For French Muslims, a ‘very insecure’ life

In the wake of the attacks in Paris, many French Muslims say they feel hostility and fear living there

PARIS – Over the weekend, the suburb of Livry-Gargan mourned Ahmed Merabet, a police officer and one of the dozen people killed in last week’s shooting at the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, the weekly satirical newspaper. They honored him as a hero who died doing his job, protecting France and the nation's values.

And on Sunday, at Paris’ Grand Synagogue, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led applause for Lassana Bathily, thanking him for saving the lives of seven Jews. At the kosher grocery store in eastern Paris where a gunman deliberately targeted and killed four Jews, the 24-year-old worker Mali citizen hustled frightened shoppers downstairs to a freezer, out of sight of the gunman. He then escaped and gave police invaluable information that helped police plan and execute the end of the siege, freeing the hidden hostages. France has said that Bathily will receive the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest civilian award. More than 150,000 people have signed a petition urging the government to grant him citizenship.

But even as the country celebrates two heroes, who happened to be Muslim, many French Muslims say they now feel hostility and fear. In December, a well-known journalist argued that all Muslims in France should be deported, even those born here. Since the Charlie Hebdo and kosher grocery store assault last week, at least 50 Muslim institutions, like mosques, have been attacked, doubling the number of anti-Muslim actions for all of 2014.

Over the weekend, Paris mourned those lost in last week's Charlie Hebdo shooting.
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When the prime minister declared “war” on radical Islam, many French seem to hear only the words “war” and “Islam” – missing the critical modifier. This can lead to what's known here as “an amalgam,” jumbling together extremists and Muslims living normal, peaceful and sometimes even heroic lives.

“As a Muslim, I feel people look at me different,” said banker Mourad Chabchoud. “‘Look, he’s Muslim, maybe he’s [a] terrorist.’ They make an ‘amalgam’ and think that every Muslim is a terrorist.”

As a Muslim, I feel people look at me different. ‘Look, he’s Muslim, maybe he’s [a] terrorist.’ They make an ‘amalgam’ and think that every Muslim is a terrorist.

Mourad Chabchoud

In heavily Muslim suburbs, fresh graffiti now bears the word “Charlie,” in honor of those killed at the magazine offices. And on Sunday, many Muslims were among the more than a million people who flooded the streets of Paris in protest and solidarity with journalists, police and Jews – all victims of these attacks. There was no undercurrent of hatred and discrimination on display at the weekend rally. In fact, the French have rarely presented such an image of unity for all ages and races.

The graffiti in Muslim suburbs now honors those killed in last week's shooting.
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“We could not merely be bystanders. We couldn’t be passive. It is impossible for us to say, ‘No, that’s not Islam, it’s not us’ and stay home. We have to be with the French people, [to] share the shock to say we understand the rage,” said M’hammed Henniche, who works as a community organizer in Paris' grey and gritty suburbs, home to many Muslims who are marginalized and living on the periphery of French life. “To say that we are not guilty… If we had stayed all alone at home, they will not listen to us later. They will say, ‘You weren’t with us, so you are the attackers.’”

Making up more than 5 million of France's population of 66 million, the republic's Muslim population is largely the product of its colonial past and its wars in North Africa, in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco. Most Muslims here have been in France for decades.

But the French continue to wrestle with the meaning of tolerance, even as they cherish it as a central value. Before, Henniche said African women who wore veils and African men who prayed at work didn’t bother the French, but that's changed with the younger generation of Muslims.

“But now, our children pray like their parents did and it disturbs the French. They say, ‘No, that’s the religion of your parents. You should be like us,’” Henniche said. “What is the meaning of tolerance? If tolerance is that I must become like you, that is not tolerance.”

Some of members of this younger generation say they feel resistance from the wider country that their Muslim and French identities can even co-exist.

“We definitely feel very insecure here in France,” Chabchoub said. “We are French before we are Muslims. But we are also Muslims, and this is the problem for the people, maybe – that they cannot make a differentiation between them. For them, we are French or we are Muslim. We cannot be both.”

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