French Muslims hold breath as France takes stock
France's presidential campaign had already tilted anti-foreign, anti-Islam. Muslims worry about what will follow revelation that a Muslim was responsible for Jewish school shootings.
When French media flashed yesterday morning that a young Algerian Muslim holed up in his apartment had confessed to killing seven people, including three Jewish children earlier this week, French Muslims let out a collective cry: Oh no, this is not good.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Muslim in France
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Well before Mohammed Merah claimed responsibility for the string of killings in southern France that also left three French soldiers dead, Muslims in France were feeling under siege. The country is in the midst of a hard-fought presidential election campaign that careened in an anti-foreign, anti-Islam direction weeks before, highlighted by a concocted panic about “halal” meat – which meets Islamic requirements – that was used as code for French Muslims being vaguely un-French and problematic.
At first, a sizable number of French thought the brutal murders at a Jewish school Monday would turn out to be the work of a proto-fascist or neo-Nazi – a French Anders Breivik. But then a 23-year-old, Toulouse-born Muslim claiming Al Qaeda credentials was suddenly all over the media, talking about his Islamic inspiration and grievances about the Palestinians.
IN PICTURES: Muslims in France
Far-right National Front leader Marine Le Pen, a presidential candidate with substantial support, immediately called for a “war” against fundamentalists.
“I called my wife and told her to prepare our luggage!” says Karim, an Algerian French resident who works at a Paris nongovernmental organization. He was only half-joking, he says. “This just opens the door to all xenophobic and racist themes. The Muslim community was already stigmatized, and now it may be more stigmatized.”
French Muslims fear a culture war
As Mr. Merah became an instant household name in France Wednesday, both Jewish and Muslim French groups issued statements completely divorcing his actions and views from those of French Muslim citizens, and from the teachings of Islam.
Yet that was small solace for 3 million to 5 million Muslims here, who make up Europe’s largest Islamic community. They sent blizzards of text messages to each other filled with cries of “Why now?” and voicing fears that Merah's actions would be used to justify stigmatization of their faith and its adherents.
Muslims in France feel they are battling more openly stated negative images of their community. They say that in this year's election campaign, the center-right and far right have competed to use the "Islam card" to woo mainstream voters. Many Muslims feel the French media and elites completely misunderstand them, and many are also suspicious about the timing of this week’s terror saga, just ahead of the first round of the presidential election on April 22.
“Why now, just before the elections?” asks Anis Saada, a young information technology engineer in Paris. “I’m not into conspiracy theories but I question this coincidence.”
Anxiety around Islam has cooled a bit in France and Europe since 2011's Arab revolutions, which were mostly a non-Islamic phenomenon, and the drawdown of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, although deeply conservative salafist fervor is on a modest rise in France, says Gilles Keppel, a leading Islam analyst in Paris. The last militant Islamist operation in France was a brief episode at the Marseilles airport in the 1990s that was quickly quashed by police.
“Merah is a delinquent. He’s been to prison several times,” Mr. Saada says. “We hear he has committed 18 acts of violence. We should ask… is he a spokesperson for Islam? Can we generalize an entire community or country… can we say all Norwegians are like Breivik?”