CAIRO – The mayor of Nice warning that Muslim footballers seen praying beside pitches risk suspension and their clubs could lose state subsidies has triggered many condemnations, seen as adding to counterproductive anti-Muslim rhetoric.
“He’s clearly starting a fire designed to pit the local Nicois against the local Muslims,” Karim, 21, a young activist in one of Nice’s Muslim neighborhoods, referring to Mayor Christian Estrosi, told The Daily Beast on Monday, May 2.
“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.”
Football authorities on the Riviera have introduced a “secularism charter” that bans clubs on the Côte d’Azur from bringing religion into the game.
The Right-wing mayor of Nice, Christian Estrosi, said the charter stemmed from strict French laws enforcing secularism in public institutions and banning the wearing of Muslim headscarves or other “ostentatious” religious symbols in state schools or government offices.
Since October, ten breaches of the charter have been reported, most of them involving Muslim players praying on or near the pitch immediately before or after a match, BFM TV reported.
Several players were reportedly suspended for two matches.
The rhetoric was revived last week after Estrosi said that football clubs on the Riviera must respect a “secularism charter”, invoking the hallowed law enacted in 1905 that strictly separates church and state.
“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.
The new restrictions have angered many residents as merely targeting the city’s 65,000 Muslim population.
“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.”
The prayer ban in soccer games is not the first time for the mayor of Nice to offend Muslim citizens.
The city’s biggest recent controversy involving Muslims prior was his move to legally block the city’s planned new mosque in the last week of April.
“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.”
The “En-Nour” mosque in Nice is an impressive modern construction that was finished since last November.
The downstairs hall, lit by a huge skylight, boasts an area of 350 meters squares and can accommodate almost 900 worshippers.
On the second floor there is a reading room for children, a library, and a separate prayer room for women.
Estrosi accused the mosque owner, Saudi Arabia’s Islamic Affairs Minister Sheikh Saleh bin Abdulaziz, of “advocating Shari`ah law”.
“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.”
The city currently has only one small place for prayer, while worshippers are forced to spill out on the street at peak praying times.
France is home to a Muslim community of nearly six million, the largest in Europe.
French Muslims have been complaining of restrictions on performing their religious practices.
In May 2014, a French mayor, who claimed that Islam will be banned from the country by 2027, was expelled from France’s main opposition conservative party after rightists rejected his calls as “unacceptable”.