France's Muslims fear backlash after terrorist shootings
The recent murder of seven people including three children in Toulouse by self-proclaimed jihadist Mohamed Merah outraged France and has left the country’s six million Muslims fearing a hostile reaction.
After Toulouse terrorist Mohamed Merah was shot dead by a police marksman, French President Nicolas Sarkozy was quick to call on the French not to “give in to vengeance”.
“Our Muslim counterparts have nothing to do with the crazy motivations of a terrorist,” Sarkozy said on Thursday.
But despite the president’s call for calm in the wake of Mohamed Merah’s violent killing spree Muslim communities in France are living in fear of a backlash.
Leading Muslim clerics across the country have been swift in condemning the actions of 23 year-old Merah, and distance the beliefs of the self proclaimed Jihad inspired terrorist from the majority of those who follow the faith.
'Do not confuse Merah with Islam'
“We do not want there to be any confusion between the Muslim religion and what happened in Toulouse. That had nothing to do with Islam,” Dalil Boubakeur rector of Paris’ Grande Mosque told FRANCE 24 on Friday.
“We ask that the French community do not pass judgement on our religion based on these events,” Boubakeur added.
His words reflected the anxiety among France’s Muslim population that they will be stigmatised or even worse the victim of violent retributions because of the actions of Merah, the French born son of Algerian parents.
Their fears echo those held by Muslims in Britain after the July 2007 London bombings and those in the United States after 9/11.
In the days after suicide bombers targeted tubes and buses in London, one senior Islamic cleric warned women to stop wearing headscarves and a poll by British daily The Guardian revealed two out of three Muslims wanted to leave the country due to fear of reprisals.
In France, where many Muslims already feel victimised after the ban on wearing the burqa and Sarkozy's recent targeting of Halal meat, there are concerns the community will now become even more isolated.
Speaking outside the Grande Mosque in Paris, Osman Ibrahim-Behra, who was on a trip to the French capital from the island of Reunion said he could feel the tensions in France.
“When they talk about Halal meat, it is clear that they are looking to undermine the Muslim? After the events in Toulouse we need to be cautious,” he told FRANCE 24.
“The French government’s integration policies are flawed and they do not encourage harmony between its different people. It creates differences between Muslims and the French,” another visitor to the Grande Mosque told FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity.
Call for calm
With the run up to the first round of France’s presidential elections on April 22 expected to be dominated by the fallout of Mohamed Merah’s murderous acts, Muslims in France fear candidates could enflame religious tensions during the campaign.
“The politicians have to lead by example. They have to calm the situation,” Mohamed Ben Bihi told French regional newspaper Paris Normandy.
Leader of France’s far right party The National Front Marine le Pen will be under particular pressure not to use the outrage Mohamed Merah has provoked in France to promote a perceived anti-Muslim agenda.
“For the National Front this is obviously a golden opportunity and we certainly do not need that,” said Madjid Messaoudene, a member of the Saint Denis council in north Paris.
“Blaming the Muslim population for all the faults of society in France is no longer acceptable,” added Messaoudene, writing in the Nouvel Observateur magazine.
Inspired by a “martyr”
As well the possibility of retribution and stigmatisation there are also fears Mohamed Merah’s decision to go down ‘all guns blazing’ could have a more dangerous impact on young men in the Muslim community.
His refusal to give up until he was shot in the head by a police sniper could make Merah a martyr in the eyes of fellow fundamentalists.
Merah’s 29-year-old brother Abdelkader, who was arrested on suspicion of helping him carry out his killing spree reportedly told police he was “proud” of Mohamed. He remains in police custody on Saturday after being taken to Paris for further questioning.
A Facebook page in tribute to the gunman was active just hours after his death until Interior Minister Claude Gueant ordered it to be closed down.
And a teacher in Rouen was suspended after causing outrage when he asked his students to observe a minute’s silence in memory of Merah.
The fear that Merah might inspire other fundamentalists to commit similar acts will be felt by both Muslims and non-Muslims alike in France and beyond.
“I believe there is another Mohamed Merah out there who will want to copycat this,” Jack Cloonan, a security expert and former FBI special agent told FRANCE 24.
“There will be pictures of him that will be used for recruitment purposes because this will be spun in a way that he will be a martyr who was killed by the French police,” Cloonan added.