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After Paris attacks, many Muslims say they feel more French than ever

Even as some confront a backlash, Muslims are noting a sense of belonging – feeling part of a society that is mourning collectively and standing behind the French government in bringing attackers to justice.

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    A French Muslim of Algerian origin waved a French flag in front of the Great Mosque of Paris on Friday, one week after the Paris attacks.
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In the wake of the terrorist attack in Paris, Muslims across the globe have braced for the backlash: the suspicious looks at bearded men and veiled women, the public pressures and policies that at times seem to put an entire faith on trial.

But in France, where the climate of fear is intense and the Muslim minority has long felt singled out and separate, something different is happening. Muslims here say they feel more French than ever, part of a society in collective mourning and firmly behind the French government to do what it takes to bring to justice the perpetrators of attacks that took 130 lives – Muslims among them.

France’s various religious and ethnic groups were still healing from the divisions created after the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in January when gunmen struck again last week. This time, as the attackers roved around bars and restaurants, a soccer match and a concert, they perpetrated death on a much larger scale.

But if there is an assumption that more terror sows more distrust, it’s been turned on its head. “Those were our French children who were killed,” says Mahmoud Timsit, a Frenchman of Algerian descent in the city of Saint-Denis, north of Paris, where the mastermind of the attack was killed in a dramatic police raid Wednesday.

The atmosphere is still tense in many ways, of course. In Europe, as well as the United States, positions have hardened against refugees, many of whom are Muslim. The National Front, France's far-right, anti-immigrant party, may surge when regional elections are held in December. In Marseille, on France’s Mediterranean coast, a woman in a veil was slashed with a box-cutter this week as she exited a metro station. Many fear that this will not be the last incident.

But the mood is far different than in January, says Omar Djellil, a Muslim activist in Marseille.

After the attack against the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, the #IAmCharlie hashtag that aimed to unite France ended in bitter division: Many Muslims, as much as they abhorred terror, still couldn’t get behind a magazine that caricatured the prophet Muhammad.

The divisions at the time were clearly seen in the response of a group of Muslim schoolchildren during a moment of silence for the victims: they refused to obey, provoking chatter among non-Muslims about where loyalties lie. When more than a million people filled the streets in Paris to honor the dead and protect their freedom of expression, many Muslims felt isolated in their belief that there are limits on such expression, especially when it comes to their prophet.

Today, says Mr. Djellil, that polemic does not exist.  “Muslims can be more visible in condemning this than after Charlie Hebdo. That can prevent conflation,” he says.

The fact that the terrorists in January also targeted a kosher grocery store led to heightened anxieties among Jews in Europe about their safety there. Long-boiling tensions over the Israel-Palestinian conflict have spilled onto the streets of Europe. Anti-Semitism has been on the rise, and Muslim communities have been increasingly vociferous in their condemnation of Israel, with a much smaller minority very vocal in their condemnation of Jews.

The target: being human

Last Friday's terror, however, targeted everybody, including Muslims, who were among the diners and concert-goers killed.

One of the victims was Asta Diakite, the cousin of Diarra Lassana, a Muslim soccer player who was playing at the Stade de France on Friday night. An Algerian family owns the bar Le Carillon that was also targeted.

“During Charlie Hebdo they attacked the freedom of speech,” says Caroline Bouger, a Frenchwoman who lives near the heart of the attacks.  “This time it was the freedom of being, of being human. I don't see anger directed at Muslims."

Djellil’s mosque in Marseille joined with 10 others the Sunday after the attack, forcefully calling on all Muslims to pray and for France to remain united. The Grand Mosque of Paris had called for a massive anti-terror rally today with Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, but it was canceled because such public gatherings are forbidden under new safety measures. Muslims congregated on the streets outside in the pouring rain anyway to attend Friday prayers.

As the ongoing police investigation turned to Saint-Denis this week, locals were convinced that fear would not tear them apart. Their city has an important place in French history: French royalty were crowned and buried inside its basilica. Today it is one of the country’s most ethnically diverse communities. There have been tensions between police and youths, and the unemployment rate, at more than 18 percent according to the latest figures from 2012, is nearly double the national average.

But residents and leaders say theirs is an harmonious coexistence. “We are a small city, a melting-pot city with more than a hundred nationalities. We all put our kids in the same school and usually build things together,” says Didier Paillard, the mayor of Saint-Denis.

After the attack on the Stade de France, which sits in Saint-Denis, the town hall raised a new banner: “The best response to barbarity is to confront it together, Friday, November 13,” it reads.  

'This time we are all afraid together'

After the deadly seven-hour raid in Saint-Denis Wednesday, Mr. Timsit, whose declined to give his real last name, stood with his neighbors, all from Algeria, waiting to be allowed to go home.

He had been at the Stade de France to vigorously cheer on the French in their match against Germany Friday when he heard an explosion. Having survived that, he was rattled awake Wednesday morning, before dawn, when the anti-terrorist operation started. He says he was not afraid, but reassured, that the police were taking action against those who do not value life.

“We are at war,” he says, repeating the words of French President François Hollande.

Down the street, Khalid Louarradi, a French chef who works in Paris and lives in Saint-Denis, says there might be more fear in France now, but this time “we are all afraid together,” he says.

The killing spree, says Mr. Louarradi, a practicing Muslim, was so senseless and so dispersed that no one can tie a religious motive to it. “Everyone realizes," he says, "you can’t be a Muslim and do something like this."

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