Ten months after the attacks against the Charlie Hebdo magazine and the Hyper Cacher supermarket, France has once again been hit hard. The massacres on Friday November 13th by jihadi radicals were an arbitrary slaughter of people embodying a broad spectrum of French culture and lifestyles.
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These radical barbarians have taken hostage the silent majority within Muslim communities - and Islam itself. But today the silent majority of Muslims in France, horrified by the attacks back in January and now, feel that they must make their voices heard and they are doing so. In Friday prayers, mosques throughout the entire country delivered messages condemning the attacks, denouncing them as a distortion of the words of the Koran. There were many spontaneous acts of solidarity from the Muslim community this week, including a letter from a mother to her child praising their life in secular France and a man offering hugs in front of the Bataclan music hall to passersby and so on.
But today, we need to address the question of the spread of radical Islam in France, especially amongst our young people.
Many young people feel an economic and cultural identity void that has pushed them to the sidelines of French society. This empty space has been filled by radical religious discourses coming from Salafist and Muslim Brotherhood-related imams from other countries preaching hate in local mosques. Young people are brainwashed about the jihadi "ideology of death" while they are on the internet and during time spent in French prisons. Many know absolutely nothing about Islam as a religion. So they increasingly fill the empty spaces with hate-filled voices of a political Islam that has nothing to do with the essence of the religion.
There are 89 mosques considered to be "radical" and 41 others on that path in France, according to a recent report issued by interior minister Bernard Cazeneuve. Measures to shut them down are being taken. I welcome that move but this is only the first step to fight against radicalism.
For years I have been calling for the establishing of a French framework to train imams to work here in France. Living in a secular republic is the guarantee of the separation between religion and state, but that shouldn't prevent us from creating a training structure free of interference by foreign sources. We need an Islam that is "Made in France". Moderate imams must be given the means to work through French political, legal and financial resources without having to seek backing from abroad. I myself head a network of 300 such imams, members of the Conference of Imams of France: we are ready to work to broaden our base. It can be done.
After this January's attacks, I spoke up in public forums about the reality of anti-Semitism and I praised the steps taken by the French government. On the other hand, the number of anti-Muslim hate crime attacks has skyrocketed, and many Muslims do not feel comfortable walking on the streets with a veil or a chechia. Public debates led by far-right parties over what constitutes French identity and how Islam fits into that identity have contributed to an overall feeling of increased anti-Muslim racism.
So while security measures are being implemented, it's not enough. Education is paramount, because it is the only way for us to fight against radicalism and encourage unity amongst the French people. Education, because ignorance is our major enemy these days.
Education that would counter the ignorance of the Koran that is widespread among much of the general population, and of course by those who carry out these attacks that are contrary to what Islam stands for, including one of its most important principles: “Do not take the life of any human being – [life] which God has declared to be sacred” (Koran Sura VI, 151). Teaching the history of all religions in schools should be part of France's educational changes. Recognizing the importance of countering the lack of knowledge about basic Muslim concepts, I have just written a book defining 100 key words associated with Islam today.
Ignorance of the complexity of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is often utilized by radicals to rally disenfranchised young Muslims in France around the Palestinian cause, in a violent way. This has been a port of entry for a process of radicalization that can end up in Syria and with ISIS. This process is based on social media and hate-fueled websites which must be eliminated.
The latest attacks have also stepped up pressure on European governments. In the midst of the waves of migrants from Syria that have already triggered xenophobic feelings, it has emerged that at least one of the Paris terrorists entered Europe disguised as a migrant. We must keep this in perspective, and respect the values and traditions in France concerning political asylum. We cannot fall into the trap set for us by the radical barbarians: targeting what we care about most and neutralizing our capacity for critical thinking in order to divide us.
French President François Hollande has taken unprecedented steps to deal with the situation. The state of emergency has been extended to three months. Precisely because everyone feels the danger, this can and should be the best moment for unity.
A few days ago, I paid tribute to the victims, together with the Conference of Imams of France, and with Jewish, Christian and secular groups. It was an intense experience because we were all together, praying for them, praying for Paris and everything it represents. This is what we did and what we will continue to do: to come together and not be torn apart, to talk and not to clash, to educate and not to ignore. We will defeat the radicals with the very values they are targeting: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité.
Hassen Chalghoumi is a French imam who heads the mosque of Drancy (north of Paris), the Conference of Imams of France and the Union of People for Peace.