Top Stories


    Nov 24, 2015

    Terror attacks: French Muslims fear backlash


    A FIREMAN of Algerian origin, Faisal helped evacuate thousands from the Stade de France during the Paris attacks, guiding panicked football fans to safety as suicide bombers blew themselves up outside.

    Now, he fears the Nov 13 massacre across the French capital will deepen a dangerous "them and us" schism between France's five-million-strong Muslim population and the rest of society.

    The terrorists appear to be Europeans of Arab origin and the 40-year-old fireman worries that French Muslims may suffer greater discrimination as a result.

    "If you have a Muslim name, they stop seeing you as a French person and they start to see you as an Arab, a potential terrorist," Mr Faisal said.

    The attacks will also exacerbate an existing problem, he fears - that many Muslims do not feel part of France, and even resent it.

    And that resentment is precisely what the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group seeks to exploit.

    Like others around Boulevard Barbes, a bustling microcosm of Paris' second and third-generation ethnic communities, Mr Faisal condemned the attacks outright.

    France's Muslim community - the largest in Europe - is as diverse as the country itself.

    But there are many who voice anxiety about their place in a country with a bloody colonial history in North Africa and a commitment to secularism that some see as contradictory with Islamic traditions.

    This anxiety spiked as politicians such as ex-prime minister Alain Juppe calling on Muslims to publicly "say they have nothing to do with this barbarism".

    "Muslims do not have to justify themselves... Are they guilty by association?" responded an opinion piece writer, Hatem Nafti, in left-leaning daily Liberation.

    French-born Mohammad, a 30-year-old Algerian CD and DVD shop owner in Barbes, and his friend Samir did some painful soul-searching.

    "The problem is with how they treated immigrants to begin with (40-50 years ago). They put the Arabs in (sprawling suburban areas) far from everyone else," Mr Mohammad said, nervously puffing at a Marlboro cigarette.

    Decades after the first major waves of migration in the 1960s, many thousands of people still live in low-cost housing projects in Paris' downtrodden banlieue (suburbs), where petty crime is rife and life is completely different from the glittering city centre.

    Jobs are harder to come by, with unemployment estimated in 2013 at 23 per cent, in contrast with 9 per cent elsewhere in the city.

    The suburbs - and also parts of the 18th district, where Barbes is located - saw major riots in 2005 that emphasised the alienation.

    It is this feeling of disenfranchisement that can be exploited by ISIS, warn researchers, with people on the fringes drawn to a movement that can give misguided aims to directionless youth.

    Didier Lapeyronnie, who teaches sociology at Paris' La Sorbonne university, said many French Muslims "do not feel like they are part of the national community".

    And for a tiny minority, extremism can be used to build an alternative worldview.

    "Terrorism is not necessarily linked to marginalisation," Professor Lapeyronnie said, adding however that "in some areas... a counter-culture, a counter-society has been created and Islam is used to construct a worldview".

    "There is a political failure of the integration model... a process of dis-integration," he said.

    Paris-based expert Karim Bitar said that ISIS takes full advantage of this.

    The group "has a well-honed dual strategy of tapping into feelings of humiliation of Sunnis in Iraq and Syria and simultaneously exploiting the alienation of disenfranchised Muslim youth in Europe," he said.