Paris Terror Sparks Attacks on Muslims, Communal Rifts

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Jewish leader Joel Mergui and Dalil Boubakeur of Paris' Great Mosque, at rally. Credit: AFP

Since last Wednesday's terror attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, France’s Muslim community has faced a wave of violence, including arson, gunfire and desecration of mosques, in at least 13 cities across the country.

There have been shootings outside mosques in Port la Nouvelle in the south and Le Mans in the northwest. In Aix les Bains a mosque was set on fire, and there was an explosion in a mosque near Lyon. A Muslim boy was beaten after a minute of silence for the terror victims was observed in his school in the French Alps.

In addition, pigs' heads and viscera were placed in Muslim prayer halls in Corsica, and slogans such as “Charlie’s alive!” “Arabs out!” and “Death to Arabs” appeared on walls in other French cities.

Such incidents are exactly what French authorities and the country’s 5 million Muslims feared would happen. An hour after the attack Wednesday in the offices of the satirical Charlie Hebdo magazine, President François Hollande was warning his countrymen against making the dangerous association between the Al-Qaida-linked terrorists and the Muslim community at large.

“Since the attack, people look at me differently – as if I had something to do with this violence,” a Muslim woman named Hind told Haaretz.

Some Arabs and Muslims who took part in Sunday’s mammoth demonstration in Paris in favor of national unity and freedom of speech said they were hoping to show non-Muslim French protesters that they, too, have been appalled by the spate of deadly violence.

Habiba Nasri, who was holding a Tunisian flag at the Place de la Republique rally, where there were an estimated two million protesters, said: “What these people did had nothing to do with Islam. These terrorists are hurting all of us. Here and in Tunisia and anywhere in the world – we’re against this violence. No one should hurt the French people.”

Yet Nasri added that she was suspicious about the incidents: “I think there’s more to these attacks then the media have been saying. I don’t know what it is, but it seems odd that police didn’t manage to arrest these guys quickly. There’s something unclear about this."

An Arab man named Sami, a self-described atheist who was carrying an “I am Charlie” sign in Arabic and French at the rally, said: “I’ve seen horrible things on social media against Arabs and Muslims, and I want people to know we’re behind Charlie too. In my country of origin, Lebanon, people protested too after the shootings, because Charlie represents liberty. Many young people come to France hoping that when they go back home they take freedom along with them. When these terrorists attacked Charlie, they hurt all these young people across the world.”

"Muslims are trapped between those who kill in the name of Islam, and extremists who want to hurt Muslims and spread heinous stigmas about them,” said Abdallah Zekri, head of the National Observatory of Islamophobia, an organization that fights racism. “I’m at this protest not as a Muslim but as a citizen.”

It appears that many French Muslims hope the increasing hostilities toward their community will fade away quickly, especially since two of the heroes during last week’s terror attacks were actually Muslims.

The policeman who was shot dead outside Charlie Hebdo’s offices was a Muslim, and the other Muslim hero is the Malian employee at the Hyper Cacher supermarket who hid hostages in the cold-storage room, saving their lives and endangering his own.

Some protesters on Sunday were holding “I am Ahmed” placards, echoing the slogans “I am Charlie” or "I am Jewish."

The country’s major Muslim organizations – both the French Council of the Muslim Faith umbrella group and the more radical Union of Islamic Organizations of France – called on members of their community to join the Sunday demonstration en masse, despite the fact that both organizations had sued Charlie Hebdo for inciting hatred and Islamophobia after publishing offensive cartoons of the prophet Mohammed in 2006.

“Protest to express your will to live in peace and harmony with everyone while respecting the values and principles of the Republic,” they wrote in a statement. 

On the other hand, there were some Muslim groups that decided not to participate in the rally after hearing that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said they would attend.

"The demonstration was supposed to show national unity but it has turned into a protest spreading Islamophobia and hatred for Muslims,” wrote the Committee Against Islamophobia (CCIF) in France. “The presence of Netanyahu and Lieberman represents exactly what the event was supposed to denounce: They are racist, hostile to Arabs, black people, Muslims, and they’re responsible for the death of tens of thousands of Palestinians."

The CCIF added, "Organizers of the demonstration excluded [French right-wing politician] Marine Le Pen because of her controversial statements and because her party has xenophobic policies, but why should they act differently regarding these two criminals?” 

The organization also accused Charlie Hebdo of spreading Islamophobia, saying, “It defended those who have power” and “authorized to attack only the weak Muslims.”

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