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Paris attacks do not pose ‘Charlie Hebdo’ dilemma for French Muslims

Bertrand Guay, AFP

After the recent Paris attacks, the questions of free speech and blasphemy are no longer on the table for a French Muslim community that appears to have found a unified voice.


French Muslims are more at ease expressing their sympathy and solidarity with a nation struck at its very heart, and now support a crackdown on hate speech and incitement to violence.

There was unanimous condemnation following the Charlie Hebdo and Hyper Cacher attacks on January 7 and 8 this year. Muslim authorities in France were no exception to the rule.

Yet when millions took to the streets in Paris and across France on January 11, the Unity March did not necessarily reflect an accurate portrait of French society. There were many ethnicities and backgrounds represented, but with one common denominator: The demonstrators were mainly from secular walks of life. You would have been hard pressed to find any religious symbols bearing witness to widespread involvement from French Muslim associations. And the very idea of singling out ordinary Muslims, asking them to denounce terrorism, was considered by many as outrageous. It struck a raw nerve as if there was an assumption of collective guilt, whereas the vast majority of French Muslims regard themselves, first and foremost, as French citizens. And, in turn, they felt affected as French citizens.

In the days that followed, the slogan “I’m not Charlie” spread on social networks. And it shone a cruel light on the malaise in the Muslim community: It was one thing to condemn the killing of innocent people, but asking everyday French Muslims to “be Charlie”, in essence supporting the “freedom” to blaspheme the prophet as a French “Republican” value, amounted to asking them to choose between their country and their religious faith.

The terrorists’ choice of targets in the November 13 Paris attacks was a game-changer. Muslims are no longer forced to struggle with conflicted loyalties and it now appears that the convictions of French Muslims are clear and unequivocal. A shining example of this new dynamic is reflected in a rap video produced by the Muslim Students of France. They confronted the attacks head-on and their message was unambiguous.

'We are united'

#Noussommesunis is a much easier hashtag for a Muslim to identify with than #JesuisCharlie. But to what extent will the Muslim community embrace the hard line that the government wants to take against radical Imams, the Jihadist-Salafism movement and mosques that are accused of breeding extremism?

Now when it comes to the state prosecuting, or even expelling, the perpetrators engaged in inciting violence (which is already a part of French policy) most Muslim authorities interviewed by FRANCE 24 have expressed their approval.

But they appear to be a little more reluctant when it’s a question of completely outlawing certain Salafist rhetoric in sermons that could be difficult to suppress under French freedom of expression laws. Nevertheless, we need to consider the possibility that religious leaders promoting extremist ideology could effectively encourage the radicalisation of Muslims and constitute a first step towards violent and “anti-republican behaviour”. For example, Salafists that preach against women who fail to display “modesty” and the incendiary statements they make against satirists and cartoonists. But it does not even stop there as they also target general “behaviour” they consider contrary to Islam. At times this can come into conflict with typically accepted norms in the French Muslim community.

These kinds of “teachings” are very well communicated on the Internet through the colorful language of the Salafist imams. The very idea of religiously-forbidden behaviors deemed “haram”, that could doom someone to the flames of hell, could easily push weak minds into playing the vigilante. A very good example is Imam Rashid Abu Houdeifa from Brest who was seen teaching very young children that music, by its very nature, is diabolical and proclaiming that those who make music, or even passively listen to it, will turn “into monkeys and pigs”. “Who wants to turn into a monkey or pig?” asked the Imam to rightly-terrified children. On Friday morning November 20, a police search was led inside his mosque.

A new Muslim political party

Imam Rashid Abu Houdeifa defended his right to “indoctrinate” children and claimed he had called for tolerance after the attack on Charlie Hebdo. Besides the fact that there is no trace of this appeal, one could suspect he’s simply engaging in doublespeak to the extent that we see him, in the 2014 video, clearly ordering one of the children to stop playing the drums.

Which raises the question: Should Salifist preaching be systematically suppressed? Many imams would rather kick the can down the road on this one. For them the hotbed of radicalization is not in mosques, but rather on the Internet.

And it’s an opinion shared by Nizarr Bourchada, vice president of the Union of Muslim Democrats of France (UDMF), a new political party whose candidates are set to run in regional elections across the entire Paris region (Ile de France) at the end of the year: “The imam that needs to be eliminated, he said, is Google. But I am all in favor of shutting down radical mosques. We should have already done it long ago,” he told FRANCE 24.

So where do we draw the line? Where does freedom of worship end and indoctrination begin? Socialist MP Malek Boutih, author of a report to the Prime Minister on radicalisation, believes that the “distinction between the quietist Salafists (those who merely pray or preach) and terrorists is largely artificial, since the former openly promote a path to radicalisation and are essentially part of a totalitarian political process.”

Another idea put forward by Boutih: building a “Republican army column” within the Muslim community to flush out this penchant for radicalisation.

Nizarr Bourchada, a defector from centrist party UDI, says he joined UDMF “because of soaring Islamophobic acts and stigmatization of Muslims in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. And, in theory, he would not even be opposed to Boutih’s proposition, although he believes it would suffice to simply provide more resources to Muslim associations to more actively engage in grass-roots prevention efforts.

The Monday following the attacks I caught up with Bourchada at a Parisian café in the Latin Quarter. He had just come from the Place de la République where people from all over have been gathering to honour the victims.

A slide into sectarianism

Was I “Charlie”? “Yes, up until January 11. Afterwards I was no longer, disgusted by how politics was placed at the forefront.” Does this reflect a slide into sectarianism? “Absolutely not. The UDMF is a political party committed to secularism, but it has also extended its reach to many Muslims who say they support us in our fight against Islamophobia.” The UDMF thus is setting out to fight against voter abstention in the French Muslim community.

Bourchada is married and a father of four. He works for a business federation affiliated with Medef (French employers association) on projects that focus on partnerships with French education. You could say he has, like Boutih, an impeccable "republican" pedigree. And yet there is total disagreement between the two on at least one fundamental question.

That same Monday, on France Inter radio, the Socialist MP stated that it was not enough for Muslims to just mobilise against terrorism, that they needed to go much further than that. He said: “Muslims must adapt their beliefs systems and religious practices to a non-Islamic society. For example, it is impossible to consider [in France] that the headscarf for women is normal attire, this so-called ‘freedom’ can be restricted.”

Hearing this, Bourchada gasped: “This law banning the headscarf violates individual freedom. Why forbid a Muslim to dress as she wants? Being a Republican does not mean choosing between our father and our mother, our country and our religion.”

In 2004, the discussion focused mainly on the “headscarf” and keeping it out of French schools which were eventually designated as “sanctuaries”, thereby establishing a “protected environment” for the students. Wasn’t it right to designate a school a “sanctuary”? What would happen today if students wore traditional Muslim dress to class? Boucharda said, “I personally consider the niqab a failure of the French Republic. We must ask ourselves why they even put it on?”

Amid concerns over Islamophobia, discrimination, and stigmas, the UDMF wrote to the French president to denounce the ostracizing of a community that reinforces isolation. And who knows? This new Muslim party might one day turn literary fiction into a political reality – taking a page right out of Michel Houellebecq's “Submission” wherein   the author imagines the election of a “moderate” Muslim politician as president of the Republic. But for the time being, the party is simply intent on campaigning on this sense of abandonment and its chairman Naguib Azergui is merely aiming to obtain 10 percent of the vote to establish a foothold, albeit small, in the French political landscape.

The party currently boasts a thousand members and is inching towards 6500 "likes" on Facebook. Any presidential ambitions it might have are still very distant.

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