Will France Stop Muslim Soccer Players From Praying?

Nice, France — Wearing Muslim head scarves in schools has been banned all over the country since 2004. But will the mayor of Nice get away with telling Muslim football players they can’t pray on the field?

Many in Nice question why Mayor Christian Estrosi is suddenly taking a harder-than-normal line against Muslims—trying to shut down a big mosque and threatening to cut funds to the local soccer club if players continue to pray on the pitch—less than two weeks after a report indicating ISIS is planning an attack on the beaches of southern France and Italy.

“He’s clearly starting a fire designed to pit the local Nicois against the local Muslims,” said Karim, 21, a young activist in one of Nice’s Muslim neighborhoods. “He’s using a form of blackmail to get more non-Muslims on his side and against our community. And to what end? He could end up radicalizing a lot of kids as a result.”

Estrosi announced late last week that football clubs on the Riviera must respect a “secularism charter” that forbids bringing religion into the game, invoking the hallowed law enacted in 1905 that strictly separates church and state.

BFM TV reported that the introduction of the charter came after ten incidents of Riviera club players praying on the field or in nearby locker rooms since October. There was also a report that some devout male Muslim referees refused to shake the hands of female players. At least two players were suspended for two matches.

“We take the attitude that sports in general and football in particular, as the most popular and universal sport, should not be mixed with religious or political practices,” Eric Borghini, head of the Riviera branch of the French Football Federation and a local attorney, told BFM.

Estrosi, the still boyishly handsome at 60, right-wing mayor has long been popular among Nice’s famously far-right constituency. A former professional motorcyclist, he’s a hero to many of them for his conservative views and his opposition to Muslim extremism.

But members of the more than 65,000 people who comprise Nice’s rapidly growing Muslim population are increasingly angered by what they see as anti-Muslim views and other residents say they are mystified at his actions at a time when fears about possible terrorist attacks here are running rampant.

“It’s ridiculous, he’s being inflammatory for no reason,” said a longtime bartender at one of Nice’s main Irish bars. “Catholic players make the sign of the cross before a game. What happened to religious tolerance? This is not the time to alienate Muslims in Nice.”

Though the streets of the picturesque Old Town are already filling up with wide-eyed tourists enchanted by the bustling cafes and gelato stands, some local businesses report that their seasonal bookings have nose-dived because of the recent attacks in Brussels and Paris as well as reports about ISIS possibly striking here.

Bild magazine reported on April 17 that Italian intelligence tracked information from Senegal indicating ISIS could be sending attackers dressed as ice cream vendors on Mediterranean beaches in France and Italy as well as placing bombs in soda cans underneath sunbeds.

One local caterer, who makes all his yearly income servicing high-end weddings for Middle Eastern clients between May and the end of August, said the majority of them have canceled this year, citing fears over possible attacks on the Cote d’Azur.

“He [Estrosi] is playing a dangerous game,” said Mohamed Hasan, 24, who is unemployed and lives in the Ariane, a notorious neighborhood on the outskirts of Nice. “He is trying to please some of his constituents but he’s making the rest of us mad.”

Hasan’s mother is among those upset at Estrosi for what was the city’s biggest recent controversy involving Muslims prior to Friday’s new football charter: his move to legally block the city’s planned new mosque in the last week of April.

Estrosi is not alone in closing a mosque. One of the country’s leading imams, Hassan El Alaoui, who became the country’s first Muslim prison-chaplain in 2005, said recently that France is likely to close up to 160 mosques that are believed to promote radicalism.

Some of the mosques that have been shut down in France since the state of emergency was enacted after the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris include two in Paris and one in Lyon.

But the difference in Nice is that En-Nour, the so-called Grand Mosque, a spacious, skylit place of worship sought by Nice’s Muslim leaders for more than 30 years, was shut down right when it was finally ready to open, leaving the city’s Muslims with little more than strip mall-front facilities or private garages often called “Islam des caves.”

Some among the squabbling leaders of the three local Muslim organizations maintain that Estrosi initially green-lighted the mosque and then reneged on the deal in 2013, bowing to political pressure in an area where the far-right National Front has always enjoyed considerable power and influence.

Others say Estrosi has always been against the mosque, which got initial approval in 2002, before he was elected mayor. When Estrosi announced his decision to sue the French state in an effort to block the opening of the mosque, he accused its owner, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz, of “advocating Sharia law” and bringing the hard-core Saudi brand of Wahhabism to the Cote d’Azur.

“Ridiculous,” the mosque’s would-be imam, Mahmoud Benzamia, told The Daily Beast. “The Saudi just funded the building. He has never gotten involved in plans for the mosque itself and we have no intention of bringing Wahhabism here. This is all purely political on Mayor Estrosi’s part.”