'Do you trust me?' French Muslim asks mourners
An unidentified man offered hugs to anyone not afraid of his Muslim faith, highlighting how, despite fears of anti-Islam backlash, an increasingly diverse Paris has banded together to defy terror.
In the aftermath of Friday's terrorist attacks on Paris, civic, religious, and political leaders have repeatedly called for unity, fearing that the extremist attack could inflame already smoldering tensions between established French families and more recent arrivals: in particular, the country's estimated 4.7 million Muslim population, who make up roughly 7.5 percent of the nation.
Terrorists targeted "youth in all its diversity," from 19 countries, as President François Hollande emphasized Monday. Many have pointed out that the only thing Friday's 129 victims had in common was the wish to enjoy a weekend night with friends or family, eating in the city's trendy 11th arrondissement or heading to a concert.
One unidentified French man decided to put national unity to the test.
Blindfolding himself with a keffiyeh, an emblematic Arab scarf, the young man simply held his arms wide, standing near the Place de la République, the national monument which has once again become a place of collective mourning and comfort. After the January massacre at French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo, a million rallied by the square's Marianne statue to proclaim "Je suis Charlie."
"I'm Muslim and they say I'm a terrorist," he had scrawled on cardboard by his feet. ""I trust you, do you trust me? Then give me a hug."
In a video published by RT's In the Now program, which has been shared nearly 12.5 million times on Facebook, a crowd gathers to watch as Parisians from all walks of life come and offer a hug – some tentatively, some overcome with emotion.
An elderly man in a raincoat offers an embrace, as does a young man with a baseball hat. One bystander, moved to tears by the blindfolded man's hug with a young woman, comes forward to wrap her arms around them both.
Finally, he removes the scarf to thank the crowd and express his condolences for the victims.
"I want to tell you that 'Muslim' doesn't necessarily mean 'terrorist,'" he explained. "A terrorist is a terrorist, someone willing to kill another human being over nothing. A Muslim would never do that. Our religion forbids it."
Similar 'Hug a Muslim' or 'Hug a Terrorist' social experiments have sprung up around the globe in recent years, from Toronto to Finland.
By law, the French government does not collect census information on citizens' ethnicity or faith. But other studies estimate that over 8 percent are immigrants, primarily from other European Union countries and the Maghreb region of Northern Africa, especially former French colonies like Algeria and Morocco. Another 11 percent are the direct descendants of immigrants.
The country's diversity, particularly in cosmopolitan Paris, was on display throughout the weekend. French television channel Canal+ interviewed numerous families, many with children, as they visited memorials to lay flowers and light candles.
The host's chat with one child, in particular, has gone viral: Angel Le explains to his child that "France is our home" and the flowers, far from useless, are there to protect Parisians.
Friday's attackers targeted "the people who are the most tolerant in Paris," the Paris Institute's Ronald Hatto told Maclean's, making writer Michael Petrou wonder if "that, too, was intentional, a strike against the city’s vibrant plurality and the generation that will shape its future."
As one young Muslim government worker told Mr. Petrou, "The question is not if we’re going to survive, but are we going to survive by losing what constitutes us as a nation?"
In June, the Pew Research Center found that 76 percent of French citizens said they held favorable opinions about the country's Muslims; according to another Pew study, that is the highest number in Europe.