GENNEVILLIERS, France — Rather than fall quiet as requested during a national minute of silence last week, three boys in Hamid Abdelaali’s high school class in this heavily Muslim suburb of Paris staged an informal protest, speaking loudly through all 60 seconds.
Across France, they were not alone. In one school in Normandy, some Muslim students yelled “God is great!” in Arabic during that same moment. In a Paris middle school, another group of young Muslims politely asked not to respect the minute, arguing to their teacher, “You reap what you sow.”
Abdelaali, a 17-year-old high school senior who did observe the quiet minute, said he did so only because he was outraged by the killings in the name of his religion that were carried out at Charlie Hebdo — the satirical French newspaper attacked by Islamist extremists. But he also said he feels disgusted by a newspaper whose provocative cartoons had used the image of the prophet Muhammad for satire — and which continued to do so in its tragicomic first edition hitting newsstands Wednesday morning. “I know some kids who agreed with the attack,” he said. “I did not, but I also cannot say that I support what Charlie Hebdo is doing.”
Within France’s Muslim community of some 5 million — the largest in Europe — many are viewing the tragedy in starkly different terms from their non-Muslim compatriots. They feel deeply torn by the now-viral slogan “I am Charlie,” arguing that no, they are not Charlie at all.
Many of France’s Muslims — like Abdelaali — abhor the violence that struck the country last week. But they are also revolted by the notion that they should defend the paper. By putting the publication on a pedestal, they insist, the French are once again sidelining the Muslim community, feeding into a general sense of discrimination that, they argue, helped create the conditions for radicalization in the first place.
Unemployment and poverty remain far higher among France’s Muslims than in the nation overall. Joblessness and poverty are particularly high in heavily Muslim Paris suburbs such as Gennevilliers, an area of sprawling, dense apartment blocks where at least one of the gunmen — Chérif Kouachi, 32 — lived. On the streets here, Charlie Hebdo remains something different, a symbol of what some, such as Mohamed Binakdan, 32, describe as the everyday humiliation of Muslims in France.
“You go to a nightclub, and they don’t let you in,” said Binakdan, a transit worker in Paris. “You go to a party, they look at your beard, and say, ‘Oh, when are you going to Syria to join the jihad?’ Charlie Hebdo is a part of that, too. Those who are stronger than us are mocking us. We have high unemployment, high poverty. Religion is all we have left. This is sacred to us. And yes, we have a hard time laughing about it.”
There were also sharp differences Tuesday about the cover of Charlie Hebdo in its first edition since last Wednesday’s attack, which leaked late Monday. In it, Muhammad sheds a tear and holds one of the now-omnipresent signs saying “Je Suis Charlie” under a headline reading “All Is Forgiven.”
“I wasn’t shocked by this cartoon, it’s not as obscene as others might have been,” said Binakdan. “It was rather well done, way softer than what was published previous. At least they are not showing the prophet making love with a goat.”
Others in the Muslim community were less impressed. “My first reaction was angst, this does nothing to make things better,” said Nasser Lajili, 32, a Muslim city councilor and youth group leader in Gennevilliers. “I want to make clear that I completely condemn the attack on Charlie Hebdo. But I think freedom of speech needs to stop when it harms the dignity of someone else. The prophet for us is sacred.”
Some insisted there is a double standard in freedom of speech and expression here that is bias against Islam. They cite the 2010 so-called burqa ban in France that forbade “concealment of the face” in public, and which Muslim critics say was clearly aimed at devout Islamic women. They also point to the 2008 firing of a Charlie Hebdo cartoonist — Maurice Sinet, known as Siné — after he declined to apologize for a column that some viewed as anti-Semitic. Such action was not taken, Muslim groups note, after their protests over the paper’s Muhammad cartoons.
Almost 4 million people across France turned out Sunday in support of free speech. Yet, on Monday, for instance, a 31-year-old Tunisian-born man was sentenced to 10 months in jail after verbally threatening police and saying an officer shot in last week’s attack “deserved it.” Also on Monday, a Paris prosecutor opened an investigation against an anti-Semitic French comedian, Dieudonné M’bala M’bala, for a post on his Facebook page calling himself “Charlie Coulibaly” — a reference to Amedy Coulibaly, the gunmen who killed four people Friday inside a Paris kosher market.
The comedian — whose comedy show, which featured an explicit skit mocking the Holocaust, was banned last year for inciting hate — suggested that he was a victim of a double standard.
“My only goal is to make people laugh, and to laugh at death, since death makes fun of us all, as Charlie very well knows,” he wrote in a second Facebook post. He concluded by saying, “They consider me to be Amedy Coulibaly when I am no different from a Charlie.”
French Muslim officials are decrying an unprecedented wave of anti-Islamic incidents — at least 54 since last Wednesday, including arson attacks on mosques. Yet, some argue, French troops meant to ensure safety on French streets have been disproportionately deployed, putting emphasis on protecting Jewish synagogues and schools.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manuel Valls sought to calm fears in the Muslim community, saying that “to attack a mosque, a church or a place of worship, to desecrate a cemetery, is an offense to our values. Islam is the second religion of France. It all has its place in France.”
Over the past few days, these societal divisions, in increasingly stark terms, have confronted the French. Virginie Artaud, a 44-year-old art teacher in the Paris suburbs, said her predominantly Muslim class of high school-aged students initially balked Friday when she proposed that they design posters and banners to be displayed at Sunday’s unity march against terrorism.
The world, her students told her, hardly takes notice when Palestinian or Syrian children are killed. Why all the attention for a humor magazine that openly mocks Islam’s prophet?
“I let them all express themselves, even though they were saying the worst things they had to say,” she said. “Everyone listened to each other, and at the end, they decided to make peaceful banners.”
But, she said, she was unsure whether any had attended the historic march. Artaud herself had a banner: a shiny silver placard she held aloft Sunday reading “All United, All Charlie,” along with blue facepaint spelling out the words “Freedom is non-negotiable.”
Griff Witte, Virgile Demoustier and Cléophée Demoustier in Paris contributed to this report.