French Muslims fear surge of Islamophobia after Charlie Hebdo attack

Muslims in Paris brace for fallout after one of the deadliest attacks in 50 years

Hassen Chalghoumi, an imam at a mosque in Drancy, just north of Paris, arrives to speak at a press conference on Jan. 7, 2015, as police officers take security measures near the offices of Charlie Hebdo after an attack there killed 12.
Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

PARIS — She’s a 26-year-old mother of two who wears a hijab. And on Wednesday afternoon, picking up one of her daughters from swimming practice in the 19th arrondissement in the northeastern neighborhoods of Paris, she had a chilling experience.

Near the pool, other mothers were discussing the deadly shootings at the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. In loud voices, they despaired that Muslims go to France and “benefit from the system but now they’re killing us,’’ she said.

The young mother, who was too fearful to let her name be used when interviewed at a market in the 19th, said she felt dread when she heard the conversation. “They knew I was listening,’’ she recalled. “But I was alone, and I couldn’t do or say anything. So I left.”

Her fear is emblematic of the dread that is spreading across the Muslim community in Paris and beyond. Many said the attack, the bloodiest in 50 years in France, will feed an already simmering sentiment against Muslims there. French media reported a number of apparent reprisal incidents directed at Muslim-owned businesses and mosques after the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

Rashid Abdulrahim, a 22-year-old finance student, said at first he thought only of the victims and their families when he heard the news of the attack. But when he learned the three suspects were Muslim, he said he immediately felt scared.

“Things will be really bad for us now. Before the shootings, it was normal for us to be attacked by people who don’t like Muslims,” he said, “but now it will be much worse. There will be hate and discrimination and aggression. People will start saying it was right to hate Muslims because they’re apparently crazy.”

Samia Hathroubi, 29, a Paris-based human rights activist and member of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, said that even though a lot of Muslim organizations are condemning the shooting, people will still single out the Muslim community. “The group that killed those 12 people justified their acts through Islam. No matter what we say, no matter how high we rise, we’re stuck,” she said.

The 5 million Muslims who live in France shouldn’t be put “in the same basket’’ as those who committed the attack, she said. “I’m French. I was raised here, and I went to school here,’’ she said. “We can also be the victims, like anybody else.”

Some give up hope

Nabil Ennasri, a writer with a Ph.D. in political science, has lost all optimism. He believes another 9/11 unfolded in France on Thursday, and the enormity of this event will deeply affect and divide French society. Without any doubt, he said, Islamophobia will increase in France.

“Muslim women wearing the hijab will be assaulted, and our mosques will be attacked,” he said in Arabic in a telephone interview. “We don’t know how things will go on from now, but fear is running high. I am not optimistic at all.”

Meriem Ziane, a 25-year-old teacher, said that people are already spreading false tales about Muslims and Islam in France, and after the events at Charlie Hebdo, things are bound to disintegrate. She said that she was having a hard time taking it all in and that while she feels grief for the dead, she is anxious about what it means for her people.

“This is exactly what we didn’t need at all,” she said.

Emilie Chak, 21, wears the hijab, as do her two sisters. Their mother advised them to wear a hat instead.

“You never know. They might hear bad comments or even get attacked. This already happened in Paris a few times in the past,” Chak added.

Sheikh Mohamed Bajrafil, imam of the Ivry-sur-Seine Mosque in southeastern Paris, called all Muslims in France to condemn the attacks as human beings. But they should do so not in the name of Prophet Muhammad.

“Those men carried out the attack in the name of the prophet, but we shouldn’t do the same. We shouldn’t link the prophet to this,” Bajrafil said. 

Keivan Helmi, 24, an employee at a public relations agency, is the only Muslim at his workplace, and he didn’t know how to behave when the news broke out in his office. “Every time something like this happens, we hope it’s not a Muslim who committed the act,” he said, “but this time we were unlucky.”

He said the Muslim community in France is divided into two main parts. The first includes people who condemn the attack and join all of French society in mourning. The second part includes Muslims who feel they don’t owe any apology to Charlie Hebdo because of the hurt caused by the satirical drawings it published.

“These people say the paper’s drawings about Islam were offensive and we don’t need to justify ourselves,” he said.

Oualid Bachiri, 23, a Muslim who is a communications student at the Paris Institute of Political Science (also known as Sciences Po), said the horror Paris witnessed Wednesday morning will never be forgotten. He said he feels deep sorrow for the victims and their families but also anger with and contempt for the people who carried out the attack.

“No one is afraid,” he said. “Until our country is out of harm’s way, let us be true to our principles of solidarity and freedom.”

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