The Persian Gulf Emirate of Qatar says it plans to invest €50 million ($65 million) in French suburbs that are home to hundreds of thousands of disgruntled Muslim immigrants.
Qatar says its investment is intended to support small businesses in disadvantaged Muslim neighborhoods. But Qatar, like Saudi Arabia, subscribes to the ultra-conservative Wahhabi sect of Islam, and critics say the emirate's real objective is to peddle its religious ideology among Muslims in France and other parts of Europe.
Qatari Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, who has long cultivated an image as a pro-Western reformist and modernizer, recently vowed to "spare no effort" to spread the fundamentalist teachings of Wahhabi Islam across "the whole world."
The promotion of Islamic extremist ideologies -- particularly Wahhabism, which not only discourages Muslim integration in the West, but actively encourages jihad against non-Muslims -- threatens to further radicalize Muslim immigrants in France, analysts say.
The Qatari investments are being targeted in blighted French suburban slums known in France as banlieues, where up to one million or more mostly unemployed Muslim immigrants from North Africa and the Middle East eke out an impoverished existence.
The banlieues are already being exploited by Islamist preachers from countries such as Morocco and Turkey, which are leveraging the social marginalization of Muslim immigrants in France to create "separate Islamic societies" ruled by Islamic Sharia law, according to a recent study which examines the rise of Islam in France.
The 2,200-page report, "Banlieue de la République" (Suburbs of the Republic) -- commissioned by the influential French think tank L'Institut Montaigne, and directed by Gilles Kepel, a well-known specialist on the Muslim world -- describes how Muslim immigrants are increasingly rejecting French values and identity in favor of Islam.
The report shows how Sharia law is rapidly displacing French civil law in many parts of suburban Paris and warns that France is on the brink of a major social explosion because of the failure of Muslims to integrate into French society.
France, which has between five and six million Muslims, has the largest Muslim population in the European Union.
The study says that Muslim religious institutions and practices are increasingly displacing those of the state and the French Republic, which has a strong secular tradition.
Among other findings, the report describes the proliferation of mosques, Koranic schools and makeshift prayer rooms in the banlieues. The religious orientations of these mosques are heavily influenced by the national origin of the founder or president of a given mosque.
This is contributing to a "new sociology of Muslim believers" composed mainly of undereducated low-income immigrants who depend on financial support from countries such as Morocco, Turkey, Tunisia -- and now Qatar -- all of which are pursuing their own objectives in France.
Nabil Ennasri, the president of a Muslim activist group called the Collectif des Musulmans de France (CMF), says Qatar is keen to exert its influence over the Muslims in France. He says: "France has a large Muslim population of Arab heritage, which will one day, whether it is welcome or not, play an important role in French politics. Investing in this population is a way of recruiting supporters who will -- consciously or unconsciously -- further Qatari interests."
With less than 100 days to go before the presidential elections in France, the phenomenon of foreign Muslim governments competing for influence over Muslim immigrants in France has become a campaign issue.
Marine Le Pen, who leads the right wing National Front party, recently warned that Qatar's influence over French Muslims was growing. She also said that, if elected, she would defend French sovereignty from the meddling of Islamist governments that support political religious movements in France and threaten to "destabilize our country."
"The massive investments which Qatar has made in suburbs are made because of the very high proportion of Muslims who are in the French suburbs," Le Pen said. "We are allowing a foreign country to choose its investments on the basis of the religion of this or that part of the French population or of French territory. I think this situation could be very dangerous."
Le Pen also said Qatar was "playing a double game" by presenting itself as an "enlightened" country to Western democracies while at the same time supporting Islamist groups in the Middle East and North Africa.
"I say solemnly, the Qataris are financial supporters of Islamic fundamentalists, madmen of Sharia. The French have a right to know that, especially in Libya, the jihadists who are now in power and whose first action was to apply Sharia, were financed and armed by Qatar," she said.
Qatar played a key role in the overthrow of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi's regime in Libya by providing the insurgents with money, weapons and hundreds of troops. But Qatar has also been criticized for undermining Libya's new interim government by continuing to arm militant Islamists.
More recently, an army of Wahhabi fighters armed and funded by Qatar has reportedly amassed on the Turkish-Syrian border with the intent of removing Syrian President Bashar Assad from power, presumably with the objective of importing Wahhabi Islam to a post-Assad Syria.
Qatar has also provided aid to Hamas terrorist groups, offered support to the extremist Muslim Brotherhood, and reached out to Omar al-Bashir, the President of Sudan who has been indicted for war crimes in Darfur.
Qatar also hosts the controversial Al-Jazeera television network, which includes among its presenters Sheikh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, who has praised suicide bombings and is banned from entering Britain and the United States.
Back in Europe, Qatar is also building a multi-million euro mega-mosque on the southern Italian island of Sicily. Supporters of the mosque -- to be built in the medieval town of Salemi in southwestern Sicily -- hope it will become a reference point for all of the 1.5 million Muslims in Italy.
In Ireland, Qatar recently donated €800,000 to build a mega-mosque in the city of Cork. Ireland's Muslim population has grown tenfold in 20 years, making Islam the fastest-growing religion in the country. According to the Irish Times, "the Muslim Brotherhood influence constitutes one of the strongest elements of Islam in Ireland."
In Spain, speculation is rife that the massive bullfighting ring in Barcelona known as La Monumental is about to be converted into a mega-mosque. Bullfighting has been outlawed in Barcelona effective January 1, 2012 and rumor has it that the 20,000-seat stadium is about to be sold to Qatar's rival, the Emir of Dubai, who wants to convert La Monumental into the third-largest mosque in the world.