SEINE SAINT-DENIS, PARIS - There were no Charlie Hebdo magazines on sale in this northern suburb of Paris on Wednesday. Not because they had run out – as they had elsewhere across the French capital – but because the kiosks didn’t carry them. “It hurts us to see those images,” said a French-Tunisian named Yassine, distilling a world of complexity to its most basic stand.
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Despite the fact that Islam considers illustrations of the Prophet Mohammed to be blasphemous, there were many Muslims who stood up to condemn the attack on the satire magazine last week that left ten cartoonists and two policemen dead, as well as the attack on a Jewish supermarket that left four more dead – all in the name of Islam. Clerics preached against hate. Intellectuals wrote op-eds against extremism. Statesmen flew to Paris. Youngsters put on “Je Suis Charlie,” t-shirts – and tens of thousands joined the millions marching for freedom of press and against violence.
But this was not everyone. On this windy morning in Seine-Saint-Denis, a suburb of hip hop music, head coverings, halal fast food joints and hardworking immigrants looking for jobs, no one seems to have been to the march Sunday. Not the French-Algerians reading the Arabic papers over at the corner tea shop, nor the Malian and Senegalese-born immigrants playing a lackluster game of pick up soccer outside the discount supermarket, or the Moroccan-French store owner selling olive oil. For some, like Yassine, the offensive humor of the provocative magazine kept him home.
In any case, the happenings in the Paris of specialty macaroon shops, elegant rare bookshops, the newly reopened Picasso museum and talk of freedoms and equality of the Republic – all a mere three RER train stops away from here – are not ones Yassine ever really felt a part of, despite being a third generation Frenchman. “This was not a march for me,” he says gently.
For others still – a small minority of the approximately four- to five-million-strong Muslim population living in this country – it seems the attacks last week not only failed to inspire them to stand up against extremist violence – but rather were, in themselves, inspiring.
Over 21,000 Twitter users reportedly began posting using the hashtag #JeSuisKouachi – a play on the slogan of “Je Suis Charlie,” and a reference to the brothers Sad and Chérif Kouachi who attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices.
Photo from Twitter
Until Friday, these tweets – in French, Arabic and English – were almost all pro-terrorism, with such comments as “I am Muslim and Kouachi represents me.”
Later in the weekend, most of those weighing in under the hashtag took to condemning the terrorists and even asking Twitter to block the use of the tag. Roger Cukierman, the President of the CRIF, the Council of Jewish Institutions in France, also weighed in on the matter, blaming the social networks for becoming a platform for spreading of hatred. “These youngsters are not educated by our schools any more, they are not educated on the radio or the television – they are all educated through the social networks,” he told reporters.
One well-known figure who rode this hashtag wave directly into police detention was the controversial comedian Dieudonné M’Bala, whose stage show, filled with anti-Jewish jokes, was once banned for mocking the Holocaust. The son of a Cameroonian father and a white sociologist mother from Brittany, who went to Catholic school as a child, he has a certain following here in France, including among the Muslim immigrant communities.
“As far as I am concerned, I feel I am Charlie Coulibaly,” he declared on his Facebook page after marching Sunday in the unity march, in reference to the terrorist Amedy Coulibaly who took hostages at the kosher minimarket. The comedian deleted the post less than an hour later and said he had just been playing with the much-repeated calls for freedom of speech, but the government was not amused, and arrested him for being an “apologist for terrorism.”
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve called the comment "abject," and French Prime Minister Manuel Valls attacked the comedian in the National Assembly on Tuesday – calling him a "peddler of hate,” and making clear he considered there to be a big difference between what he called the “impertinent” satire of Charlie Hebdo and “anti-Semitism and racism of Dieudonné.”
Meanwhile, teachers from Seine Saint Denis and other Muslim immigrant-heavy suburbs and cities around the county reported trouble when – instructed by the Ministry of Education – they began talking about the recent events in their classrooms.
“As teachers, our mission is to explain what is going on, and help the children think about it all and understand,” said one teacher who, like so many here in France this week, spoke on condition of anonymity because of fear for their personal security. “One frequent question I get is: ‘Why observe a moment of silent for people we don’t know?’”
In some less innocent cases, he continued, students refused to participate in the memorial services for the victims organized at the schools because, as one sixth grader explained “some of those killed had been warned and had it coming.” The focus of these students anger was mainly the irreverent cartoonists, said the teacher, but no love was lost on the police, or the Jewish victims either. “Conflating Jews of France and the actions of the Israeli government is not unusual here,” he said.
For two days, radio call-in shows have been interviewing teachers who, all speaking anonymously, repeatedly tell of Muslim students expressing more loyalty to Islam and its prohibition on mocking the prophet than to any French values of freedom of expression. One teacher told of a student who also mocked Ahmed Merabat, the police officer killed outside the Charlie Hebdo offices -- for working for a force that “oppressed Muslims.”
“No matter what I say in the classroom, the problem is that they go home to a different atmosphere and message,” said one teacher. “They no longer see us as their allies, but rather as their possible enemies.”
In Lille, a boy threatened to shoot “with a Kalashnikov” a teacher who had asked a class to be quiet during a remembrance ceremony. And a 15-year-old Muslim teenager was reportedly beaten by his Muslim classmates at the Blaise Pacal High school in Chateauroux because he showed support for Charlie Hebdo on his Facebook page.
Hassen Farsadou, President of the Union of Muslim Associations of Seine-Saint-Denis, stated publically that the terrorist attacks were “a despicable, criminal act, which we condemn utterly,” and Dalil Boubakeur, Director of the Grand Mosque of Paris, exhorted imams across the country to condemn “violence and terrorism.”
But out here on the streets of Seine Saint Denis, there was far less passion for the fight. Most here were pleased, they noted, not to have to see the new cover of Charlie Hebdo, again featuring their prophet Mohammad, on their streets. “It hurts us,” repeated Yassine. “What about that?”