French Muslims caught between Islamophobia and extremism

هَا أَنْتُمْ أُولَاءِ تُحِبُّونَهُمْ وَلَا يُحِبُّونَكُمْ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِالْكِتَابِ كُلِّهِ وَإِذَا لَقُوكُمْ قَالُوا آمَنَّا وَإِذَا خَلَوْا عَضُّوا عَلَيْكُمُ الْأَنَامِلَ مِنَ الْغَيْظِ ۚ قُلْ مُوتُوا بِغَيْظِكُمْ ۗ إِنَّ اللَّهَ عَلِيمٌ بِذَاتِ الصُّدُورِ

“There you are, loving them when they do not love you, even though you have iman in all the Books. When they meet you, they say, ‘We have iman.’ But when they leave they bite their fingers out of rage against you. Say, ‘Die in your rage.’ Allah knows what your hearts contain.”

(Ali-Imran, 3:119)

Washington Post

Najim Hakem, 25, an habitant of the Cité du Park housing project, in the suburbs of Paris, said racism is worsening. “You turn on the TV, and all you see is bad publicity about Muslims.” (Sarah Caron/ Polaris for The Washington Post)

By Griff Witte

VINCENNES, France — This city’s first Muslim doctor doesn’t look Muslim.

Or at least, he doesn’t look or act how people expect a Muslim should. Fair-skinned and clean-shaven, he goes about his rounds listening to classical music; a copy of Voltaire’s “Treatise on Tolerance” is nestled on his desk.

Sometimes his patients forget who he is.

“I’m disgusted by Muslim ­people,” a patient of 10 years recently confided. “They shouldn’t be here.”

France, another casually mentioned, is only for “the true French people.”

“You can’t see in my face that I’m Muslim,” said Karim Bessalem, who has been living in this country for half his life, having escaped the strife of his native Algeria 25 years ago. “People don’t have any problems saying such things in front of me.”

That’s especially true now, more than two months after men acting in the name of Islam gunned down 17 people in ­attacks that traumatized the ­nation. For many of France’s 5 million Muslims — the largest Islamic population in Western Europe — the killings have left them feeling trapped in a vortex, battered both by rising Islamophobia and growing radicalism in their own communities.

The twin forces feed on each other, building in tandem. Together they represent a lingering and potentially devastating counterpoint to the millions who marched in cities across France on the Sunday after the attacks in a solemn and powerful defense of the nation’s core ideals — liberty, equality and fraternity.

Neither anti-Muslim bias nor Islamist extremism is obvious here in Vincennes. Although four of the victims from January’s killings died just a short walk from Bessalem’s office in an assault on a popular kosher grocery store, this leafy and affluent city on Paris’s eastern fringe has long been considered a model of peaceful coexistence. In the ­aftermath of the attack, city residents say, the bonds among Muslims, Jews and Christians have grown ever tighter.

And yet, as Bessalem has learned, the sentiment behind a recent dramatic spike in Islamophobic acts across France has a quiet home here, too. Meanwhile, the virus of Islamist extremism lurks just beyond the city line, finding recruits in a bleak housing development where impressionable and isolated young men have succumbed to the call of holy war.

“There was always racism toward immigrants. But now the extremists on all sides are using the atmosphere after these ­attacks to build permanent conflict between communities,” said Abdallah Zakri, head of France’s National Observatory Against ­Islamophobia.

In January, the month of the attacks, Zakri’s group recorded 214 separate acts of anti-Muslim behavior — more than it documented in all of 2014. The offenses included physical assaults, threats to eradicate Muslims from France and pigs’ heads dropped on mosque doorsteps.

Derai Imam of the Al-Islah mosque and the rector Lakhdar Taddani, having a chat before prayers on March 20 in Montreuil, Paris. (Sara Caron/Polaris for The Washington Post)

The behavior subsided last month as French police stepped up protection of Islamic sites. But Islamophobic attitudes ­remain relatively common in France, with 27 percent saying in a recent Pew Research Center survey that they have an unfavorable view of Muslims — nearly triple the number who say the same about Jews.

A world away

Attacks such as the one on the kosher market have prompted some French Jews to plan their departures. Record numbers are leaving for Israel amid fears that even the deployment of troops to guard synagogues and schools will not be enough to protect the community from an anti-Semitic onslaught.

There’s no sign of a similar exodus among French Muslims, many of whom are recent immigrants from North and West Africa.

But the sense of alienation that French Muslims feel from their country is undeniable, with widespread complaints of discrimination in the workplace, profiling by police and scapegoating by the media and politicians.

“There’s more and more racism every day in France,” said Najim Hakem, a 25-year-old son of Algerian immigrants. “You turn on the TV and all you see is bad publicity about Muslims.”

Hakem grew up in a high-rise that overlooks Vincennes, just two miles in distance yet a world away. Instead of graceful boulevards and trendy cafes, Hakem is surrounded by empty expanses of concrete and crowds of young men who, like him, struggle to find work in a sluggish economy.

Being Muslim, he said, doesn’t make it any easier.

“After work, if you go out with colleagues and say that you don’t drink alcohol or eat pork, people are going to say, ‘I don’t like this guy,’ ” said Hakem, who studied human resources in college but has been able to find only short-term contract jobs in the years since.

In the absence of other ­options, young people from the area turn to crime.

“If you don’t deal,” said Hakem, tall, bearded and sporting a black Mickey Mouse sweatshirt one recent sunny day, “you don’t eat.”

Lately, criminality has become a gateway to something more ominous. In both the Paris attacks and in last month’s killings in Copenhagen — all ostensibly motivated by religion — the ­assailants were notable less for their piety than for their previous run-ins with the law on drug, weapons and assault charges.

Those who have fallen under the spell of radical Islam in Hakem’s neighborhood fit a similar profile.

At least three have gone to Syria to fight, he said, part of an estimated total of 1,200 across France — the highest of any country in Europe.

“They’re people who were into drugs and alcohol. They didn’t know anything about the Koran,” Hakem said. “One of them went because he was dumped by his girlfriend. He was depressed and didn’t know what to do with his life. So he went to war.”

‘The problem is justice’

At a nearby mosque — a converted warehouse that overflows with congregants on Fridays — the rector said he needs to remain ever-vigilant for “intruders” who try to seduce wayward youths with the promise of identity and belonging through extreme religiosity.

“They say, ‘Why don’t you wear the beard? It would look great on you,’ ” said Lakhdar Taddani, a suit-and-tie-attired 69-year-old who immigrated to France from Morocco in the early 1970s. “I’m as scared of what these extremists are doing as any other Frenchman. It’s breaking my heart.”

The mosque, Taddani said, is a key part of the solution, a community force that can dispel the myths propagated endlessly online by the Islamic State and its supporters.

Not everyone sees it that way, however. France’s far-right National Front party has capitalized on anti-Muslim sentiment — and fed it — with calls to shutter mosques and deport their leaders if they carry the whiff of radicalism.

The party finished a strong second in local elections Sunday, early results and exit polls showed, and its leader, Marine Le Pen, has gone from fringe candidate to prospective president in a contest due in 2017. The party’s hard-line stance on immigrants broadly, and on Muslims in particular, is seen as a critical factor in its success.

“Not every Muslim is a terrorist, thank God,” said Gilles Parmentier, a blue-eyed 21-year-old university student who is running for Vincennes’s regional council on a National Front ticket. “But every terrorist is a Muslim.”

Parmentier said France needs to slash immigration to the bare minimum and encourage even skilled workers in poor nations such as Algeria to stay home. “Algeria needs doctors,” he said. “They should develop their own countries.”

That wasn’t an option for Bessalem, the Vincennes doctor who left his native Algeria because of a war that had its roots in French co­lo­ni­al­ism — the history of which France has been deeply reluctant to confront.

Coming to France a ­quarter-century ago allowed Bessalem to launch a successful practice — one he shares today with two other doctors, one Jewish and the other Catholic. But he’s acutely aware that young Muslims growing up now in some of the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods that ring Vincennes may not have the same opportunities.

“French Muslims are really lucky to be living in a free country, one where you’re allowed to follow any religion you want,” he said. “But the problem is justice. When you don’t have justice, people will react.”