After terrorist attacks, Muslims wonder about their place in France

After terrorist attacks, Muslims wonder about their place in France
After terrorist attacks, Muslims wonder about their place in France
At the age of 42, Mehdy Belabbas embodied the French republican promise of upward social mobility: As the son of a Muslim construction worker of Algerian descent, he was the first in his family to attend graduate school and for 12 years was deputy mayor of the work-class city where he grew up .

And yet, Mr Belabbas has only thought about one thing in the last two weeks: “I wonder if I should leave France.”

Mr Belabbas’ thoughts came from days of heated, if not hostile, public debate, largely fueled by President Emmanuel Macron’s own ministers, which began in response to the cruel beheading of a teacher by an 18-year-old Muslim extremist and fueled by what Officials believe it was an Islamist terrorist attack in Nice on Thursday.

French officials have vowed to crack down on what the persistent Interior Minister Gérald Darmanin has called the “enemy within”. He has closed a mosque and proposed banning several Muslim groups that the government considers extremist and even proposing the elimination of ethnic food aisles in shops.

Mr Macron, who launched a campaign earlier this month against Islamic “separatism” out of France’s deeply entrenched secular values, recently said that Muslims need to develop an “Islam of the Enlightenment” that many have viewed as patronizing.

While these and other statements by French officials have sparked a backlash in some Muslim countries, they have largely caused confusion among France’s nearly six million Muslims, almost all of whom condemn violence but fear they will all be labeled terrorists.

“After this attack five or six million people have to justify themselves,” said Belabbas. “But we just don’t know what is expected of us.”

After a knife attack, young people light candles at the entrance to the Notre Dame Basilica Church in Nice, France, on October 29, 2020.


The knife attack on a church in Nice on Thursday promises to deepen the confusion, despite Muslim leaders condemning the killer. Naziha Mayoufi, a member of LES Musulmans, an association of Muslim groups and mosques, said she felt “fear and endless sadness for the families of the victims, for our Catholic friends”.

But she said that after Thursday’s attack she feared politicians and commentators would feel even more justified in calling Islam an “enemy from within.”

“As Muslims,” ​​she said, “we pay the damage caused by these two forms of extremism.”

The confusion in the Muslim community of France is particularly pronounced in Ivry-sur-Seine, the working class suburb east of Paris where Mr Belabbas grew up and where several thousand Muslims have integrated economically and socially since the 1950s.

“Everything that has been said and done indicates that we Muslims are all being targeted, that we are all likely related to this new paradigm of ‘separatism’ that we are all suspected of,” said Mohamed Akrid, who President of Annour Organization, which oversees the construction of a mosque and is expected to be completed in 2023.

Since 2004, Muslim worshipers in Ivry-sur-Seine have had to be content with a dreary gym and a tent that the town hall lent them to welcome the approximately 2,000 people who take part in Friday prayers.

Mr Akrid admitted that Islam in France has been overtaken by radical factions that have a strong influence on young people, especially on social networks. But he added that France’s recent crackdown on Muslim individuals and groups accused of radicalism could create more confusion than combating this ubiquitous influence.

Mr Darmanin said the 250 or so police raids last week captured “dozens of people unrelated to the investigation” from the beheading, but the government wanted to send a message to them, “Not a minute’s break the enemies of the republic. “He later added that the raids resulted in only seven lawsuits.

“There is a message to be delivered,” said Mr. Akrid. “But to whom? These people or all Muslims? ”

It was Mr Darmanin’s comments on ethnic grocery aisles in supermarkets – such as shelves of halal products – that could promote “communitarianism” and lead to an eyebrow-raising “separatism” that suggested the wider debate about integration was at stake.

“The confusion is dangerous in the sense that you are running the risk of further radicalizing certain pressures in Muslim society, particularly young people who may feel rejected by such comments,” said Claire Renklicay, a restaurant owner of Kurdish descent who led the fight against jihadism as labeled “A struggle for humanity.”

Mr Belabbas said that when he grew up in the “Cité Gagarine”, a once ambitious social housing project in Ivry-sur-Seine, the French model of meritocracy told us: “When you work, when you study, when you respect According to the laws of the republic you have the right to social mobility. ‚“

“That didn’t necessarily mean we had to eat like everyone else or believe like everyone else,” he said, adding that today’s model instead implied that Muslim customs and practices were inconsistent with republican laws.

Tribute will be paid in front of the Notre Dame Basilica at night on October 29, 2020 in Nice.


At the center of France’s tortuous relationship with its Muslim citizens is the authorities’ pledge to defend those who publish caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad as part of its strict laws on secularism that allow blasphemy. But many Muslims, from buyers in the Ivry-sur-Seine open-air market to the president of the French Council of Muslim Faiths, have expressed their discomfort with the cartoons, arguing that there should be limits to crime when it comes to religious ones Views.

A poll published in early September found that 59 percent of French people were in favor of publishing the cartoons in the name of freedom of expression, but only 19 percent of Muslims agreed.

Vincent Geisser, a sociologist specializing in Islam at the University of Aix-Marseille, said the current debate reflected a failure of the French model of integration that used to be “distancing or even breaking with religion”.

He said that “not only did it not happen, but actually the opposite happened,” referring to the thousands of French Muslims who had integrated into society while maintaining their religious practices. This development is viewed by some political leaders as “Republican treason”.

In 2016 a report on French Muslims from the Paris-based Montaigne-Institute showed that 70 percent always buy halal meat and that 65 percent are in favor of the hijab, veil or headscarf that many Muslim women wear, but which has sparked disputes in France for years.

For young Muslims who do not assimilate, Hakim El Karoui, the report’s author, said, “The question is, who am I? And the answer is, “I am a Muslim.”

He added, “They will want to make religious identity their first identity.”

However, in the shock of the teacher’s beheading and terrorist attacks, several prominent imams and officials have realized their responsibility to ensure that a peaceful version of Islam is promoted in mosques and to urge Muslims to publicly take action against Mr Macron to support against “Islamist separatism”.

Mr. Akrid sat next to the plans for the future mosque in Ivry-sur-Seine, a modern 20,000 square meter building with prayer rooms, classrooms and a library. He said that many young people do not know the religion “and go to educate themselves on social networks that are at the mercy of manipulators. ”

Mr Akrid agreed that Muslims should enter the public debate and work towards a better understanding of religious texts. But he added that France’s policy of assimilation, which tends to deny differences, could contradict such a role.

“We’re being asked to do two conflicting things at the same time,” said Akrid. “Step aside and emerge.”

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