Over dinner at a Simon Wiesenthal Center benefit on April 18 at which he was to be honored, Imam Hassen Chalghoumi pulled out his iPhone to scroll through pictures of himself with a host of foreign dignitaries.
He thumbed past Sen. John McCain, former French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Israeli President Shimon Peres — each of whom he gamely referred to as “my friend.” Before the end of the night, a sumptuous banquet for Hollywood executives and Jewish leaders at the Beverly Hilton, he would have a few more friends to show off.
But the friends he’s earned on his warpath against anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism have caused him some trouble in the Muslim community of Drancy, France, where he serves as the imam.
He’s seen his car lit on fire and yarmulkes burned in protest outside his mosque. When he spoke out against the Islamic State in 2015, saying its members have Satan as their prophet rather than Muhammad, the terrorist group put out a fatwa on him — a call for his assassination. Chalghoumi’s family now lives outside of France for their safety.
“My wife and children have had to make numerous sacrifices, and it is of them I think tonight,” he said as he accepted the award onstage at the Hilton. “It is their medal of valor, as well.”
Chalghoumi is tall and broad, with a small goatee and a round, boyish face that is almost always smiling under a white fez. For his activism and close relationships with Jewish organizations, his opponents have labeled him “Imam of the Jews,” a title he now views as honorific.
Back at his dinner table, he pointed across to a tall, suited man in spectacles sitting quietly. The man was an off-duty Los Angeles Police Department officer, he said, part of his security detail. In Los Angeles, his detail is two cops. In Paris, it’s 12. In Brussels, 20.
The next morning, the imam sat stretched on a couch in the office of Marvin Hier, the Wiesenthal Center’s dean and founder. The Wiesenthal Center had flown him to Los Angeles to accept a medal of valor at its 2016 national tribute dinner, and it hopes to collaborate with him on their shared goal of fighting anti-Semitism.
The same off-duty police officer in spectacles and a suit waited quietly outside the closed door.
“The good news is that this man’s the real deal,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center. “The bad news is he’s one in a million.”
Drancy’s imam has been fighting the radicalization of young Muslims since long before the world’s attention turned to Paris after the terrorist attacks that killed more than 100 people last Nov. 13.
“I wasn’t waiting for the attack,” he told the Jewish Journal. “I foresaw it. I was working on it for a long time.”
The imam is quick to dismiss the people who perpetrated that attack and similar acts of violence as fake Muslims and barbarians.
“When they commit crimes in the name of Islam, they too say they are Muslims,” he said of the terrorists. “But I don’t recognize them as Muslims.”
Chalghoumi has set out to recast Islam as a humanist and peaceful religion, especially as a message to disaffected young men in France most prone to being won over by radical ideologies. In his dealings with young people, many simply need to talk with a knowledgeable person of the Islamic faith in order to recognize radical ideology as a sham.
Other cases are not so simple.
Chalghoumi recalls a couple asking him, in 2012, to intervene with their son, whom they suspected was being radicalized. When the young man wouldn’t meet with him, he put the parents in contact with the French authorities, who arrested the young man but quickly let him go again. Soon after his release, he fled to Syria.
After the Nov. 13 attack, the imam made the gut-wrenching discovery that the man had been one of the perpetrators of the attack on Paris’ Stade de France football arena.
“There are cases like that that are impossible,” he said. “I can’t do anything about it — the state has to take measures. Their ideology of death, they harbor it because they have inside them so much hate. Is it because of their family? Are they part of a gang? Because in general, it doesn’t start in mosques.”
In 2008, Chalghoumi started the Conference of Imams in France, a group that has grown to 180 religious leaders aimed at creating “an Islam of Europe, that fits in the laws and the values of Europe.” The group has spoken out with conviction and regularity against recent acts of violence in Paris and Brussels.
The imam’s fight for the soul of his religion was inspired in part by the history. The Parisian suburb of Drancy, where he lived, served as the railway terminal through which 70,000 prisoners passed on their way to Nazi concentration camps.
“Remembering the Shoah is a human duty,” he said. “It’s just human victims, assassinated, massacred because of their religion, their belonging.”
He began to learn more about the Holocaust after moving to Drancy in 2000 to start the local Association of Muslims. Since then, he’s paid respects at Holocaust memorials in Israel and Germany.
His activism in Holocaust memory has brought him a fair deal of strife. In 2006, days after he spoke at Drancy’s Holocaust memorial, vandals broke into his house. Since then, there have been more break-ins and attempts on his life.
From an early age, multiculturalism played a large role in the imam’s life. Born in Tunisia in 1972 to a family of modest means, he grew up in the diverse La Goulette port neighborhood of the country’s capital, Tunis, where he recalls a kosher restaurant peacefully coexisting with the Muslim majority.
“We don’t talk about the People of the Book as infidels; we talk about them as the family of the book,” he said of his upbringing in the Islamic faith.
He said the type of radical Islam spreading in low-income areas of France and Belgium are an opportunistic interpretation of the religion: “The façade is Islamic but the reality is politics.”
Extremist Muslim leaders exploit the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to energize their supporters. For instance, he pointed to dogged activism on the European continent by the Muslim Brotherhood, imported from the Middle East by political refugees.
“It’s not the same Islam as the Islam in the countries where they come from,” he said. “It’s not about peace, love — it’s about confrontation.”
Take, for instance, the idea of jihad — often translated as “struggle” — which has come to refer to Islam’s most militant and extreme wing. Chalghoumi draws a different interpretation.
“Ramadan is a jihad against the soul,” he said, switching between halting English and Arabic-accented French. “To resist your ambitions — like [Yom] Kippur. For hours, no eating — that’s jihad.”
He shares with the Wiesenthal Center the conviction that radical Islam in the 21st century has to be met where it exists, namely on the Internet.
“The majority of work we have to do, 60 percent, is on the Internet,” he said. “Because that’s the vehicle, the means of hate. America attacks Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, Tora Bora, all those places. But now Al Qaeda is on the Internet, you can’t just bomb them.”
Much of his activism is directed at European corporations that allow terrorist groups to spread their message online. Cooper, the Wiesenthal Center associate dean, recalled that when he first met Chalghoumi at a conference on anti-Semitism, the imam pointed to a Google representative and said, “J’accuse! [I accuse!]” Chalghoumi holds the search engine responsible for allowing terrorists to operate on its site.
As the interview wrapped up, Cooper re-entered the room with a laptop open to a screen grab of a homophobic game a Wiesenthal Center researcher had unearthed, where users play as ISIS soldiers and execute suspected homosexuals.
“It’s a failure in the system,” Chalghoumi commented.
“Parents don’t know,” Cooper said.
“No control,” the imam said.
“No control, no knowledge,” the rabbi said. “There has to be a whole change in approach even as to how you raise your children.”
Chalghoumi looked drawn and worried. “France doesn’t deserve what’s going on right now,” he said.