Hakeem Muhammad for Al Jazeera America

Is France failing its Muslim youths?

Experts say poverty and prejudice leave first- and second generation immigrants more open to extremist recruiting

PARIS — Moussa Issoufi let out puffs of smoke as he paced up and down a desolate stone alley in Paris’ 12th Arrondissement. Dressed in a high-neck camouflage jacket, black jeans and a pair of worn-out sneakers, he flicked what remained of his cigarette and leaned back against the wall. He drew another from a crumpled pack.

“Nous ne sommes pas l’ennemi,” he said. We’re not the enemy.

Issoufi’s parents are immigrants from Mali who arrived in France in the late 1980s, seeking a better life. The southeastern part of Paris they settled in years ago, running alongside the right bank of the Seine, is now a vibrant labyrinth of mosques, kebab stands and Islamic boutiques. At the top of the street, an empty McDonald’s faces a bustling branch of All Chicken, a local fast food chain that specializes in halal fried chicken.

Issoufi, 25, was born and raised in this neighborhood, which is home to one of the city’s largest immigrant populations. He credited it for producing peaceful, hardworking men — not Kalashnikov-toting radicals.

“But here’s the issue. Write it down. The state doesn’t want us,” he said. “It’s simple.”

The recent attacks on the offices of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo has brought to the surface a hardly simple question, one as old as the magazine: Is France failing its first-generation Muslim immigrants?

Last week attackers Chérif Kouachi and Saïd Kouachi were part of a three-day rampage that left 17 people dead before getting killed by the police. It was later revealed that the two brothers were extremists who belonged to a local cell known to French authorities as the Buttes-Chaumont group, named after a park in the 19th Arrondissement.

The fact that the brothers were born, raised and radicalized in France points to the threat of homegrown radicals. But it also points to a state struggling to integrate its more than 6-million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe.

Elsa Ray, spokeswoman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France (CCIF), a member organization of the European Network Against Racism, said that Islamophobia can help drive Muslim youths to the margins of French society. “A lot of young Muslim people feel hopeless nowadays in France,” she said. “They are discriminated against on a daily basis — at work, at school.”

In 2013 the CCIF recorded 691 Islamophobic acts — an increase of 47 percent compared with 2012, with women the primary victims. And a recent Gallup survey conducted in the U.K., Germany and France found that people said Muslims were the “least desirable” religious group to have as neighbors.

“Like Jews 50 years ago, Muslims are now the new scapegoats of France and Europe,” Ray said. “The government and the media emphasize on the fact that Islam is the problem and Muslim people do not respect the republic and its values. It’s a system of creating a scapegoat for the society.”

Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center of the Study of Islam and Democracy, based in Washington, D.C., said the feeling of hopelessness brought on by facing Islamophobia may be a factor that drives some young Muslims to join radical groups. “They get fed up with their life, and they don’t see any hope for improvement — for a decent life, for dignity, for a job, for getting married,” he said. “They’re already like a ticking time bomb.”

In the suburbs of Paris, where millions of first- and second-generation Arab and African immigrants live, unemployment is over 50 percent. A paper from the Migration Policy Institute concluded that even after a decade of living in France, immigrants are still highly vulnerable on the labor market because of ongoing discrimination and the lack of resources to help them integrate into society.

“These young people have not been integrated in any meaningful way in the [French] society, the job market or in life,” Masmoudi said. “They have been living in France for 20 or 30 years. Some of them were born in France and still feel completely marginalized and isolated. They feel like they don’t belong.”

He explained that radical groups recruit young Muslims by tapping into their feelings of anger and hopelessness, which are often born out of years-long disenfranchisement. The groups market an agenda of defending an Islam that is ostensibly under attack by the state. He said such disillusioned youth are more susceptible to being persuaded to join a “bigger cause.”

“The French government and the French society have not done enough to integrate them, to talk to them, to fight racism,” he added.

According to Olivier Roy, a French scholar of Islam and radicalism and the author of “Globalized Islam,” it’s not only in France where radical groups exploit feelings of exclusion and disenfranchisement.

“We’ve had lots of terrorist attacks in Britain during the last 10 years. You can see a big backlash in Germany. And Belgium is the No. 1 country in the world with the highest percentage of its Muslim population going to jihad,” he said. “Every time there is an attack somewhere, the media says, ‘Why this country?’ But at the end, it’s a general phenomenon.”

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