Muslim Community in Paris Torn Over Terror Attacks, Syrian Immigrants

After Friday night's attack in Paris, some Muslims believe Syrian refugees' presence in France 'wouldn't be good for the country.'

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Representatives of the Muslim and Jewish communities gather at a makeshift memorial near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris on November 15, 2015.
Representatives of the Muslim and Jewish communities gather at a makeshift memorial near the Bataclan concert hall in Paris on November 15, 2015. Credit: AFP
Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

A picture on an electricity pole opposite the Belle Epoque restaurant, the site of one of Friday evening's shooting attacks in Paris, shows two bare-breasted women burning a black Islamist flag at the entrance to what appears to be a mosque. The picture, which appeared Sunday, is captioned in red letters: "The war has begun." A few streets away, at the Place de la Republique, French young people were singing melancholy songs about peace and world harmony, but in Paris, evidently, there are also those prepared to declare a culture war.

Friday night's attacks that took the lives of at least 129 people were just the most recent in a series of attacks that France has suffered in nearly four years, since the terrorist attacks in Toulouse, including one at a Jewish school in the city. It's not surprising that some in France are seeking to point an accusing finger at Islam and Muslims. France has the largest Muslim population in Europe, estimated at between 5 and 10 million (although French law doesn't allow census takers to ask about people's religion). Terrorist attacks perpetrated by young people who were born and raised in France and who have become enamored with radical Islam constitute a serious threat to the unity of French society.

In the two days since the carnage in Paris, anti-Muslim graffiti has been scrawled on mosques at locations around the country. In the northeast city of Lille, at a gathering in memory of the weekend's dead, slogans were heard calling for the expulsion of Islamists. On Sunday, in an effort to quell the backlash, and amid reports that at least three of the terrorists in Paris were young Muslim French citizens, a delegation of Muslim religious leaders, imams heading mosques in the French capital, paid a visit to the Bataclan concert venue, where most of the victims of the weekend reign of terror were killed. They lit candles along with a group of rabbis, placed white flowers at the site and sang the French national anthem.

In neighborhoods of the city that are home to large numbers of Muslim immigrants, there was no sense of fear. "I have been living here for six years," said Abdel Radi, a logistics manager who moved to France from Morocco. "I have never had problems and I feel that the authorities and the people here are very nice."

Along one of the streets in the neighborhood, there is a daily flea market where everything from old clothing to old printers are for sale. It's a scene where one can see the class differences between immigrants from Algeria and Tunisia who came 50 years ago, when French colonial authorities withdrew, and those who have found shelter in France in recent years as a result of recent wars and revolutions in the Middle East. Some of the housing here, a formerly classic working-class neighborhood under Communist political control, carry the names of the Jewish owners who left the neighborhood decades ago for wealthier areas of the city, or for Israel.

Mustafa Bariki, an orderly at a local hospital who arrived from Algeria 40 years ago, says he is not concerned about revenge attacks following Friday's terrorism. "There is no extreme right wing in this area of Paris at all. It's just on television. We don't feel [its presence]." The terrorism of the jihadists is "haram," barred by Islam, he said.

A Muslim man holds placards reading 'Terrorism is not Islam. Islam is like this flower. Terrorism has no religion' near 'Le Carillon' restaurant, one of the site of the Paris attacks, Nov. 15, 2015.Credit: AFP

Nevertheless, there are those in the neighborhood who make the claim that Friday's attacks never took place and are a media fabrication. "There is no such thing as ISIS," says an older man who refused to give his name, referring to the Islamic State organization. "It's all an invention of the Americans. They are the ones who are doing everything. "

Among more sober immigrants, there is greater concern about the implications of renewed immigration to France than about the terrorist attacks. Hassan Shougri, a young Syrian who arrived in France seven years ago, says he would prefer that France not allow Syrian refugees in. "It wouldn't be good for the country or for the Muslims already here," he says. At the moment, Shougri shouldn't have too much to worry about on that score. The Syrians streaming into Europe are headed mainly for Germany and Scandinavia. Those coming to France in recent months are mostly interested in continuing on to Britain. Several thousand are staying in a tent camp in Calais, on the English Channel. On Friday night, shortly after news of the Paris attacks broke, a major fire broke out in the camp. The cause of the fire is not clear.

Even if the hundreds of thousands of refugees coming to the continent don't choose to settle in France, their very presence in Europe heightens rhetoric against immigrants and Muslims by the political right, which gains popularity with every terrorist attack.

Above the refugees' very heads, as they pass under bridges and through traffic, there are prevalent signs supporting the extreme right-wing National Front, in the run-up to regional elections scheduled in another three weeks. "Vote for the neighborhood -- vote for the Front!" they urge. Beside the slogans are pictures of two young women, one with a veil, only her eyes showing. She is facing a young woman whose face is exposed and wearing a red knit hat. The second figure is the modern version of Marianne, the traditional rendering of the young woman with the torn dress and revealed breasts in the oil paintings of the storming of the Bastille in the French Revolution, one of the most well-known symbols of France.

As is always the case with extremist election posters, the choice appears obvious.

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