Meet Christina and Mohammed*, two French citizens in their 20s, each born and raised in France yet a world apart — in their views of each other and of their country.
Christina, 24, grew up in a middle class family, went to a decent school, interned in luxury retail stores, and spent the last year with a Belgian friend traveling around the world. Mohammed, 26, was raised in the suburbs of Paris by Tunisian parents, had to work in McDonalds for five years to support his family and now has two jobs — one as a driver for a private car company and one in a small grocery store.
I met Christina with a bunch of friends in an upper middle class part of Paris, and Mohammed when he was my driver from the airport to my hotel earlier this year. “I am horrified at what is happening in the name of Islam these days,” I share with Mohammed, after we established we are both Muslims, that he is originally from Tunisia, that his Arabic is broken, French is his native language, and he has a smattering of English. Between these languages we managed to have a conversation.
“I am angry at how the French are treating us,” he said.
“What do you mean?” I respond. “We have all these guys committing these acts of violence and killing civilians in the name of Islam. This is what is horrifying me.”
“Yes, these guys are criminals indeed, but why they should represent Islam? Why we don’t see them as individuals and not as a representative of a whole entire religion?” Mohammed continued to explain. “You see, as someone who is born and raised in this country, I was never seen as full-French. I was always treated as a second-class citizen and faced many racist remarks. Still, that is not the issue. The issue is when one of us does something, this person represents the entire collective. But when one of them does something that person is acting individually.”
Mohammed offered examples in response to my inquiry: “Well, for example, when the actor Gerard Depardieu contests a flight attendant’s refusal of letting him use the toilet at a certain time of his plane ride by peeing in the hallway of the airplane, he is acting as an individual. If a Muslim person did that, the exact same story would be covered as if it represents the entire religion. Similarly in football, where a lot of the team members in the French national team are Muslims. If the team wins in any World Cup, the story is covered as the French team having won. But if one of the players made a mistake, it is that Muslim man that made the whole team lose. You see, there are so many of these stories that at this point of my life I am just angry at them.”
Mohammed dropped me at my destination, leaving me with much to reflect on. Not long after that, a few weeks before the terrorist attacks in the Brussels, I met Christina, who joined me and one of my friends for coffee. Christina had been living in Brussels with her Belgian boyfriend following their year-long trip around the world. I asked her how she feels about French Muslims, given the recent attacks in Paris. “To be very honest with them,” she said, “I want them all to leave our country. I mean, I am not a racist or anything and I do know some Muslims in my life, but I really want all the Muslims who are French citizens to go back to their original countries in North Africa and leave our country alone.”
“But Christina,” I responded, “they are actually French, in that that they were born and raised in this country, just as you were. How can you still ask them to be deported out of France?”
“Well, they don’t act like French,” she continued, telling me a story that made her fear all “Muslim-looking” people — a look that, by her definition, constitutes a French person of North African origin whose parents migrated to France after decolonization in the 1950s and ’60s. “I once was at a party on a Saturday night in Southern France where I was studying, and returned home alone at around midnight. When I entered my apartment building, I saw a Muslim-looking man following me by entering the apartment building just after me and pretending he lived there. He gets of the elevator with me and gets off on the same floor. At this point I am worried that he is following me so I rush into my apartment and lock the door behind me. He then starts knocking on the door and asks me to open the door for him for he has a question. Then he tells me he lost his key and needs help. When I refused to do all of that, he started knocking on the door with fierceness and calling me all kinds of names. I was horrified, called the police, and he escaped. But ever since, I want nothing to do with them. I want them all to leave us alone.”
“But Christine, don’t you think he is just one man who has done that and not the entire population?” I asked.
“Yes maybe. But their values are different. We are different. I just don’t want them to be here. I know it sounds racist. But believe me I am not racist. I just want them out.”
Christina and Mohammed represent contemporary reality in France and I am sure in Belgium and other countries as well. They consider their positions morally coherent, yet each reflects the biases in the other’s views. In a way they are the yin and yang of the central conflict. The problem is that neither position is sustainable — each holds a danger of increased racism, anger, and prejudice, and leads the world away from tolerance, acceptance and unity.
When bombings take place in the streets of Istanbul, Paris or Brussels, we each can go where Mohammed and Christina go. Or we can rise above our immediate anger and fear and walk the tougher journey, aspiring to shared values for the world. The world is already interconnected. The time of walls, separation, isolation, and “cleansing” of populations is over.
We can either find a way to evolve together or we can all be swept under by the wave of fear. And history shows that fear never survives or thrives for long.
* Not their real names, which they asked me to withhold.
Zainab Salbi is an author and media commentator and the founder of Women for Women International — a grassroots humanitarian and development organization dedicated to serving women survivors of war. Salbi is an editor at large for Women in the World, reporting on the intersection of Middle Eastern and Western cultures. For more information on Salbi’s work visit www.zainabsalbi.com.
Salbi will join us onstage at the 7th Annual Women in the World Summit taking place in New York City April 6-8.