Islam is more evolved in France than anywhere else in Western Europe, and it makes for a important contrast with the United States. One obvious difference is in the education and social standing of the immigrants (lower in France); another is in the pattern of conversion (fewer there); and a third is in the outlook of the leading institutions (less radical). Bencheikh, mufti of Marseilles, epitomizes the liberal intellectual Muslim, pious but not Islamist—and so he presents a great challenge to the Islamists and their hegemonic tendencies.
Bencheikh's salutory message starts on the first page of this well-written, direct, and heart-warming book: "Islam has always developed the theology of a majority faith sovereign in its territory. In France, it is crucial to create a minority theology." He goes on to suggest that in making this change, Muslims will "rediscover the original nature" of their faith: "a message that is proposed, not imposed." The mufti is prepared to make what changes are needed to live as a Muslim in France: "If I live in the West, I will interpret Islam in a way that does not marginalize me in the West." Unlike American Muslim leaders, with their dreams of constructing an Islamic state in the land of the free, Bencheikh accepts that laicism "is not negotiable, being permanent and universal" in France; he also argues that secularism is something French Muslims must claim as their own. He comes as a partner, not as a "conquering adversary" and believes it possible to do away with centuries of misunderstandings. Bencheikh has yet grander hopes: arguing that Islam is just now emerging from a decadence that had lasted "several centuries," he argues that the reforming and liberal trends that he hopes will emerge in France can be "transferable to the Muslim world as a whole."