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Muslims in Paris speak out—‘We are not sorry for being Muslim’

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Issue 2437
Ndella: “In French society, a Muslim woman is never an adult. Whatever she does it can’t be her own decision, it must be that someone forced her”

Ndella: “In French society, a Muslim woman is never an adult. Whatever she does it can’t be her own decision, it must be that someone forced her” (Pic: Socialist Worker)

The backlash against Muslims is in full swing in France. The daily humiliations and prejudice have become far worse in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo killings earlier this month.

Veiled women are insulted and attacked in the streets. Firebombs and pig heads have been thrown into mosques.

Muslims have been arrested and given severe jail sentences after making comments deemed to “glorify” terrorism.

And the state has ordered 10,000 troops onto the streets—a force that many will see as an army of hostile occupation.

Ndella Paye has campaigned against Islamophobia with Mamans Toutes Egales in Paris for 12 years. She told Socialist Worker, “The atmosphere has become really oppressive. On the day of the attacks I heard a woman saying, ‘They’ve killed them—the Muslims have killed them.’ The way people look at you if you’re a Muslim has changed.”

Anissa Fathi agreed. “I’ve always tried to face up to Islamophobia with my head held high,” she said. “But for the first time I’m afraid. I don’t feel like I can go out and do the shopping, let alone go into Paris.”

Millions of people have marched against the attacks and millions more stood behind them on social media. Many used the slogan, “I am Charlie”.

People took to the streets for a range of reasons.

But those at the top of society have ruthlessly used the mood to clamp down on anyone who doesn’t join in—especially if they are Muslim.

Julien: “They say we all need to learn ‘French values’ but France was built by immigrants”

Julien: “They say we all need to learn ‘French values’ but France was built by immigrants” (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Nassor Attoumen, a young immigrant in the industrial Paris suburb of Saint Denis, said, “It’s like it’s become a crime not to ‘be Charlie’. Everyone is asked to say they are, and you’re not allowed to say no. 

“I don’t care about their cartoons. But as a Muslim, when they demand you say you like things that are against your religion for the common good, it’s like they’re saying the common good doesn’t include you.”

Hypocritical world leaders have claimed to back freedom of speech. Yet dozens of people across France have been arrested for allegedly defending the attacks. 

They range from the Antisemitic comedian Dieudonné to school students as young as 14.

Meanwhile Islamophobia gets worse.

Hanane Karimi told Socialist Worker, “Being insulted on the bus for being a Muslim has been part of my daily life. And it’s ten years since I was forced to drop out of my 

studies because the technical institute I applied to wouldn’t accept me with a hijab.

“But in the past week Islamophobia has exploded. I think some people kept their Islamophobia hidden before and have now taken the opportunity to turn it into action.

“Islamophobia may be about religion but it’s racism, whatever people say. The old anti-Arab racism has continued in the form of Islamophobia.”

Nassor said, “Islamophobia is everywhere. Even here, a town that’s very working class and very diverse, you see graffiti for far right groups. 

“There are parts of Paris where it’s really nasty. On the Metro recently I had this guy going on about ‘you immigrants’ and saying ‘France is for the French’. It tears you apart—it’s like being told you’re not welcome in your home.”

The isolation of many poorer areas—the “banlieues” or “popular quarters” where many immigrants live—helps reinforce Islamophobic myths. The mainstream media paints these places as alien to the rest of society.

Nassor said, “If there’s a poor area where there are a lot of Muslims, the way they talk about it is horrible. They make out like everyone is a Muslim, though there’s people from all different backgrounds and all over the world. They make it sound like we’re all polygamous fundamentalists, letting goats wander around the buildings.”

Nassor: “It’s like it’s become a crime not to ‘be Charlie’. It tears you apart—it’s like being told you’re not welcome in your home”

Nassor: “It’s like it’s become a crime not to ‘be Charlie’. It tears you apart—it’s like being told you’re not welcome in your home” (Pic: Socialist Worker)

French schools are expected to impose on students the values of a Republican tradition that many see no reason to identify with.

Samy and Julien are students at the Paris 8 University in St Denis, where they joined the youth organisation of the Communist Party that runs the town council.

Julien said, “It makes me furious the way the media come here to spit on the youth, to point the finger and say look at these anti-France 

deviants. They say we all need to learn ‘French values’ but France was built by immigrants. It isn’t the property of the people whose ancestors were here before.”

Samy said, “What happens with teachers is the same as with the cops. 

“They are brought in from outside, knowing nothing about the area except what they’ve heard—that it’s violent, dangerous, a warzone. So often when they come to teach people they are panicking, they think they’re in enemy territory and have to defend themselves.”

The fantasy of the white teacher sent into the dangerous immigrant ghetto has been the subject of a number of reactionary works of fiction. 

The 2008 film Skirt Day is about a teacher who takes her class hostage to assert her right to wear a skirt, which the presence of Muslim students supposedly threatens.

Muslim teachers are rare because women who wear a headscarf are not allowed to work in the public sector. Nor are girls with headscarves allowed to attend school, or mothers in headscarves allowed to come on school trips.

It’s something that Anissa has experienced personally. She explained, “One day my son asked me to come along on his school trip. It was a long way and the school needed parents to help on the bus. He was so happy when I said yes.

“But when he told the teacher, the teacher said he’d need to see me first. And then when he saw me, he said it wouldn’t be possible—at least, not unless I took off my hijab.

“At first I thought it had to be a joke. What had I done wrong? It felt like I was inferior to the other mums. They had the right to go on the trip and I didn’t. 

“The rule was against wearing religious signs, but it didn’t seem to apply to the mothers who wore crosses on chains.”

Politicians insist that minorities—especially Muslims—have to integrate. 

As Nassor put it, “When you arrive in France you’re told you can’t have your own beliefs or customs. You have to dress like everyone else and if everyone else is outraged at something, you have to be too.”

Anissa: “I don’t feel like I can go out and do the shopping, let alone go into Paris”

Anissa: “I don’t feel like I can go out and do the shopping, let alone go into Paris” (Pic: Socialist Worker)

But for Anissa and her children the anti-Muslim rules increased division.

She said, “It had an effect on all the Muslim children. They saw that their white teachers seemed to hate their mums, and they started almost to hate them in return.

“Then they got picked on by the other children for having a mother with a headscarf. Kids would even say things like ‘Muslim filth’.

“Before that all the children had mixed with each other. But from that moment they started hanging out in little groups of other Muslims.”

In the end they moved school. Anissa and Ndella are part of a campaign to get the rule changed. Ndella first got active over the headscarf ban.

She said, “It was based on the assumption that parents were forcing girls to wear it. But I said, if that’s the case surely the last thing to do is force her to go back to her parents. Surely it’s better to let her stay in school and keep her autonomy.

“But with the restrictions on mothers—they are grown ups, they’ve made their own decision. And that’s when you see that in French society, a Muslim woman is never an adult. Whatever she does it can’t be her own decision, it must be that someone has forced her.”

Anissa said, “It’s so hypocritical. They say they want to liberate us women, but they stop us from working or going to school.”

Hanane said, “Sometimes the headscarf is almost the only thing the politicians talk about. As if there aren’t far more pressing problems than whether or not a schoolgirl wears a headscarf.”

Activists are trying to bring together a fightback in the aftermath of the attacks. 

A number of different organisations met in Paris to discuss launching a campaign against Islamophobia on Saturday. And a demonstration took place in response to a banned far right protest on Sunday. Ndella said, “Many people see unequal treatment of Muslims as normal. 

“There is a minority that doesn’t, and it’s alongside that minority that we struggle. They are a minority even within the left parties.”

The official response to the attacks has mainly focused on new security measures. The government is proposing a French version of the US Patriot Act. The right wing opposition demands they go further, with former interior minister Claude Gueant claiming, “There are some liberties we can do without”.

But Hanane said, “Terrorism is a symptom of an illness. It’s a very violent symptom, but it’s telling us that French society is sick. What pushes people who are excluded to such acts of violence?

“The clampdown can’t answer that.”

Jail for having the wrong sort of free speech

Around 80 people in France had been arrested for “defending terrorism” since the Charlie Hebdo killings by the beginning of this week. Some have already been sentenced to long prison terms.

The press has highlighted the case of Antisemitic performer Dieudonné M’bala M’bala. But the main targets are ordinary people who say something that upsets the police or the state.

It is a policy designed to intimidate and punish.

One man was imprisoned for four years after he angered the police. Kamal Belaidi from Douchy-les-Mines in northern France has a string of convictions for alcohol-related offences. He had a minor car accident while drunk.

Belaidi told the police who approached him, “The terrorists were right to shoot you in Paris. There should be more Kouachi brothers.”

A court sentenced Belaidi to four years in prison—with the severity of the sentence because he was judged to be “defending terrorism”.

A man in Strasbourg who posted a photograph of a Kalashnikov and bullets with a hand-scrawled message saying “Kisses from Syria. Bye bye Charlie!” on his Facebook page will be tried on 27 January. He said it was “a bad joke”, but faces up to seven years in prison and an £80,000 fine because his offence was committed on the internet.

A 14 year old schoolgirl told a ticket inspector on the tram in Nantes, “We’re the Kouachi sisters. We’re going to get our Kalashnikovs out.” She faces a charge of “defending terrorism”. 

One girl travelling with her was also summoned before the Criminal Court of Nantes for “death threats” against officers. Both could face up to five years in prison and a £60,000 fine.

The courts are following the lead from the top. 

The justice ministry sent a letter to all prosecutors and judges urging more aggressive tactics against racist or Antisemitic speech or acts. 

The order did not mention Islam. It didn’t have to.

‘How can you go to a march that applauds the police?’

Millions marched in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo a few days after the killings. Many people said they were sick of being asked, “Where were the Muslims on the marches?”

Fatima, a migrant from Algeria, said, “There are three people who did the killings, yet we’re all obliged to say sorry. It’s obvious that it wasn’t us, so why would we apologise?

“You can explain this to most people. The attack hasn’t changed anything with my friends or neighbours. But of course some people pick up prejudiced ideas when it’s all they hear on TV.”

Ndella said, “It’s really problematic because how do they know who is a Muslim on a demonstration? What they mean is, ‘We’ve not seen the Arabs’.”

For Nassor and Julien this is particularly galling after demonstrations in solidarity with Palestine were banned last summer.

Nassor said, “They ask why the youth from the suburbs didn’t go into Paris to demonstrate. How about because when they do they get arrested!”

Julien nodded. “When the youth from the banlieues want to protest for Palestine, they call us ‘Islamo-yobs’,” he said.

“Actually there were youth on the protest—of course there were on a protest that size.

“But how can you expect us to go to a demonstration where the police were applauded?”

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