It was with a sinking dread in March 2012 that Imam Mohamed Khattabi, of the mosque Averroès Ibn Rochd of Montpellier, heard that a Muslim gunman had opened fire in Toulouse killing seven, including three children, at a Jewish day school.
It was not just remorse for the senseless death in the city, 150 miles away in southern France. He also knew the fury that would be unleashed upon France’s Muslim community by the far right, which has been gaining ground across Europe on the back of anti-immigrant sentiment.
So his mosque conceived to temper the confusion and fear that ensued, inviting Catholics, Jews, atheists, and even the far right itself to the mosque to, he says, teach people that Islam is not anathema to the values of the French Republic.
“The idea is to show that Islam is an open religion. It’s a religion close, not far. Of peace, not against peace,” he says in his office, as men start filtering into the mosque for afternoon prayers.
Their first attempt at integration was so successful they held a second “Open Mosque Day” this June: 5,000 people across Montpellier showed up.
Such efforts might impact only a tiny swath of the French population, but they come at a key moment, as intolerance reaches new modern highs, driven by an ascendant far-right movement. Just this Sunday, the government said that a young French soldier was arrested near Lyon for planning to attack a local mosque. He held views "close to those of the radical extreme right," having already attacked a mosque in Bordeaux last year, France’s interior ministry said.
Muslims are not the only targets of the radical right, which the governments says include about 3,000 members. Throughout the year, extremist groups protested, at points violently, on the fringes of anti-gay marriage marches. In June, a 19-year-old far leftist, Clement Meric, was dealt a fatal blow in the middle of Paris at the hands of a far-right extremist, rocking the country – and leading the French government in July to outlaw five extreme right groups.
“There is no place in our country for hate, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, or anti-Muslim acts,” said Interior Minister Manuel Valls last month while outlawing groups including L’Oeuvre Francasie (the French Work), the Jeunesses Nationalistes (the National Youth), the Troisieme Voie (Third Way), and Envie de Rever (Desire to Dream).
Far-right extremists have not necessarily grown in numbers in the past decade, says Jean-Yves Camus, an expert on the extreme right at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris. But they’ve grown in visibility. “Many youngsters have become quite radicalized over the last few years, especially on the issue of the multicultural society,” he says.
The National Front
It comes as the mainstream far right is garnering support at the polls. In France’s presidential elections last year, the National Front (FN) won its biggest slice of the national vote ever, nearly 20 percent, promising to push back against the “Islamization” of France.
France follows trends across Europe, where the appeal of the right overall has grown. Much of their success is connected to Europe's sovereign debt crisis, says Gilles Ivaldi, an expert in the far right at the University of Nice. France’s FN, for example, in addition to adopting an anti-immigration platform, has advocated for France to exit the euro, part of “the development of a new 'crisis-ridden populism,' which is observable across a number of Western European countries,” including Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland, and Sweden, Mr. Ivaldi says.
The FN, led today by Marine Le Pen, has attempted to distance itself from the more radical actions today, calling for example Mr. Meric’s death “appalling” and seeking to disassociate itself with the violence that played out at anti gay-marriage marches across France.
But as its electoral pull has grown stronger, its platform has gotten louder. Ms. Le Pen made a speech in 2010, as she fought for leadership of the party, saying that Muslims holding prayers in the streets was like an occupation.
"For those who like to talk about World War II, to talk about occupation, we could talk about, for once, the occupation of our territory. There are no armored vehicles, no soldiers, but it is an occupation all the same, and it weighs on people,” she is quoted as saying. She could face prosecution for inciting racial hatred, after European parliamentary immunity was waived last month.
Muslims in France say that they’ve felt a backlash. Kenny Miath, who converted to Islam recently, says that it’s certainly easier to be a Catholic in France than a Muslim, but that Islam drew him in. As it has, he says he feels further estranged on the streets of Montpellier. “When you walk down the street with a carpet [to pray] and [traditional] robe, lots of people look at you like you are a terrorist,” he says.
Imam Khattabi says his goal is to make Muslims in France feel that they do belong, and to show non-Muslims why. He says he doesn’t believe there is more discrimination today than a decade prior – but that there is more fear. At Open Mosque Day, which the mosque now plans on organizing twice a year, 80 percent of attendees are non-Muslims, he says, who filter around stands that educate citizens about Islam and women, Islam and other religions, traditional foods, and terrorism.
“Muslim people accept France, but some people in France don’t accept Muslims,” he says. “My role is to explain to Muslims that they aren’t strangers. And to continue to tell other non-Muslims that we are not a threat.”