Between sadness, despondency, anger and fear, French muslims have been in the center of attention since the Charlie Hebdo attack. We have met with four of them, from different background and origins, to know their feelings about the events. We also asked them if they fear for their lives in the light of the many anti-Muslim aggressions recently committed in France.
Over 4 million people marched the streets of France on Sunday to scream their attachment to freedom of speech and show their unity to the world. Among the millions people who claimed “Je Suis Charlie” in Paris, Lyon, Marseille or Bordeaux, many were Muslims. In opposition to this apparent consensus, voices have also emerged, mostly on the internet, criticising the provocation of the satirical weekly magazine toward the muslim community, gathered under the hashtag #JeNeSuisPasCharlie.
In spite of François Hollande’s call for national unity, racist and anti-muslim actions have burgeoned all around France these past few days. In Villefranche-sur-Saône, Le Mans, Chambéry, Port-La-Nouvelle, mosques and prayer rooms have been targeted with bullets, damaged with pigs heads and racist inscriptions or even set on fire. In Bourgoin-Jallieu, a high-school student was mugged by 5 people because he was Muslim. In total, the French Council of the Muslim faith (CFCM) noted more than 50 anti-muslim actions since last Wednesday.
The muslim leaders were nonetheless unanimous to condemn the Charlie Hebdo attack. Dalil Boubakeur, head of the CFCM, said it was an “immensely barbaric act also against democracy and freedom of the press”, insisting on the fact that its perpetrators could not claim to be true Muslims. Hassen Chalghoumi, imam of the Drancy mosque in Paris’s Seine-Saint-Denis suburb, said repeatedly that “this barbarism has nothing to do with Islam”, adding that he felt “extremely angry”.
“I’m moved by these events but not more I’m afraid than by what happens everyday in Palestine or Syria”, says 32 year old Nora Belkacem, Human ressources manager in Paris and member of the Muslim community. Her point of view is shared by Omar Albatin, a salesman born in Syria. “I marched on Sunday because of the seriousness of the events, but I wish the hundreds of thousands of people killed in my country would get as much international attention”, he says. And when it comes to the caricatures, the 25-year-old feels like they are just an excuse for the terrorists. “For me, Muhammad is so great I don’t see how he could care about some small drawings”, he quips.
As a Muslim, Nora refuses to become paranoid. She isn’t more afraid to walk the streets than she was before. “For me, these terrorists who pretend to be Muslims lump with the people who have been attacking mosques”, she says. “I’m not afraid to die or to be mugged, if that’s the decision of God”, agrees Fatima Harraoui, 60. Born in Morocco, the mother of four can barely restrain tears when she talks about the terrorists who have “tarnished” her religion. She adds: “I don’t necessarily like the caricatures, but we are in France, the country of Human Rights. They are free to draw whatever they want, even if I don’t like it”. For all of them, extremists misinterpret the Koran. Nora explains: “Charlie Hebdo did commit provocation and I truly believe a caricature of the prophet is an insult, but Islam doesn’t advocate any form of aggression, let alone killing in its name.”
And what about the many incidents reported during the national minute of silence organised on Thursday, which a few young Muslims reportedly refused to respect? “There hasn’t been one incident in my school”, says Sami Khelil, history teacher in secondary school located in a quite northern suburb of Paris. “We have kids from all communities and then even asked to pay tribute to the victims.” During classes, the 31 year-old, whose father was born in Algeria, received some questions from his 12 to 15 year-old students which were all justified and accurate concerns, according to him. As a practicing Muslim, Sami takes particular pride in explaining to his students, mostly from a catholic background, that his religion promotes love and peace. “I’m afraid these attacks will rekindle some tensions between communities and I want to fight against the obscurantist vision of Islam promoted by these extremists and so-called Muslims”, he says. So even if sometimes, he thinks the cartoons published by Charlie Hebdo aren’t very funny, he also claims, proudly, “Je suis Charlie”