PARIS - Criticizing the anti-Islam rhetoric played by presidential aspirants to win votes, prominent Swiss Muslim intellectual Tariq Ramadan has urged French politicians to work to unite their country.
Instead of talking about halal meat, the burka, national identity and dividing France, you should unite it, Ramadan told a packed hall at the annual Muslim conference Le Bourget, organized by the Union of Islamic Organizations of France (UOIF), RFI reported.
The four-day Muslim conference, which started on Friday, comes amid rising debates between presidential candidates to win votes ahead of the April-May election.
It also comes just weeks after the killing of seven people, including three Muslim soldiers and three Jewish children, by an Al-Qaeda-inspired gunman in Toulouse last month.
Following the killing, President Nicolas Sarkozy, who is seeking re-election, ordered a crackdown on preachers he says promote hatred.
France has banned the entry of several Muslim scholars to attend the Muslim conference and expelled a number of imams of claims of preaching hatred.
Ramadan criticized the reactions of the Elysee hopefuls and politicians to the killing spree of lone-wolf Islamist Mohamed Merah.
Of course [Merah's] murders in Montauban and Toulouse should be condemned without hesitation, he said.
But â¦ we don't expect a government to fan the flames.
France's Muslims, estimated at six million, have distanced themselves from the killings, saying the attacks run counter to the Islamic teachings.
Ramadan called on French Muslims to unite to promote a true image about themselves and their faith.
If you could remind the government what we really stand for, you would be performing a useful service, he said.
Muslims and their faith have been a central them in electoral rallies by the Elysee hopefuls.
The government has taken a series of provocative measures to restrict Muslim freedoms ranging from banning the wearing of hijab in schools to outlawing face-veils in public.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen had once likened Muslim street prayers to the Nazi occupation.
Ramadan is one of Europe's leading Muslim thinkers and has often condemned terrorism and extremism.
The author of 20 books and 700 articles on Islam, he was named by Time magazine as one of 100 innovators of the 21st century for his work on creating an independent European Islam.
Le Bourget has become a fixture in the French calendar, a chance for Muslims to meet, hear speeches from intellectuals and scholars, and buy the latest in Islamic literature and clothes.
Thousands of Muslims came in droves to the annual gala, going through a miscellany of books and items on display, attending lectures and vying in contests for the memorization of the Qur'an.Every year, tens of thousands of Muslims from across Europe attend the conference's activities, with young women in their unmistakable hijabs and enthusiastic young men making up the bulk of attendees.