by Rana Harbi, Al-Akhbar
The attacks in France by Said and Chérif Kouachi, French brothers of Algerian descent, and Amedy Coulibaly, a French citizen with Malian roots, in the past week have further increased anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant sentiments in a country already rife with both. From grenade attacks on mosques and proposed mosque sites, to gunfire aimed at a Muslim family in a car and an explosion in a kebab shop next to a mosque, Islamophobia in France has now reached new heights.
On January 7, the Kouachi brothers targeted the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical magazine known for its controversial depictions of the Prophet Mohammad. They killed 12, including a police officer.
Two days later, Coulibaly, who is believed to have also killed a police officer, held people hostage in a kosher supermarket, where he killed four people before being killed himself by security forces.
A total of 20 people, including the three gunmen, were killed over three days from Wednesday to Friday.
Despite condemnation by Muslims in France and across the world, the Central Council of Muslims in France said there have been more than 50 anti-Muslim attacks since the attack on Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday.
The incidents included 21 reports of shooting at sites frequented by Muslims and the throwing of some form of grenades, and 33 threats.
A series of attacks
On January 7, shots were fired at a Muslim prayer room in Port-La-Nouvelle about an hour after prayers; a mosque in Poitiers was daubed with racist graffiti reading, “Morts aux Arabes” (“Death to Arabs) and a Muslim family came briefly under fire in their car in Vaucluse.
On January 8, three grenades were thrown at a mosque in Sablons; and in Villefranche-sur-Saône, an explosion blew out the windows of a kebab shop next door to the town mosque. In the town of Saint-Juéry, four gunshots were fired at the entrance of a mosque, and an arson attack was reported on a mosque in Aix-les-Bains.
On January 9, graffiti was found outside a mosque in Bayonne reading, “Charlie freedom,” “Assassins,” and “Dirty Arabs. In Rennes, a private Islamic center was vandalized with the slogan “Get out” written in both French and the regional dialect, Breton.
On the same day, a 17-year-old of North African descent was assaulted by a gang after suffering “racist abuse.” In Macon, unidentified individuals sprayed “Islam will f*ck you” on street walls.
On January 10, a pig’s head and entrails were placed outside a prayer room in Corte, on the island of Corsica, with a note threatening “next time it will be one of your heads.” And in northern France, two mosque construction sites in Liévin and Béthune, were vandalized with anti-Muslim graffiti.
Over the weekend, five additional acts of anti-Muslim vandalism were reported.
The Committee against Islamophobia in France (CCIF) said that anti-Muslim attacks and insults have risen steadily in France in recent years “as some politicians and media increasingly present Islam as a problem for French society.”
Extremists and Islamophobes
With extremists trying to exacerbate existing tensions, ostensibly tolerant France braces itself for a rising tide of xenophobia and Islamophobia.
Many voices have urged media outlets to choose the terms they use with care, and politicians to be more prudent, cautioning them against further stigmatizing the Muslim community.
“I believe that the attacks today will only increase the racism against Muslims,” Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory Against Islamophobia in Paris, told the Washington Post. “I hear many politicians saying that this is an Islamist terrorist attack and not just a terrorist attack.”
Growing anti-Muslim sentiment has reinforced fears that France, home to an estimated six million Muslims, and other EU countries, will witness an increase in the popularity of the already prominent far right and its Islamophobia.
Commenting on the Paris shootings, Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) spokesman Ibrahim Hooper told US news channel MSNBC that “Muslims need to marginalize the extremists on their side and also people of other faiths need to marginalize the growing Islamophobic movement in the West.”
Hooper also said that recent anti-Islam marches in Europe send “a very negative message” and “create a sense of alienation.”
Due to a spike in immigration and a moribund economy, far-right parties have been gaining ground in European countries as anti-immigrant policies seem to become progressively accepted in mainstream discourse.
These parties include the United Kingdom’s National Front and Independence Party; the Sweden Democrats party, which received 15 percent support in recent opinion polls; Germany’s so-called Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident (PEGIDA), which assembled a record 25,000 anti-Islam marchers in Dresden on Monday in its 12th rally since October; and France’s National Front (FN), which has become one of the most prominent political players in the country since its then-leader Jean-Marie Le Pen reached the second round of presidential elections in 2002.
In reference to simmering anti-Muslim sentiment, Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), warned in a statement against “inflaming the situation.”
Similarly, Camille Grand, director of the French Foundation for Strategic Research, described the shootings as “double honey for the National Front.”
“[Current FN leader Marine] Le Pen says everywhere that Islam is a massive threat, and that France should not support attacks in Iraq and instead defend the homeland and not create threats by going abroad, so they can naturally take advantage of it,” Grand stated.
Peter Neumann, director of the International Center for the Study of Radicalization at King’s College London told The New York Times, “this is a dangerous moment for European societies.”
“Large parts of the European public are latently anti-Muslim, and increasing mobilization of these forces is now reaching into the center of society,” Neumann said. “If we see more of these incidents, and I think we will, we will see a further polarization of these European societies in the years to come.”
Those who will suffer the most from such a backlash, he said, are the Muslim populations of Europe, “the ordinary normal Muslims who are trying to live their lives in Europe.”
During the hostage crisis at the Paris supermarket on Friday, Lassana Bathily, a Muslim assistant at the shop attacked by Coulibaly, saved a group of shoppers, including a baby, by hiding them in a basement storage room of the store.
Bathily, who managed to escape through the goods lift, told French TV that police kept him in handcuffs for an hour and a half thinking he was a conspirator despite denying any involvement in the attack.
While some say radical Islamists are the fruit of France’s foreign policies, many argue that extremism has fed upon the French government’s inability to enact structural, social and economic reforms that ensure the participation of citizens from different ethnic and religious backgrounds in society.
Kery James, a politically active French rapper, reacted to the Charlie Hebdo attacks by calling for long-term efforts to counter France’s Islamophobia.
“I feel compelled to remind that coexistence is built on the long term and not only in short-lived bouts under the influence of emotion. Coexistence cannot just be a symbol that is done and undone to the rhythm of news stories, no matter how abject they may be. It is not even enough to want to live together to succeed in doing so, one must be determined to succeed in it,” he wrote in an open letter on his Facebook page. “The vast majority of Muslims to which I belong is also a victim and hostage of extremists from all sides. And it is them who are constantly asked to give proofs of citizenship and patriotism that never seem sufficient. It is of them that is required, with an almost menacing tone, that they take to the streets to prove their attachment to France. It is as if it were them who had financed and armed the terrorists. The times ahead will be difficult for us and our patience will be put to the test.”
This sentiment is echoed by many of France’s Muslim population who continue to fear radicalism regardless of its source.
Rana Harbi is a staff writer for Al-Akhbar English. Follow her on Twitter: @ranaharbi