‘Unbearable situation’: France’s Muslims forced to reaffirm they aren’t ‘the enemy within’

They feel increasingly pressured to oppose their own community while emphasising their commitment to the French republic.

ByShweta Desai
‘Unbearable situation’: France’s Muslims forced to reaffirm they aren’t ‘the enemy within’
Shambhavi Thakur
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Stunned and horrified by knife attacks across the country over provocative caricatures of Prophet Mohammed, French Muslims are once again in the eye of a storm, facing relentless pressure to reaffirm their commitment to the republic’s secular values while fending off accusations that they are “the enemy within”.

The gruesome series of assaults started mid-September with the stabbing of two people outside the former offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. The magazine, which was the target of a massacre in 2015 that took the lives of 12 employees, republished its controversial cartoons of the Prophet to mark the start of the trial of accomplices in the attack.

Then, a schoolteacher, Samuel Paty, was beheaded on October 16 on the outskirts of Paris for showing Charlie Hebdo’s caricatures of the Prophet to his pupils. Part of a lesson on freedom of speech, Paty had asked Muslim students to not attend if they thought they might be offended. The move led some furious Muslim parents to launch an online campaign against Paty’s methods and called for protests against the school, College Bois D’Aulne.

Paty was attacked on his way home by Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, an 18-year-old Chechen immigrant who lived 100 km away and had no connection with the school. Authorities said he was inspired by the online hate campaign.

Less than three weeks later, three people were stabbed inside the Notre Dame Basillica in Nice, in what President Emmanuel Macron called an “Islamist terrorist attack”.

The French psyche has also suffered deep wounds. The attacks have been an assault on the republic’s core principles of secularity, freedom of speech, and tolerance. That the assailants were Muslim migrants from Pakistan, Chechneya and Tunisia has put French Muslims, Islam and immigrants back at the centre of a tortured debate on their loyalty and compatibility with French values.

At a memorial for Paty, Macron defiantly vowed that France “will not give up the caricatures”. His statements upholding the right to blasphemy sparked massive protests in Islamic countries, calling for a boycott of French products and for Macron to apologise. Even in India, which came out strongly in support of Macron, the anger against Macron’s refusal to condemn the caricatures was depicted in posters that surfaced overnight on the streets of Mumbai and other cities calling him a “demon”.

Macron’s statement was reflective of the sentiment shared by majority of the French, including Muslims, who recognise and accept the country’s laws that allow insult of a religion, its figures and symbols, without insulting members of a religion, under the wider ambit of freedom of expression.

“As a French person and a Muslim, I respect the right to blasphemy, which is an achievement of the French Revolution,’’ Rachid Zerrouki, a French writer of Moroccan origin from Marseilles, told this reporter.

A few hours after Paty was murdered on a pavement in the Paris suburb of Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, Zerrouki received stomach-churning photos of Paty’s decapitated head in his Twitter inbox. Dazed with the gruesome graphic imagery, he immediately blocked it. He says far-right activists were trying to intimidate him because he is a Muslim and, like Paty, a schoolteacher.

“Their anger was toward the wrong person because I was shocked by this awful act of terrorism,” he said, adding that teachers have the duty to explain the country’s values and must remain free to choose the materials they want in their classroom, including those that run counter to religious convictions.

Naëm Bestandji, a Muslim secular activist of Tunisian origin from Grenoble city, who often faces the wrath of conservatives for his “anti-Islamic campaign” against veils and burkas worn by Muslim women, said France is being targeted by fundamentalists because it gives all citizens the right to believe in the religion they want and the right to criticise too.

“If Muslims are shocked by a drawing and their faith is shaken, then they are the ones who have a problem,” he said. “In France, we have the right to be Islamophobic — to say I don’t like Islam — and to be an Islamophile, to say I love Islam. But attacking people because of their religion is prohibited. Freedom of expression is a right and so is the protection of people."

Community leaders have gone to the extent of saying that Muslims should follow the Prophet’s teachings and ignore provocation over caricatures.

France has the highest Muslim population in Europe, comprising roughly eight percent of the country, and the solidarity displayed by Muslims here after every attack has been unfailing. Hassen Chalghoumi, the Tunisia-born president of the Conference of Imams of France, emphasised that “beheading a man for a caricature is not Islam, it's Islamism, it's the poison of Islam” as he urged mosques across France to dedicate Friday prayers to Samuel Paty.

Chalghoumi was supported by Hafiz Chems-eddine, an Algerian-born lawyer and rector of the Great Mosque of Paris, as well as Mohammed Moussaoui, the Moroccan-born president of the French Council of Muslim Worship, a state regulatory on religious activities. Both instructed imams to denounce Islamist terrorism and to defend French law.

After the Nice attack, a group of young Muslims assembled in the small town of Hérault in Montpellier city for an all-night vigil outside the local cathedral.

Most Muslims like above, are migrants from former French colonies in North Africa also known as Maghreb, or French born children of former citizens of the region. Although Islam in France is diverse in terms of practice and adherance, the Muslim population is at disadvantage when it comes to education, employment and housing, making integration with the wider society a hard reality.

Yet a 2019 study published by the Institut Montaigne, a Paris think-tank, noted for the first time that about half of French Muslims are integrated and more or less secular, believing in French law above all else. However, the study also said that a quarter of Muslims do not believe in core French values, such as equality between the sexes and the seminal 1905 law on secularism, or laïcité, guaranteeing no interference by the state in religious matters.

Laïcité is often a flashpoint topic when debating the integration of Muslims into French society. Increasingly, the term has come to be interpreted that citizens, instead of the state, should keep religion as a private affair and resist from displaying its symbols overtly on public streets. Under President Nicolas Sarkozy, France became the first European country in 2011 to officially ban the face-covering niqab. Over the years, Muslim women have been subjected to humiliation and attacks over their clothing. Some have been asked to remove the hijab or barred from participating in public events.

Taking a leaf out of his predecessor's script, Macron too has warned of “Islamic separatism” to secure far-right votes and proposed to bring in legislation aimed to “liberate French Islam from foreign influences". His statements have led to driving home the fear of ostracisation felt by many French Muslims.

Yasser Louati, director of the Paris-based Justice and Liberties For All Committee, said Macron’s statements on separatism have poured oil on the identity fire raging in France. He told this reporter that the proposed bill will allow the State to cross the lines of laïcité and get involved in religious affairs. Louati said the timing of Macron’s comments, 18 months from a presidential election, means that campaigning will “revolve around identity issues”, as the government has failed on the economy, employment and handling of the Covid pandemic which has left more than 37,000 dead in France.

Louati also questioned France’s radical counter-terrorism laws of the past 40 years and the tight state scrutiny on all modes of communication, despite which “the attacks keep happening again and again”. Instead of asking questions about the “failed” actions against radicals, he said, the government was relying on repressive action that was fueling the rhetoric that Muslims are a suspect community.

A campaign led by the interior ministry against radical and political Islam has unleashed a severe crackdown on Muslim organisations, creating a discourse of hate against all Muslims, activists say. The French cabinet has in the past month outlawed the NGO Collective against Islamophobia in France, a humanitarian relief charity, BarakaCity, for their alleged links to radical Islamists and threatened another 50 other organisations are also in the process of dissolution.

Interior minister Gérald Darmanin, who declared that France was confronting an enemy from within, set off a controversy by saying he was shocked to find separate aisles for halal food in supermarkets, ignoring the existence of marked sections for specialised food like kosher. In another interview, he explained that for an "offense of separatism", anyone who refuses to be treated by a doctor of the opposite sex would be liable for a five-year jail sentence and a fine of €75,000, even when Article 6 of the French constitution allows a patient free choice of a doctor.

Education minister Jean-Michel Blanquer too declared that “Islamo-leftism was wreaking havoc” in academia, particularly targeting the National Union of Students of France, or UNEF, a leftist union headed by a veiled female student Maryam Pougetoux.

Amidst the heightened tensions, French Muslims feel a growing anxiety.

“There is an extraordinary rise in Islamophobia but the attacks on Muslims are not considered to be terror attacks,” Sihem Zine said, pointing out the increased fear among Muslims.

In the wake of the recent attacks, she said, six mosques across France were attacked. Two Muslim women wearing veils were stabbed near the Eiffel Tower in Paris, and a Jordanian brother and sister speaking Arabic were severely beaten in Angers by assailants who allegedly berated them, saying, “This is France and not for you.”

The cycle of attacks by radicals and reactionary counter-attacks on French Muslims is all too familiar for Zine, who founded the NGO Muslim Rights Action after coordinated attacks in Paris in November 2015 that was followed by a state of emergency. This period gave the government sweeping powers to tighten surveillance on mosques and community leaders, arrest terror suspects, and raid private properties for over two years.

Muslims are accustomed to bigotry in the French media which frequently uses them as headline material in evening news debates, Zine said, but when the government indulges in legitimising discriminatory discourse towards Muslims, it’s “not acceptable”. “It will create more fundamentalism and racism and encourage extremists on the far-right to attack Muslims,” she warned.

Indeed, a knife attack carried out in Avignon on the same day as the Nice church killings was initially publicised as an Islamist assault after it was wrongly reported that bystanders heard the assailant shouting “Allahu Akbar”. This theory was quickly dismantled when police found the attacker wearing the trademark blue jacket of a French white supremacist group called Génération Identitaire, which has vowed to fight immigration. Similarly, the shooting of a Greek Orthodox priest in Lyon outside his church was also quickly linked to Islamist radicals, but the gun-wielding assailant was later identified as non-Muslim.

French Muslims are unanimous in feeling the stigmatisation and marginalisation of the entire community because of shocking incidents committed by a few extremists.

Akhésa Moummi, a political scientist and teacher at the Sorbonne Paris Nord University, said French Muslims are exhausted by having to take public positions on extremism, laïcité, freedom of speech and anti-France protests in Islamic countries.

“It puts the French Muslim in an unbearable situation: they have to reaffirm their attachment to the French Republic and its principles as citizens, and at the same time oppose a Muslim community of which they are part of,” she said.

Moummi said French society needs to consider the place of civil law and religious principle more than raise the alarm over its Muslim communit which is, in large part, a result of its past colonialism. “The question to ask is, do we politically accept the presence of Muslims in France and accept them as French citizens with a place in the future of the country and who have the absolute right to practice their religion; without peddling Islamophobia?”

The overbearing sadness compounded by fear of the “other” on both sides of the spectrum in France was summarised by Marseilles-based writer and singer Magyd Cherfi in a Twitter post titled “I am afraid”.

“I am afraid of not being a good Arab, the one of the future,” said the avowed secular supporter. “I fear losing France, fear losing Algeria, of being an orphan of a bereavement or of a birth, afraid of belonging to neither side or only one.”

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