The Muslim community in France uncomfortable with the pressures after the attacks |
PARIS – The pressure mounts with each macabre attack. After three to five weeks, Muslims in France feel cramped.
A spotlight of suspicion was once again on them even before the latest acts of extremist violence, including two beheadings. President Emmanuel Macron has continued his efforts to rid Islam in France of extremists, in a project he calls “separatism,” a term that makes Muslims wince.
Amid heightened rhetoric and further attacks by foreigners, including the murder of three people on Thursday in a Catholic church in Nice, Muslims in France have kept their heads down and their heads held high. But deep down, some squirm, feeling held responsible.
“This is worrying for Muslims,” ââsaid Hicham Benaissa, a sociologist specializing in Islam at work. Within his network, he says, some âare talking about leaving France. The situation is tense. There is fear.
Islam is the second religion of France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. But the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims have followed a delicate line in seeking full acceptance in what for many is their country of birth. Discrimination casts a shadow on some and is an outright obstacle to ordinary life for others.
The value dear to France of secularism, which aims to guarantee religious freedom, has in recent years been used by the state to rule over the customs practiced by some Muslims. The law proposed by the president could mean further changes with the secularism law of 1905 born of a conflict with the powerful Roman Catholic clergy.
Macron sparked angry protests and calls to boycott French goods last week from South Asia to the Middle East. He is accused of having propagated anti-Muslim sentiments, in particular by praising the beheaded teacher near Paris, by defending the French right to caricature the Prophet Muhammad of Islam.
Samuel Paty was assaulted outside his school on October 16 by a Chechen refugee teenager for showing the cartoons in a civic education class. A young Tunisian killed three people on Thursday inside the basilica in the city of Nice (south), beheading a woman. In January 2015, attackers massacred 12 people there after the newspaper published caricatures of the prophet. This trial is ongoing.
The words of solidarity of the Muslim leaders of France were flawless. The attack âaffected brothers and sisters who prayed to their lord. I am deeply Christian today, âsaid the Imam of the Ar-Rahma Mosque in Nice, Otman Aissaoui.
But âagain, we are stigmatized and people move so fast to bring things together,â Aissaoui also said, reflecting the growing unease among Muslims in France, most of the former French colonies in North Africa.
Muslims “are neither guilty nor responsible … We should not have to justify ourselves,” said Abdallah Zekri, an official with the French Council for Muslim Worship.
– “Smoke screen” –
The attacks and Macron’s âseparatismâ plan, which includes a partial overhaul of the organization of Islam in France, from the training of imams to the management of Muslim associations, have widened the gap. They also drew attention to the cherished value of secularism – âlaÃ¯citÃ©â in French – which is enshrined in the French constitution but is still not clearly defined.
âThe presence of Islam was not something French society expected,â said Tareq Oubrou, a prominent imam in Bordeaux.
Tensions have been high in the past, especially with changes to the law on secularism, with a 2004 law banning headscarves in classrooms and another in 2010 banning face coverings.
âSecularism has always been a smokescreenâ¦ a hidden way of dealing with the issue of Islam,â said Benaissa.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, doctoral student at Toulouse Capitole University, researcher on religious freedom and civil liberties, is tougher. “Since the 1990s, secularism has been militarized and misused as a political tool to limit the visibility of religious symbols, especially Muslims,” ââshe said.
âThe state must ensure that it respects and fully embraces its diversity and does not view it as a threat,â she said.
The rise of Islam in public opinion has been gradual and has mostly gone unnoticed until the far right seized it as a threat to French identity. Over the years, mosques have multiplied, as have Muslim schools.
Muslim men first came to France for menial jobs after WWII. In the 1970s, Muslim immigrants working in auto factories, construction and other sectors were “absolutely essential to French industry,” Benaissa said. Renault, for example, has set up prayer rooms.
âToday, when a veiled woman arrives in a company, there isâ¦ a revolt. What happened? âHe asked.
– No recognition –
Many Muslims, unlike their parents or grandparents, get an education, better jobs and erase the âmyth of return,â he said.
Olivier Roy, a leading expert, told a parliamentary committee that most Muslims have worked to integrate into French culture. They “train themselves in the French Republic and complain of not being paid in return, of not benefiting from recognition,” he said.
Macron acknowledged in a speech that France bears full responsibility for the âghettoizationâ of Muslims in housing projects, but insists the planned law is not intended to stigmatize Muslims.
Yet stigma is a part of life in France for many, from being singled out by the police for identity checks to discrimination in seeking employment.
âThe Muslim is reduced to his religion,â says Oubrou, the Bordeaux imam. âNot everything is Christian in the life of a Christian.
The religion without a single leader has multiple tensions in France, ranging from moderate to Salafi with a rigorous interpretation of the religion to downright radical upstarts.
In his project, Macron is considering measures like training imams in France instead of bringing them from Turkey, Morocco or Algeria.
Benaissa does not underestimate the âideological offensiveâ of political Islam, but asserts that fierce public debate reduces Islam to one fear.
âIslam is not Islamism, a Muslim is not an Islamist. An Islamist is not necessarily a jihadist, âhe said. âWhat I fear is that identities are becoming radicalized, with on the one hand those claiming the Muslim identity and on the other those claiming the identity of France.