French Muslims Resist the Lure of Fear

Many French Muslims anticipate a surge in racial profiling by the police, as well as hate crimes and violence by ordinary citizens.

Photo: Carsten Koall/Getty Images

AS FRENCH POLICE continue to search for suspected terrorists, many of France’s 6 million Muslims have an additional anxiety. Not only are they reeling from Friday’s attacks, but many within the Muslim community anticipate a surge in racial profiling by the police, as well as hate crimes and violence by ordinary citizens.

“The minute something like this happens, everyone thinks it is us,” said Nora Boukhari, a 39-year-old former police officer of Algerian descent living in the heavily North African 20th arrondissement of Paris. She talks animatedly, while continuously adjusting her white headscarf, and has wrapped an oversized brown woolen jacket over her black embroidered djellaba, a long, traditional Islamic dress, to protect herself from the cold.

Although she was born in the north of France — and speaks only French — Boukhari’s Algerian roots run strong, and her Islamic faith is important to her.

The aftermath of the November 13 attacks brought Boukhari back to 10 months ago, when masked gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, killing 11 members of its staff. After the attack, divisions within French society arose almost immediately, with those claiming solidarity with the slain journalists claiming “Je suis Charlie” and those critiquing the racist nature of the cartoons saying, “Je ne suis pas Charlie” — I am not Charlie.

“There is no freedom of speech in this country,” Boukhari continued. “If you said, ‘I am not Charlie,’ you were immediately looked at like you were a terrorist.”

Boukhari deliberately declined an invitation to a vigil for the victims of the attacks back in January. She said that if her religion was not respected and she could not pray as a Muslim and practice her faith freely in her workplace — something strictly forbidden under France’s strict legal separation of church and state — she would not honor a double standard and pray for others. Shortly thereafter, she was suspended from her position as a police officer.

“Then it was ‘Je suis Charlie’ and ‘Je ne suis pas Charlie,’” she told me. “Now it is ‘Je suis Paris’ and ‘Je ne suis pas Paris.’”

Despite Boukhari’s cynicism, this time around appears to be different from the January attacks in many ways. Although a mosque was soon vandalized in the north of France, and a halal butcher in the south was graffitied with the words “Wake up, France,” there have been no reported hate crimes directed against Muslims — and little divisive rhetoric over who is French and who is not.

“It is not the same as the Charlie Hebdo attacks,” said Khalil Merroun, an imam in Évry-Courcouronnes, the sleepy suburb on the outskirts of Paris that is now making international headlines as the birthplace of Ismaël Omar Mostefaï — one of the four shooters who gunned down concertgoers in the Bataclan Theater on Friday night.

While most of the town has every marking of an economically depressed Parisian suburb, with businesses that have been closed for months and little life on the street, Merroun’s mosque rises from its drab surroundings as a beautiful, traditionally tiled Islamic cultural center, inviting the neighborhood’s large Muslim community to meet and gather for cultural events, in addition to praying. Nearby are several halal butcheries, and grocery stores selling pickled lemons, brining olives, and other North African delicacies that aren’t available in French supermarkets.

In addition to the Muslim community, Merroun makes a point of welcoming non-Muslims to visit the center, and ask him any questions about Islam.

“This time the terrorists were targeting the diversity in French society — including French Muslims,” he continued.

While the Charlie Hebdo attacks specifically targeted the content of the magazine — which was perceived to be indicative of larger issues of cultural racism within French society — Friday’s attacks went after the “Parisian way of life,” and were thus more collectively frightening. Among the dead were people of several different nationalities, walks of life, and religious backgrounds — including French citizens of North African descent.

“They want to fracture us — and use extremism to make a division between who is Muslim and who is French,” Merroun continued. “But we won’t let them do that this time.”

While Merroun is engaging in a massive public relations offensive — he spends most of his time these days in a small office inside of the mosque fielding questions from foreign journalists about whether or not he knew Ismaël Omar Mostefaï personally (he did not), and how he suspects Mostefaï became radicalized — his suspicions about diversity being the true target of the attacks have been confirmed by the Islamic State itself. In a statement published in its online magazine, Dabiq, in February, the militant group warned that Muslims in the West would soon find themselves unwelcome in their societies, and that their best alternative is to migrate to Syria and join the Islamic State.

“Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists,” it read. “Either you are with the crusade, or with Islam.”

However, for many of France’s Muslims, negotiating their faith within the context of their country is not a new challenge.

“It is true that more people look at you suspiciously, but they’re in shock and grieving,” a Moroccan-French mother of five who declined to give her name following the events told me outside of the Évry-Courcouronnes mosque.

“Most Muslims are trying to wrap their heads around why anyone would do such a thing, just the way everyone else is.”

While the Islamic State’s goal of creating animosity toward Muslim communities is working in other countries, it has been less effective in France. Though mosques in the United States and Canada have experienced threats, and arson attempts, damage to mosques in France has been minimal following last Friday’s attacks. As the United States attempts to use the attacks in Paris as an excuse to further limit entry to Syrian refugees seeking asylum, President Francois Hollande announced that in spite of the recent attacks he will honor his commitment to take in thousands more refugees — with extensive security checks — over the next two years.

“Our country has a duty to uphold this promise,” the French president announced in an address on Wednesday. “We have to reinforce our borders while remaining true to our values.”

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