was wrong."
"There are some laws of the republic that have to be applied without any discussion,” points out Adinani Zoubert. “But there others that should be discussed. We have our own distinctive society. We cannot impose a ban on muezzin’s call to prayer. In Paris, I wouldn’t dream of demanding a ban on the ringing of church bells just because they bother me."
Translated from the French by Mark McGovern