A French flag was draped over Asma Jaber’s head Friday night while she was watching the friendly soccer match between France and Germany at Europe’s fifth-largest stadium. Well into the game’s first half, she heard three loud explosions a few minutes apart. But the play went on as usual and it wasn’t until half an hour later that she learned President François Hollande, who was also in attendance, had been evacuated.
News about what had happened came to the spectators in bits and pieces, she said, hampered by a bad signal for cell phones. People weren’t even sure if the trains would be running to take them home.
But the panic started when the 75,000-strong crowd was filing outside of the stadium. Already on edge, Jaber and her friends were walking through one of the exit corridors when people behind them started running hysterically. Jaber and her friends started running as fast as they could, some losing shoes as they fled.
“For a few minutes, we thought something is going to happen behind us,” Jaber said. “We thought we were living terrorism as it was happening.’’
“It was a nightmare,” she said.
It was hours later that Jaber learned three armed men had detonated explosive devices while trying to enter the stadium.
Jaber is 25, a native of France whose two parents are Syrian. A graduate student working toward her doctorate in political science, she noted that Muslims in France have been the targets of those who believe Islam is a violent religion, as well as fodder for right-wing politicians who want an easy vote.
“There is no easy solution to Islamophobia,” she said. “As Muslims, our salvation comes from our neighbors. Instead of being scared, we should be more open. We should express ourselves and let people know us personally.”
“We all need to come together to fight groups like ISIS,” Jaber added, using another acronym for the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), the armed group that claimed responsibility for Friday night’s attacks.
By morning, at least 129 people were killed and 350 injured in six coordinated bombing and shooting attacks across Paris — targeting a concert hall, cafes and restaurants in addition to the stadium. Hollande called the attacks an “act of war,” after declaring a state of emergency and sealing the country’s borders.
A 19-year-old Muslim woman declined to give her name, fearful of retribution for speaking out. But as someone who lives in one of the districts that were hit in Friday’s attacks, she was devastated and sad for the victims and their families.
But she also urged reflection and analysis.
“It is the key to process these events and to prevent misconceptions about who the guilty ones are,” she said. “As a French Muslim, I worry that this massacre will be used against the French Muslim community by politicians, like it happened back in January when Charlie Hebdo was attacked. But I also worry that refugees, especially those coming from Syria, will be the next target of conservative politics and racist acts.”
Two gunmen affiliated with Al-Qaeda attacked Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine, in January, killing 12 people, including much of the editorial staff and three police officers.
The assault sparked three days of violence in the French capital, as a third gunman shot and killed another police officer and took several hostages at a kosher grocery store. Eventually, police killed all three gunmen. Four hostages were also killed in a police raid on the grocery.
Muhammad el-Khaoua, a 24-year-old graduate student in International Relations, said he did not know which was worse: the number of victims killed and injured or the modus operandi of the attackers.
“This is the first time we hear of a suicide attack in France,” Khaoua said. “And not only that: the attackers operated in six different locations at the same time.”
Khaoua said he was worried that French Muslims would face extreme backlash.
“Right now, we are guilty unless proven otherwise,” Khaoua said, adding that he expected anti-Muslim sentiment to increase, just as it did in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
“We have every reason to be afraid,” he added.
And when Asif Arif heard the news, he said one thought kept racing through his mind: “Please don’t let it be a Muslim.”
Like many, the 28-year-old director of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Paris did not believe what he was hearing. The sheer scope of the tragedy left him speechless.
“I was shocked and grieved, just like all French people are right now,” Arif said. “I started thinking that I could have been in that concert, that I could have been any of those people who died. What happened is just unfair.”
Arif, who also lectures about public liberties in France, said he expects to see more Islamophobic incidents take place.
“This is not an usual thing. You’ll now definitely see a rise of attacks against Muslims and not just in Paris, but in all of France.”
The Collectif Contre L’Islamophobie en France (CCIF), or the Collective Against Islamophobia in France, a Paris-based organization that monitors Islamophobic acts, released a report in September that said physical assaults against Muslims in France increased by 500 percent, and acts of degradation and vandalism jumped by 400 percent, in the six months following the Charlie Hebdo attack.
But few people decided to press charges. According to the CCIF, victims often believe that police agents refuse to accommodate complaints of Islamophobia, and perpetrators are rarely convicted and if they are, justice is “very lenient.”
However, Arif sees a sliver of hope amongst all of this tragic news.
“Something has definitely changed. Soon after the attacks, a lot of people took to social media not only to denounce terrorism but to say that Muslims in France are not responsible for what has happened,” Arif said. “People now realize that something big is going on and that everybody needs to stand up for Muslims in France.”