Our France: Muslims tell their stories
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In these interviews we have aimed to stand aside and let some French Muslims speak for themselves. Especially since the terrorist attacks on Paris, western media have been talking about “Islam” and “Muslims”. But the speakers are almost all non-Muslims. In France, the loudest voices belong to people who don’t seem to like Muslims much: the writer Eric Zemmour, the politician Marine Le Pen or the philosopher Alain Finkielkraut. French Muslims, says the Algerian-French writer Akram Belkaïd, are forever the subject, almost never the speakers. One of our interviewees here recounts having recently spoken into a microphone for the first time in his life.
True, in the weeks since three jihadis killed 17 people in Paris, Muslims have been interviewed more than before. But often it was simply to respond to the attacks: were Muslims for them or against?
In our interviews, Muslims — or sometimes secular people of Muslim origin — talk about the attacks and the aftermath. They speak about Charlie Hebdo’s cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, about discrimination and about Jews. But they also speak about what absorbs them most: their daily lives. These people are working or looking for work, raising kids, trying to have fun sometimes.
Our nine interviewees, from the Paris and Lyon regions, are a plethora of voices. We don’t pretend that they are statistically representative of the five million or so Muslims in France. (Nobody knows the exact number, as France does not collect ethnic statistics.) Some of the people we spoke to are unemployed. Others — contrary to the stereotype of Muslims in France — have good jobs and mostly happy lives. Some of them are angry and, especially after the terrorist attacks, many are scared.
In the context of this report we are presenting these people as “Muslim”, but we are aware that this is just one of their identities — and for some, not the main one. (One of our interviewees isn’t even Muslim, but had a non-practising Muslim grandfather who bequeathed her a north African surname, which is a weighted label in today’s France.)
A “Muslim” can simultaneously be French, Algerian, a funeral-parlour worker, resident of Lyon, citizen, mother of a boy who loves Spiderman, etc. Here we are defining people firstly by the religion they were born into: we risk putting them in an ethnic box. Akram Belkaïd said he shared our misgiving but, on the other hand, he felt that French Muslims have so few opportunities to speak in public that they needed this one. So we gave these nine people microphones.
Aged 35, born in France of Algerian immigrant parents, works at a Muslim funeral parlour in Lyon, mother of two
“I feel rejected by my own country. At the same time I understand the reaction of the French of ‘native stock’, even though I see myself as more French than the French themselves. My maiden name is the name of a French village. I think I had a great-great-grandfather who went to Algeria and married an Algerian. Afterwards their descendants lived as Algerians. But before these two generations, we were French of pure stock.
Where I grew up, we were mixed. We didn’t even know what racism was. My mom didn’t speak French very well but that didn’t mean that the parents of the twins who were of French stock didn’t speak to my mom. We lived with everyone. I didn’t see the change coming. I saw it when there were these idiots who call themselves Muslims. They are stirring up shit. They are destabilising the stability we had.
When I started wearing my veil, I was 21. Nobody forced me to wear it. I won’t force my daughter to wear the veil. It will be her own path. My daughter is six, and when [the attacks on Charlie Hebdo] happened, she cried and slept next to me. My son [aged three], nothing interests him except Spiderman.
I explained to my daughter, there are Muslims who are mean, there are Christians who are mean, there are Jews who are mean, there are Buddhists, atheists who are mean. She said, yes, but they told me it was Muslims. I said, ‘I am a Muslim, your dad is a Muslim. Are we thieves, are we liars, have we killed anybody?’ She cried.
When I got in the metro one day after the events, a young man said, ‘Dirty Arab, dirty Muslim’, in front of everybody. How can I explain to him that I am not like that, even though those three people did that criminal act? How can I explain to the French that that is not my religion, when those three people haven’t understood what our religion is? How do you want me to explain that? I can’t. What I feel today is anger against these three people. I wish I could have had them in here [to visit the funeral parlour], to see the pain of the people I deal with who have lost loved ones. They never would have done what they did. They destroyed what we envisioned for our kids, for us.
I was in the metro, with my husband, with my kids [going to the Republican march on January 11], but since people were really looking at us, like, ‘What are you doing here?’ we felt so uneasy that we didn’t go. I was the only woman in a headscarf in the metro. I told my husband, ‘We can’t go there.’ I was afraid for myself, for my kids. I saw the anger in people’s looks, and I don’t want my kids to bathe in anger. We are seeing a war of religion. What am I offering as a world to my children? I just saw my brother, a dentist. He said, ‘I am afraid, and I am thinking about going back to Algeria.’ He is afraid for himself, he is afraid for his children. We are terrified. I think the Jewish community must be in the same state as us. I would just ask people to try to ease the tensions, so that we get back to the good old days when we lived together in a country that wanted the best for us, and for which we wanted the best.
The mosque is next door here. Last week, young people — said to be [from the far-right party] Front National — almost broke the door. I’m not mad at anyone but I don’t want to be the victim of two or three jerks, I don’t want to pay with a broken neck. Ninety-five per cent of Muslims just want to live in peace.”
Aged 41, works in Lyon for a French multinational and as a hotel receptionist. Born in Algeria, she moved to France at seven and is a French citizen
“We bought a house in the countryside. Now I regret it. We wanted to give our kids a better chance in life. The first week, my son came home crying. He said, ‘Mom, they said I had skin the colour of poop.’
Another child said to my son, in front of all the pupils and the teacher, ‘Dirty, shitty Arab — that’s how my parents talk about you at home.’ He was nine years old.
When people say to my kids, ‘Go back to your country,’ where will they go? They don’t have another country. When all this happened with Charlie Hebdo, my son asked me, ‘Mom, since you were born in Algeria, will they make you go back to your country?’
I was traumatised by the attack on Charlie Hebdo. I grew up with [the Charlie cartoonist] Cabu, on The Dorothy Club on TV. I tell my kids, ‘This doesn’t concern you at all. It’s not your problem. If someone asks you, you say, it doesn’t concern me.’
What happened with Charlie Hebdo will free up what people say. What people didn’t say before, they will say it to you uninhibitedly. France is making jihadists, and that is going to turn against them; they have not done their work in the suburbs. It is a vicious circle. Society says, ‘We don’t want them,’ so they say, ‘They don’t want us, so we’ll be like this.’ They’ll make a Beirut here in France if it continues like this. Thankfully, I have my head on straight, but look at how they treat us: we are animals, we have to be cleaned up. I am a practising Muslim but imagine if I said I’m not a Muslim; I would still be pushed away because of my origins.
Please stop saying that Muslims are anti-Semitic. Before being Jewish, before being Muslim, before being Christian, before being atheist, we are human beings. All I want for my kids is a world of peace. It seems logical to me that any mother should say that.”
Aged 23, born in France and lives in Paris. His parents are immigrants from Senegal. He is looking for work but is currently unemployed
“Until last week’s attacks I was just black to most people. But now I am going to suffer even more because I am black and a Muslim and it’s going to get harder for Muslims. It has already begun. I can see it in the way people act in the street.
I do feel French because I was born here but it is not the same when you are black. It’s not exactly difficult. But things happen every day. If I’m in a shop with a white guy and the security guard searches one of us, it’s going to be me for sure.
I really need a job. I’m not the only one, though. A lot of black and Arabic people can’t find work. That’s when they fall into delinquency. There is a lot of temptation to do that because there are no other options. Have I ever been tempted? Sure. But only tempted.
I only went to school up to the fourth year [of secondary school, 13 years old] because that was when my dad took me to Senegal for a year. I didn’t go to school there. When I came back, I studied to be an electrician. I don’t really like it but I wanted to do something.
I’ve been looking for work for a while but I’m still optimistic. I try to keep busy, I get up early, like at eight. My brother has work installing surveillance cameras so I help him sometimes, just to do something. I know a lot of people in my neighbourhood. But in the evening, I’m at home watching TV. I like Hollywood Girls. Another one I like is Desperate Housewives.
My flat has two bedrooms and four of us live there at the moment. We share rooms but where I sleep depends on who is around. I don’t really have a bedroom. My mother has a cleaning job but my father didn’t have work here and he went to Senegal a couple of months ago with my little brother. He is always coming and going.”
Aged 45, of Algerian origin, born in Lyon, a non-practising Muslim. He has been unemployed for three years
“What happened last week [the terrorist attacks], I don’t want to talk about it because I didn’t follow it. I only watched the outlines.
I have too many worries in my head about my personal life, I didn’t want to add worries about the news. For two months I haven’t watched the news because I am too disappointed by the system. They are all corrupt. On the other hand, the French system is good. Everyone has a little something to survive.
I live in France and have the impression of a welcoming place. But it’s not the same as before. There is lots of discrimination. The media in France are held by certain lobbies. I won’t go into details, people will say I am racist . . . I don’t defend the aggressors; religion says you cannot kill. But the mocking has to stop too. Why is Dieudonné in custody [the comedian was arrested for a Facebook post that seemed to sympathise with the Charlie killers]? Why didn’t they put Charlie Hebdo in custody when it did its caricatures of Mohammed?”
Aged 40, political scientist, University of Lyon. Her paternal grandfather was a non-practising Muslim; her mother is of native French origin
“I haven’t often encountered problems related to my origins. It’s happened once or twice for housing, for example. My boyfriend at the time was from Benin, so we had two foreign-sounding names. Once we didn’t get an apartment we wanted. I think that if they had seen me, it would have been different.
People have been saying it would be good for the Muslims to come out on the street to say they were against the [terrorist] attacks. In fact, that made me feel more immigrant than in normal times, and I find that pretty violent as a form of summons. It’s like asking all men every time there is a rape to pronounce themselves against rape. I never feel North African but that made me feel it, maybe. In fact, it’s that that brought me back to this identity.”
Aged 56, born in Lyon to Algerian immigrant parents. Now chief of staff to the mayor in the mostly immigrant-origin town of Vaulx-en-Velin
“We have radical movements today, since the 1990s and the rise of Islamism in Algeria. We said, ‘As long as [people] are going to the mosque, they won’t assert themselves,’ and we didn’t realise that the mosque offers things that are very interesting but there are also extremely dangerous things. Many people now are drawn to conspiracy theories: that the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo are not dead, the policeman who was killed with a bullet in the head is not dead, it’s all faked. That’s going around the internet. Some who are fragile [because of a lack of education] believe that.
Some people from Vaulx-en-Velin went to the [Republican] march in Lyon. I think the people went mostly in solidarity. But there were reasons people didn’t go. Some were told that if they went, they would be associating themselves with Charlie and that by doing that, they were insulting the prophet. This circulated by text message. Second, lots of people from the left called for people not to go, because they didn’t support the risk of policies that would restrict liberties. Third, [the presence at the march of Israeli prime minister Binyamin] Netanyahu convinced certain people not to march. And the Muslim community is afraid. We speak of the Jewish community that is afraid but the Muslim community is too. What you have to know is that in this region, the day after what happened at Charlie, mosques were attacked, a kebab shop was strafed. I told my [20-year-old] son, ‘Don’t stay out late at night, you come home.’ I am a multicultural militant, à la française. In spite of what has happened, I am an optimist.”
Aged 36, born in Morocco and now lives in Paris, where he co-runs People’s Drugstore, a beer and wine shop-cum-chess café
“I was born in the Moroccan desert next to an oasis of date palms. It’s Berber country out there and it’s a long way from Paris. My father’s a trader. But I came here because of martial arts. I’ve done them all, but my thing is Qwan Ki Do and mixed martial arts. I came to Europe to fight competitions and I ended up staying.
I never gave Islam a thought until I got here in 2003. When you are in Morocco, everyone has the same religion. It’s not an issue. But in Paris, there are Jews and Catholics, and that makes you think more about what you are. That’s when I started to really explore my own culture and get interested in my faith. But I think the big religions are the same in essence, it’s just the prophet that changes. The goal is the same. They teach you about peace and to forgive. So what those people did recently has nothing to do with religion. They grew up in France and they had no work. They were just bums and then they became monsters.
Drinking doesn’t go with my faith or love of sport and combat. But I needed an income, so I joined up with a couple of friends to start a boutique that sells bottled beer. Then we started laying out chess sets to get people to stay, instead of just taking the bottles home.
The chess thing brings people together. So everyone ends up coming here — young and old. And when I meet someone new, I don’t ask about their religion. I just don’t care.”
Aged 25, one of eight children of Algerian parents, unemployed, lives in Paris. Now being mentored by Impulsion 75, an outreach programme
“I want to work in the post office. That’s my goal. But until that happens, I’ll do anything at all. I’ve been looking for five months.
I’m still feeling confident. I’ve just finished a course to get me back on track and I got a diploma, which they gave me in the town hall. It’s the first time I’ve ever got any kind of certificate in front of an audience and it’s the first time I have ever spoken into a microphone.
It’s not impossible to get a job but you have to be really motivated, because when you get rejected 15 times in a row, it’s hard to keep going.
I’ve also spent two years in prison for petty crime. It doesn’t really come up in job interviews, so it hasn’t affected me that much so far and it’s something I just want to put behind me.
What is more difficult is not finishing school. I stopped going because I would have had to repeat a whole year and it was too much. So I left and got a job as a waiter near the Eiffel Tower.
Both my parents are retired now. They used to work in a hotel — my father did maintenance and my mother did the cleaning. In the 1980s, they arrived here with nothing. They didn’t even know how to read or write.
By comparison, I have been given everything — I got an education, I’m literate. I’m also French, unlike them. I was born here. I grew up here and I went to school here. All my friends are French. It’s a totally different life from the ones they had.
At first, my parents sympathised about the job situation but after a time they’re getting impatient. It makes it hard to stay home during the day. So I go out into the 20th arrondissement, where I live. It’s really mixed. You have every religion you can think of, and people from Africa, China, everywhere. Being religious is normal. It’s like the whole world, right there in my arrondissement. Everyone gets along pretty well, too.
I don’t feel at all discriminated against being Muslim. But it’s important that people know that those killers who shot up the offices of Charlie Hebdo had nothing to do with religion. For me, religion is something that you do every day, little by little. You have to build on it. Those guys converted overnight from nothing and then became fanatical.”
Aged 49, single mother, employed. Born in Paris to Moroccan father and Algerian mother. Lives in the very mixed Parisian district la Goutte d’Or
“I was 12 years old when my father told me that I was French. My father worked in a factory. He wanted all of us to have a better life, to go to school and to study. My parents were the first feminists I ever met.
But my father also told me never to forget where I came from. At home, we only spoke Arabic. When I was 12, I also discovered that my mother didn’t know French.
My father was a practising Muslim. Religion is a part of me. It helps me to face difficulties, to feel free and to belong to something huge, not just France. It gives me the foundations of how to respect and to be human. So I am a Muslim. But I am also French. I believe in freedom and I love Charlie Hebdo. I grew up with Cabu and the others. I loved their spirit of freedom.
A drawing is never innocent. It will always affect someone. But I have no problem with people talking about my religion or even mocking it. If you believe in freedom, you also have to accept that people will say whatever they want. Nobody can hurt me because I know who I am and what my faith is.
Things fell apart when my father died in 2010 but I’ve pulled my life back together. I used to be involved in politics and was a member of the Communist party for a time. I’m very active in the community here in the Goutte d’Or.
And I helped form a parents’ committee at school so that we can organise and try to get the best for our children. I’m very focused on that. I fear the attacks will be the excuse to pass more laws that will restrict our freedom. That makes me worried about the future for my children.”
Erik Bleich is a senior fellow at the Collegium de Lyon and professor of political science at Middlebury College, Vermont. Adam Thomson is an FT correspondent in Paris
Photographs: Nicola Lo Calzo and Julien Goldstein