‘Islam Is Not a Country’
After the attack on 'Charlie Hebdo,' France’s Muslims brace for backlash and keep their distance.
PARIS — A few hours after Wednesday’s terrorist attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, it was French Muslims who suffered retaliation at the hands of Islamophobes who blamed the entire religion for the massacre. At least three mosques throughout France were attacked between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, with assailants throwing grenades and firing guns at the places of worship. But in Barbès, a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in northern Paris, life continues uninterrupted: Shops are open, the faithful are visiting the local mosque to pray, and street merchants who sell fake Chanel perfumes and other knockoffs are hustling as usual in the neighborhood’s sprawling market.
“I don’t feel concerned by what happened,” said Mohammed, 20, a French-born shopkeeper of Algerian descent who works on Myrha Street. “I feel equally French and Muslim. Islam is not a country. I don’t understand why people feel the need to distinguish us from others.”
Said and Chérif Kouachi — the two brothers who allegedly launched the attack that killed 12 people, including magazine staffers and two police officers — were caught in a standoff early Friday with French security forces, after taking at least one hostage in a printing facility northeast of Paris. At the same time, another gunman took multiple hostages at a kosher supermarket in eastern Paris. French police reportedly launched raids at both locations to end the twin hostage crises, killing three gunmen, including the two suspects in the Charlie Hebdo massacre.
Most passers-by were reluctant to talk about the Charlie Hebdo attack. But those who did shared many of Mohammed’s views, expressing the belief that the French public and press were unfairly linking the violence to Islam as a whole, rather than blaming the individual terrorists who committed the act.
“It is not something done in the name of Islam but a strike against all Muslims,” said Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said of the attack on Charlie Hebdo.
Boubakeur is far from the only French Muslim leader who has been quick to denounce the attack, while also calling for unity and tolerance and sounding alarms about the growing fear among Muslims of a backlash. The attack has also sparked a debate among French Muslims about how the community should explain the violence: Nabil Ennasri, president of the Collectif des Musulmans de France, said that the portrayal of Muslims as outsiders by French media and politicians has contributed to a sense of alienation among the community.
“Muslims are considered as intruders, which doesn’t improve the general climate but on the contrary further polarizes the country,” he said. “The media give a very negative representation of the Muslim identity. Women are excluded from social life because they wear the veil.”
Officials and citizens need to understand that the terrorists had incorrect assumptions about Islam, Ennasri said — assumptions which have nevertheless grown more powerful among alienated Muslims.
“Beyond the violent character of the attack, there’s also a travesty of the entire Islamic thought,” he said, condemning the attackers for wanting to “avenge the Prophet and betray his message.”
While French President François Hollande and most other politicians have called for national unity, Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front political party, has used the attacks to wage a campaign against Islam. “Islamists declared war on France,” she said on French television on Thursday morning. “We must deprive these people of French nationality if they have dual citizenship.”
Le Pen’s stance isn’t unusual. France has enacted numerous controversial laws that target Muslims in the name of laïcité, or government-imposed secularism, including the country’s well-known prohibitions against wearing burqas in public, which was imposed in 2010, or wearing veils in schools, which goes back to the late 1980s.
The tension between the French freedoms of expression and religion has also been at play recently in the buzz over a new book, Soumission (Submission), by award-winning writer Michel Houellebecq, which envisions the election of a Muslim French president in 2022. Houellebecq was the target of the last edition of Charlie Hebdo, which pictured him on the cover saying, “In 2015, I lose my teeth. In 2022, I fast for Ramadan.”
Yet most French Muslims ascribe to the French concept of vivre ensemble, or living together. According to recent surveys, the vast majority of Muslims in France identify as French citizens, not exclusively as Muslims. While France doesn’t tally figures on religions in its census, Muslims are widely thought to represent 5 to 10 percent of the population.
Erik Bleich, a professor of political science at Middlebury College, said France has a well-documented problem with disaffected youths in marginalized neighborhoods and that efforts to reduce these groups’ alienation have regularly faced challenges by the voices suspicious of Islam.
“Plenty of politicians and lots of the media are working to diminish polarization,” said Bleich. “But there are a few loud voices like the Le Pens who deliberately stir the pot to mobilize voters and a few publications like Charlie Hebdo that are deliberately provocative with respect to Muslims,” he said.
Hisham Aidi, a researcher at Columbia University and the author of a widely acclaimed study on Muslim youth politics in Europe and America, said that the anti-Muslim discourse coming from the far right has made French Muslim youth an ideal recruitment pool for extremists.
“The aim of these jihadi groups is to further polarize and separate young Muslims from the societies where they live,” he said. “What are the ideological options for a disaffected young French Muslim? The Muslim political landscape is dominated by the right and extreme right. These groups prey on youth alienation.”
Meanwhile, in Barbès, people said they were tired of being differentiated from other French citizens because of their religious beliefs. Many seemed focused on leading their everyday lives, rather than taking part in a grand religious struggle. A shop owner on Poissonnière Street who declined to share his name simply shrugged over the recent attacks on mosques.
“I don’t really care at this point,” he said. “If they want to believe that all Muslims are terrorists, it’s not my problem.”
MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images