Protect France’s Jews and Muslims, While Tackling Radical Islam

Rabbis, imams and the mother of a Muslim victim of killer Mohammed Merah all want more government and grassroots help to confront the growing number of Islamist radicals - and to ensure their personal safety.

Brett Kline
Brett Kline
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Brett Kline
Brett Kline

Her mere presence on-stage brought the house down. "Since my son was killed by the terrorist Merah, this is the first time I have gone out at night and mixed with people," Latifa Ibn Ziaten told 300 people gathered for the annual dinner of Radio J, one of four Jewish stations in Paris. "I feel like I am with family, here with you."

The guests stood and applauded her. Ziaten was born in Morocco, and has raised five children born in France. Her son, and two other French soldiers of North African origin, were gunned down on March 11th of this year in the southern city of Montauban by a young French citizen, Mohamed Merah, whose family came from Algeria, who went on to kill three Jewish children and a teacher (the father of one of the children) at the Ozer Hatorah school in Toulouse.

Merah was shot and killed by the French anti-terrorist police, and become a symbol of the radicalized, disenfranchised young Muslims, born in France with origins in Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia, as well as Senegal and Mali. With their French identity a blank page, increasing numbers are falling prey to radical Islam, via hate-filled websites and often in prison.

It was clear to me that the Radio J dinner highlighted the urgency with which France must deal with home-grown radical Islam. The government’s commitment to combatting the threat was demonstrated by the presence of French Interior Minister Manuel Valls, who told guests that "In certain suburbs, there is a process of Islamic radicalization taking place, with a strong link to anti-Semitism that can lead to terrorism, as we saw in the Merah case."

But there are many voices critical of what they consider to be the inadequate engagement that the government has shown. The French government knows when to show its muscle: it – in my view, correctly - offered diplomatic backing to the Palestinian Authority at the UN and criticized the Israeli housing projects around Jerusalem. It is not so easy for that same government to look inside its own home, to take a hard look at the streets of certain French suburbs where what is known in French as "valeurs republicaines" [the values of the French Republic] - meaning strong secular education, equal rights for women and employment opportunities for all, tolerance of all religions and backgrounds - are disappearing, to put it mildly.

One of the many reasons for this situation are that youths from the many housing projects populated largely by families of North African and African origin feel – and indeed, are, in terms of education, jobs and opportunities - rejected by mainstream French society. And one effective way to fight back at the dynamic of rejection feeding radicalism is for the French government to endorse a different, moderate path. Indeed, it is essential that the government make a public show of protecting and funding the ‘good guys,’ the moderates, such as Ziaten, who has formed the Imad association in order to talk not to the victims of terrorism, but to the newly-radical aggressors.

Over the weekend she was in the tough district of Toulouse where Merah, her son’s killer, was from, speaking to young people in high school there. “The school has no gym and no library, and some of the kids never leave the housing projects,” she said. “The empty space in their heads is being filled by radical Islam, in some cases.” But Ziaten stated bluntly that without government funding, counter-extremism projects such as hers, which aim to work from the grassroots up, will not survive. "A 16-year-old boy approached me, crying, and said he was sorry. Turns out he was a cousin of Mohamed Merah, my son's killer. He said he would certainly not become involved in radical Islam like his cousin. [But] he needs support from school and other services."

Listening closely to Ziaten at the dinner was prominent Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, rector of the Drancy mosque north of Paris. Chalghoumi is dedicated to a moderate Islam "made in France" without outside influences, including from his native Tunisia, and this belief, together with his close contact with the French Jewish community have attracted a lot of attention in France. That includes threats on his life from Muslim radicals and consequently 24 hour French police protection.

Chalghoumi explained: “I don’t know if the French or Israeli officials have understood this, but if they don’t protect and support us, the moderates, it will make the radicals more important. If the politicians don’t get it, we are in a bad way.” He noted as an example that it was only six months after his home in Drancy was ransacked by Islamic radicals several years ago that French police put two plainclothed men with him 24 hours a day. "Those six months were hell," he said. Another Parisian imam who had been harassed since he returned from an interfaith trip to Israel also sounded the alarm: "I'm sure there will be more trouble. We need a minimum of protection from the French government," he said.

The Jewish-Muslim interaction at the event was certainly unusual. Chalghoumi has just returned from a trip to Israel and Ramallah with several other French Muslim leaders in the Conference of Imams of France, which he founded and heads. He was greeted warmly with kisses on both cheeks by France's Chief Rabbi Gilles Bernheim, and by Israeli ambassador Yossi Gal who thanked him in Arabic on stage. Not a frequent sight in Israel, I thought.

Radio J Editor-in-chief Michel Zerbib commented offstage that the Muslim leaders in attendance showed great bravery because of the "Jewish, pro-Israel" nature of the radio station. He contrasted the station's aspiration to be a center for Jewish-Muslim exchanges and the healthy exchange of views between Jewish journalists and Muslim interviewees, with the conflict between the communities on the streets outside: "Outside our Paris studio, things are not always so rosy."

Although the French government is making the right noises in terms of tackling Muslim extremism in France, both Jews and moderate Muslims are stating in explicit terms that it is not enough, and may even be too late. Interior Minister Valls mentioned new anti-terrorism legislation that is being passed, but the solution will not only be found in top-down law-making. There need to be more, and better-funded, public forums and grassroots activities that give a voice to an emerging moderate Muslim leadership, within the Muslim community and in cooperation with other faith communities, and better physical protection for those who speak out against extremism, before those moderate voices are intimidated into silence.

Latifa Ibn Ziaten delivers to France's President Francois Hollande, partially seen at left, a picture of her son, French paratrooper Imed Iban Ziaten, who was killed by Mohammed Merah, Sept, 19, 2012.Credit: AP

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