Like most developing stories, nothing was for certain. Earlier this year I went to rural Washington State to meet a young woman who had befriended Islamic State sympathizers over the Internet. Rukmini Callimachi, the reporter on the story, received a tip about “Alex” from an online activist. In February, we spoke to the 23-year-old woman and her grandmother by phone and discussed protecting their identities in exchange for telling her story.
Islamophobic acts in France have increased by 23.5 percent in the first six months of 2015 compared with the same period last year, a French nongovernmental organization has said in a new report.
The figure was released Thursday in a report titled “Islamophobia in France six months after the January 2015 terrorist attacks” by the Paris-based Collective against Islamophobia in France organization.
“Attacks against mosques, death threats against veiled women, school kids humiliated by their teachers, female students prohibited from wearing long skirts, religious profiling of Muslim children, propagation of hate speeches and even declarations of war on Muslims whom are portrayed as a fifth column… the consequences have been and still are dire for Muslims,” the report said.
Moreover, physical assaults increased by 500 percent and verbal attacks by 100 percent during the initial months of 2015, the report said, adding that women were among the first victims of Islamophobia.
“Discrimination and violence against adults are now joined by the humiliations inflicted on numerous Muslim children that have been blamed for the terrorist attacks,” it said.
However, few people were making complaints about the Islamophobic acts because of apparently two main reasons: “Agents refuse to take my complaint,” and secondly: “Perpetrators are rarely convicted and if they are, justice is very lenient.”
The report also referred to a recent dialogue between Muslim representatives and the French Ministry of Interior, noting that the ministry had “urged police officials to accept complaints from victims of Islamophobia”.
After the deadly Charlie Hebdo attacks in France last January, Islamophobia is believed to have increased manifolds in France, which is home to nearly five million Muslims, most of whom are from North Africa.
“France is experiencing its second shock in six months,” said Kamel Kabtane (rector of the Grand mosque of Lyon), Laid Bendidi (president of the regional Muslim council), and Azzedine Gaci (rector of the Villeurbanne mosque), in a joint statement following the attack in Isere. They “wish to express their condemnation of the diabolical attack carried out during the month of Ramadan at the Air Products of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier factory.”
The three religious leaders called on “all mosques in the Rhône-Alpes region to use Friday prayer to call on Muslims to unambiguously fight and condemn all extremism and terrorism.” They added that no one should “tolerate that which the messengers of hatred do in the name of Islam,” and hope for a mobilization “all together, everyone together, to combat these criminals who want to weaken our country.”
“The CFCM condemns with the greatest vigor the terror attack that struck the Air Products of Saint-Quentin-Fallavier factory in Isere,” wrote the former president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith Dalil Boubakeur. “The CFCM expresses its deepest outrage following the unspeakable acts that cannot be claimed by any religion or cause,” he added, before calling on “the entire national community to awareness, unity, and to solidarity.”
The president of the National Observatory Against Islamophobia, Abdallah Zekri, “condemned with force this barbaric and blind terrorism that claims religious roots but is in complete contradiction with the Islam’s values and more particularly during the month of Ramadan, a month of piety, brotherhood, and of sharing.
“A decapitation in Isere! The peak of the despicable and of the abominable has been reached,” said M. Zekri, who is also a part of the CFCM. “It is time for the great powers to react effectively and to stop countries from financing this terrorism,” he said.
“The CCIF is profoundly shocked by the latest unspeakable act of violence. We send our condolences to the families and friends of the victims.
In an already difficult environment, where French society is plagued by a rise in racism and intolerance as well as by a recrudescence in Islamophobic acts, we warn against any attempt at amalgamations and ask that security for places of worship be reinforced, especially during the month of Ramadan where mosques are frequently attended.
We ask the leaders of places of worship to remain vigilant, and to report any hostile act to the authorities while alerting the CCIF (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Danger does not lie in the vain attempts of armed groups to weaken the Republic. Its principles are anchored in the French spirit, as our country’s History has shown.
The real danger lies with those who use these events to unleash their hate against a segment of the population which is, in fact, the one who pays the highest price in the face of terrorism.”
Are some mosques brewing militant Islam and terrorism? France thinks so, and they are doing something about it.
Over the past three years, France has deported 40 foreign imams for “preaching hatred.” A quarter of those have taken place since the January terror attacks in Paris, Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said on Monday.
The minister vowed to clamp down on mosques and preachers inciting hatred after a suspected Islamist beheaded his boss during an attack on a gas factory last week, according to Radio France International.
Any “foreign preacher of hate will be deported,” said Cazeneuve, adding that several mosques were being investigated for inciting terrorism and if found to be doing so, “will be shut down.”
Yassin Salhi, 35, on Sunday confessed during interrogation to killing his boss and pinning his head to a fence of the Air Products factory near the eastern city of Lyon.
The severed head was discovered flanked by two Islamic flags and it later emerged Salhi had sent a selfie of himself with the head to a number believed to belong to a French jihadist currently in Syria.
After the attack French Prime Minister Manuel Valls told French television, “We cannot lose this war because it’s fundamentally a war of civilization. It’s our society, our civilization that we are defending.”
Drivers slow down to stare at the tall figure in a black bowler hat and snow-white beard. “Just the other day, I was called a dirty Jew,” Michel Serfaty is telling a Muslim man. “Now, you’re going to say it isn’t so.”
The man indeed begins to protest — that the remarks are shameful but don’t reflect the sentiments of many Muslims. The two are standing near the glass-fronted headquarters of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France, or UOIF, a popular and conservative association with ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Men are trickling in for prayer on a sunny afternoon.
It’s a strange place to find a rabbi. But Serfaty is not your ordinary rabbi.
For the past decade, Moroccan-born Serfaty has toured France in a beat-up minibus plastered with slogans such as “Solidarity between Jews and Muslims” and “We’re more alike than you think.”
He’s met with Palestinians in Gaza and taken French imams to Auschwitz. But mostly he wades into tough French neighborhoods, striking up conversations with Muslim leaders, students and even drug dealers. Dialogue is what Serfaty’s Jewish-Muslim Friendship Association is all about.
“When we go to some neighborhoods and hear the blackest things about Jews, we’re not there to correct them,” he said. “We’re there to listen and to get people to talk.”
Since the Paris shootings in January — and the gruesome Islamist attack near Lyon on Friday (June 26) — the rabbi’s work has taken a new urgency.
Fears of militant Islam have added new tensions to Jewish and Muslim relations in France, which are already strained by events in the Middle East and anti-Semitism at home. Indeed, the number of anti-Semitic acts recorded by Jewish authorities doubled to more than 850 in 2014, compared with the previous year. Too often, experts say, the authors are young Muslims.
“The state has done nothing for years to improve things,” Serfarty said. “During that time, I’ve gone to all the tinderboxes. I’ve heard the harshest things, but I’ve never had any incident.
“Which means that even with delinquents, there is the possibility of dialogue, of a handshake and a smile.”
The Star of David casts a neon glow on the rabbi as he speaks. Serfaty is seated in his synagogue, in the quiet Paris suburb of Ris-Orangis. A mosque and an evangelical church are just next door — a deliberate feat of urban planning to promote interfaith harmony.
But the soldiers standing watch outside point to another reality. The rabbi has round-the-clock protection since January’s terrorist attacks. In a twist of irony, Amedy Coulibaly, who gunned down four Jews at a kosher supermarket, grew up just a few miles away.
But there is work to be done on both sides. Serfaty described meeting a group of Hasidic Jews in Paris. “One tells me, ‘Mr. Rabbi, you’re mistaken,’” Serfaty recounted. “‘Isaac and Ishmael (the two sons of Abraham) hated each other. And we Jews and Muslims will hate each other forever.’”
Serfaty works with a small team to shift those hardened views. He wanted to hire an interfaith group, but no Jews applied. So for now, he travels the country with an imam and several young Muslims.
“I’d never met a Jew, so it was a real discovery,” said 24-year-old Mohammed Amine Boudebouz, who joined Serfaty’s staff two years ago. Like the rabbi, Boudebouz’s family comes from Morocco. “My parents are open,” he added. “They grew up with Jews in Morocco, so there’s no problem.”
On a recent morning, Serfaty drives to the UOIF’s headquarters in La Courneuve, a bleak Paris suburb ringed by housing projects. As usual, he arrives unannounced. The organization’s president is away, but accountant Ghazi Wehbi invites him for coffee.
The two exchange pleasantries and pose for photos. Wehbi said Serfaty reminds him of an uncle.
Back outside, Serfaty begins to hand out fliers to the faithful. A few push them away. But soon, he’s struck up a vigorous exchange with 38-year-old Adel Bouafi. A small crowd gathers as the conversation switches from the “dirty Jew” remark to Bouafi’s complaints about Jewish clannishness.
“They call Sarcelles ‘Little Jerusalem’ — that’s shocking in France,” said Bouafi, naming a nearby town. Serfaty laughed. “That’s an old story, dating back 2,000 years,” he replied. “Every town where rabbis gather has been called ‘Little Jerusalem.’”
“We need to act,” Serfaty continued. “We need to break down barriers.” The men gathered around began to nod.
Later, Bouafi described the rabbi as courageous. “It’s a really good initiative to meet young people, to open doors,” he said.
Will it make a difference?
While attending the break-fast at the Grand Mosque of Paris, Bernard Cazeneuve called on Muslims to combat radical Islam, less than a week after the attack in Isere.
“The best fortification against terrorism is French Muslims themselves, and the Republic, with all of its abilities and Republican values,” declared the interior minister.
Addressing religious leaders, among which was rector of the mosque Dalil Boubakeur and the new president of the CFCM Anouar Kbibech. Cazeneuve said he “completely [understands] your indignation and horror when you know it is in the name of Islam, relying on misguided texts, that terrorists commit their atrocities.”
The minister of religion’s remarks followed: “It all comes back to you, French Muslims, religious authorities, because only you can [combat terrorism] with knowledge, continue to denounce the duplicity of such discourse, to critique their beliefs, to never leave room for radicalization and hate.”
Cazeneuve continued: “I want to applaud the efforts that you use in order to uphold an Islam of peace to enlightenment.”
Several minutes before, Boubakeur welcomed the minister, discussing the “war of civilization that threatens our country.”
“Rest assured that all French Muslims support your decisions and hope that order is restored to our places of worship, in our mosques, which likely to host radicals or suspects that threaten our security,” stated the rector.
Abdou Semmar, editor of Algerie Focus, discussed Islam in France and the latter’s difficulty taking responsibility and its need to be “better armed against extremist Salafism.”
Q: What do you think of Manuel Valls’s remarks on the “war of civilization”?
A: “I’m not surprised that a prime minister, no matter their political affiliation, holds this type of belief. France is not intellectually armed to fight extremist Salafism, which thrives in social areas that escape state control. France is divided in half. A wall separates it. There is the France that Manuel Valls knows, and the poor banlieues. In these areas, the dream of integration failed and a communitarian Islam, that of basements and stairwells, has developed. The youths declare themselves Muslims to annoy the white people that reject them. They practice Islam as a resistance method. Salafists work in these areas. In the absence of political support, Manuel Valls is forced to adopt a rightist discourse in order to leave no room for the National Front.
Q: Do you feel there is an anti-Islam sentiment in France?
A: “Islam is seen as an enemy. We don’t see it as an element with which we can live in peace. Secularism has become a dogma. And secularism’s missteps have brought about significant unease. It pushes young people to feel discriminated against and to radicalize. We see, for example, the veil as a backward step for feminism. We refuse to see Muslims as an integral part of French society. There are around 5 million Muslims in France, that’s 8% of the population. For example, unlike in Germany, there are no public holidays for Muslims. For Aid, the French Muslim is obligated to take the day off or lie, while he pays his taxes just like everyone else. In my opinion, before anything can improve France needs to accept its cosmopolitanism. We have Versailles, beautiful neighborhoods on one side and Barbès on the other. It’s easier to get from Algiers to its suburbs than to get to the northern districts of Marseille. Once assumed, this cosmopolitanism must become a political tool. And finally, the development of a folkloric and outlandish Islam must be stopped, this communitarian Islam of the banlieues.”
“We are shocked and awed by the cruel slaughter perpetrated by terrorists in the headquarters of the satirical weekly journal, Charlie Hebdo in Paris, a heartless criminal action, with total disregard for human life that deserves our strongest condemnation and conviction.
From the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain and the Islamic Commission of Spain, we strongly condemn this murderous action, feeling solidarity with the French people, with whom we are in dismayed, feeling their pain as ours, together in whatever are our religious beliefs or humanistic views we adhere to the condemnation expressed by our Government of Spain and express our condolences and solidarity for the victims, on behalf of the Spanish people.
We reiterate once again, from the Union of Islamic Communities in Spain, our firm condemnation of the violence that is no way to solve anything but only to deepen a conflict and to deepen the wounds and resentments, especially with these heinous murders, which we condemn and reject with disgust.
We hope that the ongoing research will succeed so that all citizens can continue to build a future of peace, safe from criminal threats, and we pray to God Almighty for it.”