There are more pitas eaten here than baguettes, more halal fast food joints than Parisian specialty chocolate shops. A mere three stops away on the fast RER train from the exclusive clothes boutiques, the world-renowned museums, and the elegant rare bookstores, one disembarks and finds a different Paris.
L'Ile Saint-Denis, north of Paris, is a suburb of hip-hop clubs, discount beauty stores, and hard-working immigrants. There are Moroccan women with head coverings shopping for fruits, Tunisian merchants selling sweets and olives, Congolese and Senegalese playing a game of football in the park, and bearded Pakistanis chatting over tea at the corner shop.
Many of these people are second-generation immigrants, sons and daughters of those who came here in the big immigration wave of the 1960s. This generation was born right here in France – they speak French and hold French citizenship exactly like any old-timer in a beret feeding the pigeons in the Jardin du Luxembourg.
But, they say, they are still treated differently.
“Look at what is happening now,” complains Kinaz Dicko, a devout Muslim whose parents immigrated to France from Mali. “There is a security alert – check. There are new rumors about Muslim militants and a few arrests – check … and immediately we are all tarred with the same brush: terrorism. Check.”
“Who is a terrorist, ya Haj?” Mr. Dicko’s Afghani friend teases him, slapping him on the back as the two sit at a café near the Tawhid Muslim cultural center.
Dicko stands up, pauses and then suddenly leaps forward, his hand outstretched, his fingers tensed up like claws, his eyes bulging: “Boom!” he cries out, joking around. “Boom, Boom.”
With a growing population comes backlash
Over the past two decades, the number of Muslims living in Western Europe has steadily grown, rising from less than 10 million in 1990 to approximately 17 million in 2010.
While the French government bans official statistics based on ethnicity or religion, according to the Pew Research Center, there are 3.6 million Muslims in France – the largest number of Muslims in any European country, barring Germany, where there are 4.1 million. But there are more Muslims in France percentage-wise (5.7 percent of the total population) than in Germany (with 5 percent) or almost anywhere else in Europe.
In France, like elsewhere in Europe, relations between Muslim and the larger, non-Muslim population, are often fraught.
On Thursday, France's constitutional court approved the law to ban wearing the Islamic full veil in public – becoming the first European country to nationally impose such a measure. Both Spain and Belgium are considering a similar ban.
The controversial law, which is expected to come into force in the spring, makes it illegal to wear garments such as the niqab or burka anywhere in public. Those breaking the ban will face a fine of 150 euros and/or a citizenship course – and those found to force women to wear a full veil will face a 30,000-euro fine and a one-year jail term.
The Pew Global Attitudes Project found in a survey earlier this year that the French back the ban by a margin of more than 4 to 1. But never are relations more complicated than during times of real or perceived security concerns, like now.
French Muslims struggle to prove national loyalty
With the United States, Britain, Japan, Sweden, and France putting out travel warnings about possible attacks in Europe this week and various reports that cells of European Muslims are behind a plot which is causing the alarm, there are many in France who quietly, or not so quietly, talk about any Muslim as a fomenter of radical Islam and, ultimately, even a terrorist.
The fact that – in France as elsewhere – the militants speak for a tiny minority of Muslims does not seem to lessen the chatter or suspicion.
“It's upsetting. Such talk hurts my feelings and makes me angry,” says Zaima Dendoune, who works as a religion teacher at the Tawhid mosque school.
“Part of me does not even want to engage in this conversation,” adds Ms. Dendoune, a gentle young woman in a headscarf, whose parents came to France from Algeria. “Some Muslim leaders try to detach their people from European society, I know. But we are different. We are proud French.”
On Sunday, Tawhid will open its new wing. The mosque, which Dendoune says has a fast growing membership, bought two garages near its old building, broke down the adjoining walls and will soon have enough space for not only prayers and the school, but for a special Pakistani wing, where classes will be taught in Urdu.
There will also be a new bookstore and a conference room, with lectures on everything from the lessons of the prophet Muhammad's life to what can be done for Palestinians in Gaza or Pakistanis. “We are not political,” she stresses, perhaps feeling the need to explain, “… but we do care about our Muslim brothers. We are proud Muslims equal to being proud French.”
A recent Gallup poll here asked the general public whether they think Muslims living in France are loyal to the country. Only between 35 percent and 40 percent responded positively. When Parisian Muslims were asked the same question, 73 percent said they viewed Muslims as loyal to France.
“One thing we are not,” concludes Debdoune firmly, “… is terrorists.” She smiles kindly: “And I would stop suggesting that around here now.”