PARIS — “You ask if I went to the march?” said Imad, a slim 24-year-old with a boyish face that barely requires shaving. He was referring to the massive demonstration in Paris on Sunday that reportedly attracted 1.5 million participants. “Why should I have gone? Everyone was carrying placards in support of unity and against violence, but don’t buy that. That’s just on the surface. Beneath the surface, it was a demonstration against the Muslims in France, against us."
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On Sunday afternoon, added Imad, "two streets away from here, at the bus stop, I met a neighbor of mine, a young Muslim woman, who covers her head with a hijab” – referring to the traditional head covering worn by some Muslim women. “I asked her if she was going to the march and she laughed in my face: ‘Why should I go to a place where they want to cut off my head?’ She’s right.”
In a cliché of a Parisian scene, Imad and his friend Ahmed are sitting outside a sidewalk café, sipping espresso from small white cups at a table with glasses of water and an ashtray filling up with the stubs of American cigarettes. They invite me to join them. The conversation ranges from life in France to Sunday’s rally, which the café's assortment of French national dailies described in bombastic terms with headlines such as “We are all one.”
This café is at a main intersection in the 19th arrondissement overlooking Buttes-Chaumont, one of Paris’ most beautiful and famous parks. In recent days, however, the name of the park has taken on a new connotation as the terrorist group that included Cherif Kouachi – one of the brothers who committed the massacre at the Charlie Hebdo satirical weekly – is now being dubbed the "Buttes-Chaumont gang."
The huge park at the northeast edge of the French capital is bounded by a neighborhood of veteran immigrants – Muslims, Jews, Christians and Asians, urban hipsters, as well as people who defy categorization or a social label. French people.
This was the perfect setting in which to hear, in Arabic, Ahmed and Imad’s opinions about the current situation. And no, they don’t represent anyone but themselves. Views opposite to theirs may faithfully represent the silent majority of immigrants in France who condemn terrorism, who express sympathy for victims of any religion – views we found in abundance in the 19th arrondissement. But, while over the past several days the French media have been projecting this sort of unifying message for the most part, highlighting the strong popular opposition to terrorism – Ahmed and Imad have volunteered to dispel it.
Both of them immigrated to France from Egypt at a young age with their families. Ahmed is rather satisfied with life in France while it’s clear to Imad that one day, he will return to Cairo, which he has not visited since he emigrated at age 16.
“Anyone who carries out terrorist attacks like this is someone who is suffering from personal problems, but it has nothing to do with religion. A person who creates problems doesn’t do it because of religion, but instead maybe because he has economic or emotional problems,” Ahmed says.
Imad, the boyish one, goes a bit further and casts doubt over the contention that the murderers were actually the same individuals identified in the French media.
“What murderer do you know who goes around with an identification card?” he asked, referring to reports that Said Kouachi had left his ID card in the getaway car that he and his brother used. Moreover, the short span of time between the Wednesday attack on Charlie Hebdo and the Friday attack on the Hyper Cacher supermarket struck Imad as suspicious: Perhaps the incidents were an act of anti-Muslim provocation.
Imad also expressed anger that Arab immigrants in France usually have to take menial jobs. “Why do we need to work in the open-air market and why are we the ones who build their buildings for them? That’s our job here. There’s a lot of racism in the French street. If you’re Muslim, if you’re Arab, you have a mark against you. Everything is rigged so you don’t succeed. All of France’s money belongs to the French.”
But then Ahmed chimes in: “All the immigrants in France dream of some kind of future. One might have come here to earn money. Another came to study. All of them have dreams and fantasies, and it’s true that in the end, a lot of people’s dreams are dashed.”
For Imad, the fact that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attended the huge rally on Sunday march simply strengthened his belief in some kind of conspiracy.
“Look who’s coming here," he says. "Netanyahu heads up a terrorist state. He’s the biggest terrorist in the world. Can you compare what happened here in France with what he did in Gaza? How many children has he killed? How many women? It’s hypocrisy.”
Imad elaborates on his various conspiracy theories: that the Israeli prime minister is plotting to steal the Noble Sanctuary (the Temple Mount) in Jerusalem, from the Muslims, and is now trying to gain some sort of foothold in France. It’s all puppet theater, marionettes, he adds. And who is pulling the strings? Imad pauses for a minute and takes a puff of his cigarette and then replies: “Israel and America.”