Nov. 13 is the Sept. 11 for France, a day that will go down in French history as unforgettable as the terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. And just as American Muslims faced stigma after Sept. 11, many French Muslims fear public backlash.
Within hours after the attacks, witnesses reported having heard one of the perpetrators shout, “Allahu Akbar,” (“God is great” in Arabic) before launching the Bataclan concert hall massacre in Paris. The terrorist attacks brought the already existing debate over immigration back to center stage, as many refugees — mostly Muslim — are still waiting to obtain legal residence in Western countries.
After Friday’s attacks, many French fear more terrorism and French Muslims also fear a backlash against Islam. France has a deep history involving immigration, especially from North Africa. Today, France has 6 million Muslims, 7 to 9 percent of the total population.
Adam Bersanov, a 19-year-old Muslim from Chechnya who moved to France at the age of 6, said he sees “hate and anger against Muslims in general” from the French on a daily basis, such as seeing his friends being called names on social media. “Islam is perfect, Muslims aren’t,” he said.
Many Muslims like Bersanov felt obligated to justify their faith and belief because of the recent attacks. “I don’t feel concerned by these attacks because I haven’t done anything,” Bersanov said.
After the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, a 281 percent rise in anti-Muslim incidents was registered in the first quarter of 2015 compared with the exact same time last year, according to the National Observatory Against Islamophobia.
The day after the Nov. 13 attacks, two masked men wrote “France, Wake up” on the doors of a Muslim worship center and a halal butchery in Oloron-Sainte-Marie, about 500 miles from Paris. On the same day, in Evreux, in the capital of Haute Normandie in northern France, police officers were notified of anti-Islamic, spray-painted graffiti that stated “Death to Muslims” and “suitcase or coffin” in multiple public places all around the city.
After taking responsibility for Friday’s attacks in Paris, the Islamic State said its goal was “to teach France, and all nations following its path, that they will remain at the top of [the] Islamic State’s list of targets, and that the smell of death won’t leave their noses as long as they partake in their crusader campaign.” Analysts suggest the reason why French Islamic State fighters are the highest in number among the terrorist group (estimated at 1,200 people) could be because of the poor integration of Muslim immigrants in French communities.
Many French, who tend to live their religious lives privately, are dissatisfied with the French government over refugees, immigration and border-safety laws. French culture considers its secularism as an attribute of it national identity. In 2004, the government banned all visible religious symbols, including headscarves and cross necklaces, from public institutions such as schools and offices. In 2010, the government announced the “burqa ban,” stopping Muslim women from wearing full-faced veils in all public places.
With the growth of Muslims in France, citizens like Patricia Joseph — a 51-year-old French homemaker and lifelong Catholic — are worried Muslims have taken up “more space in society” by imposing traditional beliefs such as unisex public pools and halal food at McDonald’s. “Muslims making their religion go before democratic values are not French,” she said after the attacks.
The attacks have put many Muslims on the defense. Muslims around the world use social media slogans like “Terrorism has no religion” to try to differentiate terrorism from peaceful Islamic practices. On Sunday, several French imams gathered with non-Muslims right outside the Bataclan concert hall in Paris to mourn, pray and sing the French national anthem, “La Marseillaise,” as a sign of unity.
The Nov. 13 attacks took place five minutes from the home of Sabrina Houd Tabet, a 31-year-old French Muslim whose family emigrated from Algeria. Friday morning, she was walking around the Boulevard Voltaire, the place where a police officer was shot during the Charlie Hebdo attack on Jan. 7. She believes some whom she greeted with “bonjour” Friday morning may now be dead.
To fit in with French culture, Houd Tabet said she had abandoned her Algerian identity, though she still identifies as Muslim. She looks like a white Parisian who tries to be as discreet as possible about her faith in order to lead a peaceful life, abandoning head coverings and abstaining from mosque attendance. “It’s just so difficult being a Muslim in Europe in general, but in France particularly,” she said.
Houd Tabet fears people’s anger, which could arise after Thursday, when authorities allow demonstrations to take place again. Some Parisians believe future demonstrations will show the public’s division over the recent terrorist events. On one hand, French citizens will show up in the streets to mourn their lost ones and ask the government for answers to “the unanswered questions” about the tragedy. On the other hand, the anti-Muslim protesters will march to denounce the government’s lack of power when facing Islamists. And Muslims might also march to defend their values in the public square.
Many Muslims like Fatima Goune, a high school technology teacher, said they were “moved by the amount of horror, hate and inhumanity” in the attacks. Killing democratic values in the name of Allah is not true to Islamic teaching, Goune said.
Being a Muslim has never been an advantage in France. But instead of hiding her faith, Goune urges the Muslim community to mobilize, unite and act in the name of peace and humanity. “Let’s not create more division,” she said.
At least 4,000 French Muslims have confirmed they plan to attend a “Gathering with the Muslims of France for peace and national unity” that will take place in La Place de La République in Paris on Saturday. The Facebook page denounces the barbarism behind the terrorist attacks done in the name of a “man-made” Islam. It asks French Muslims to join because “we can’t remain silent in the face of these actions” and to instead advocate for the ultimate message of love, peace and tolerance.
Maryam Bighash grew up in Iran before her family moved to France from 2005 to 2012. She is a sophomore at Wheaton College in Illinois, majoring in international relations and communication rhetoric with a journalism certificate.