French Muslims hold annual gathering in tense times
Thousands of people from across the country flocked to Paris's northern suburb Le Bourget for the 29th Annual Meeting of France's Muslims this weekend, at a time when many Muslims feel stigmatised by the political climate.
The 29th Annual Meeting of France’s Muslims drew thousands of people from across the country to an exhibition centre on the fringes of the Parisian suburb of Le Bourget over the weekend. The country’s largest annual gathering of Muslims came against a backdrop of heightened tensions, as Islamist militancy and national security have emerged as key issues ahead of France’s swiftly approaching presidential elections.
The event had already made waves in the French media ahead of its opening. Authorities banned six of its invitees, including prominent Muslim preacher Sheikh Youssef al-Qaradawi, from entering the country, citing security reasons. The move prompted the expo’s organiser, the Union of French Islamic Organisations (UOIF), to denounce the government’s “manifest determination to prolong a polemic ... based on total ignorance”.
Despite UOIF’s outrage over the ban, French President Nicolas Sarkozy warned the organisation, known for it ties to Egypt’s moderate Muslim Brotherhood, against possible “violent, hateful or anti-Semitic speech”.
Among those invited to speak was Pascal Boniface, director of France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS), who said he felt his presence was all the more important considering the current political climate.
“I had to come. If I hadn’t, France’s Muslims would have felt it was a gesture of distrust on my behalf,” Boniface told FRANCE 24.
“It’s not by boycotting France’s Muslims that we will be able to integrate them,” he added.
Tens of thousands of people from around the country were expected to attend its four days of debates, cultural events, trade show and, for the first time ever, youth pavilion. Also new this year was an award that honours a France-based Islamic organisation for outstanding work in the country’s Muslim community.
“There are French people and there are Muslims…”
Milling about the rows of stands in the youth pavilion dressed in coal black niqabs, or full face veils, Karima (who declined to give her last name) and a friend travelled all the way from the southwestern city of Toulouse, where they are both students.
In April of last year, the French government passed a controversial law forbidding people from covering their faces in public, essentially outlawing Muslim women from wearing the niqab. Also, on the opening day of the 29th Annual Meeting of France’s Muslims, Interior Minister Claude Guéant issued a stern warning that authorities would be “paying close attention” to the event, to make sure the law was not broken.
“We don’t wear them all the time,” Karima said. “We’re only wearing them here because we know they won’t bother anyone.”
Karima said being a Muslim in France has become increasingly difficult since Mohammed Merah, a 23 year-old Frenchman of Algerian descent who claimed to belong to al-Qaeda, killed seven people in a shooting rampage in Montauban and Toulouse last month.
“Since the incident in Toulouse, I’ve been regularly insulted in the streets. I don’t feel safe anymore. My dad has advised me only to go out when accompanied”, Karima said. “Before, people stared at us… Now it’s getting worse and worse. I went to do some shopping the other day and I was afraid that some psychopath might attack me”.
A few paces away, Said Salmi, who came from the southern city of Cannes, echoed Karima’s concerns.
“It’s very, very difficult to live in Cannes,” Salmi said. “After Mohammed Merah, it became worse.”
Salmi, a university student and a volunteer for the Islamic humanitarian non-profit organisation LIFE, said the stigma of being a Muslim in France has pushed him to identify with his religion first and his nationality second.
“There are French people and there are Muslims, and the Muslims are the bad guys,” Salmi said.
Across the way from the youth pavilion stood the foire musulmane, or Muslim Fair, a sprawling trade show covering more than 20,000 square metres. Rows upon rows of booths featured shelves lined with books, tables blanketed with music, and hangers of colourful clothing for women and children and traditional djellabas for men.
Abdel Hafid, who stood beside his display of natural soaps, oils and other beauty products, said he too feels life as a Muslim in France had changed, in part because of the political climate but also because of the euro-zone debt crisis.
“You see it in the way others look at you, when they see my beard, my hat. They have this look like, what are you doing here?” Hafid said.
A member of the inter-faith dialogue organisation, Artisans de Paix (Artists of Peace), Hafid said the economic and political reality in France today brings to mind the conditions that contributed to the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Recalling the yellow stars Jews were forced to wear during the Holocaust, Hafid pointed at his chest, saying, “I almost want to wear a green crescent moon here.”
Not everyone attending the weekend’s event agreed that the relationship between France and its Muslim population has frayed beyond repair. Phillipe Karim Charot, general director of Vita Meal, a company that sells 100 percent halal baby products, said much of the tension is due to the presidential elections coming up on April 22 and May 6.
“After the elections, the media will focus their attention on other issues, and politics will find a new scapegoat,” Charot said. “I think the stigma surrounding Muslims right now is bound to disappear... This whole mess won’t last. Inch’Allah”.