In the aftermath of the attacks, a French Muslim asks: does my country love me?

ARGENTEUIL, France (Reuters) – Naouelle Garnoussi is a devout Muslim who was raised in France, prays five times a day, loves her work with local communities and covets her designer handbag.

Raised by her grandparents – one Muslim, the other Catholic – the 36-year-old identifies as French and champions France’s secular values ​​that separate religion from state in public life.

Yet, following a series of Islamist attacks, she began to feel increasingly alienated in her own country.

Compatriots tend to see her first as a Muslim, she said, and the government’s response to the violence has left her wondering: Are Muslims really equal in the eyes of the Republic?

“My grandmother was French. My great-grandmother was French, her name was Antoinette. You don’t get more French than that, but sometimes I’m made to feel like I’m not French anymore, just a Muslim,” Garnoussi told Reuters from her apartment in Argenteuil, a working-class suburb of Paris.

Attitudes among members of the public towards Muslims appear to be hardening, she continued.

“Sometimes I forget to put my phone on silent and the call to prayer goes off. The other day I was spat on (when it happened) so it’s starting to get really bad.

Some prominent Muslim figures fear that the general public will treat them the same as activists.

This week, a statement from a group of Muslim leaders urged the government to act so that “the majority of Muslims who overwhelmingly condemn the recent terrorist attacks are not mistaken for the instigators of hatred”.

Naouelle Garnoussi, 36, poses during an interview with Reuters in Argenteuil near Paris, November 3, 2020. Picture taken November 3, 2020. REUTERS/Noemie Olive

“IT HURT US”

Garnoussi was left baffled by satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo’s decision in September to republish cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that sparked outrage across the Muslim world when they first appeared in a Danish newspaper in 2005.

The magazine did so to mark the trial of suspected accomplices in a 2015 militant attack in which 12 people, including some of its best-known cartoonists, were killed.

A few weeks after the republication, a Chechen teenager beheaded a high school teacher who had used the cartoons in a lesson on free speech. Last week, a woman was beheaded and two others killed in Nice in a suspected Islamist attack.

The French government has defended the cartoons, saying the country’s secular values ​​allow blasphemy.

For Garnoussi, their publication was a deliberately provocative act that risked complicating the lives of the many Muslims among the approximately five million French people who, like her, condemn violence in the name of religion.

“It hurt us and made us feel like the state doesn’t like us,” she said of Charlie Hebdo’s actions and the government’s defense of them.

President Emmanuel Macron’s government responded to the killing of teacher Samuel Paty and victims in Nice days later by promising to crack down on what some public officials called “the enemy within”.

He closed a mosque on the outskirts of Paris, dismantled at least three Muslim associations suspected of fomenting extremist opinions and pledged to speed up legislation to counter Islamic behavior contrary to the values ​​of the Republic.

But in an effort to rectify what Macron said were misunderstandings about France’s relations with Muslims, he stressed in an Al Jazeera interview that he did not support the cartoons and that France was in no way anti-Muslim case.

The president has spoken of creating an “Islam of France”, or what he has more recently called an “enlightened Islam” compatible with the secular values ​​of his country.

It is a concept that has little meaning for Garnoussi, for whom Islam transcends borders.

“If I am in Japan, Papua New Guinea or France, I will pray five times a day in the same way. It’s just my prayer rug, facing Mecca, that will point in a different direction.

Reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Written by Richard Lough; Editing by Mike Collett-White

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