France has been living in a state of anxiety since the Paris attacks of November 13, 2015, when suicide bombers and gunmen carried out coordinated assaults in a restaurant, a bar, a concert hall, a major stadium, and on the streets, leaving 130 people dead and hundreds wounded. The event left the French and many around the world in shock. If you visit Paris today, you can still smell fear: The state of emergency has been in place for just over a year now and tension is still on the rise. One way to grapple with this fear is to look it in the eyes — to be curious about its source and seek to understand the reality behind it. With this goal in mind, I went to Paris and spent four days in the suburbs where some of the November 13 attackers had lived.
The suburbs of Paris are an architecturally dismal sprawl a world away from the enchanting central city: no high-end shopping or dining, or historic structures and parks. People talked of gunfire heard in the street the night before I arrived, and of drugs sold in the area. Local residents are suspicious of any outsider, especially French media. I first met Fouad Ben Ahmed in a local cafe. Fouad, a community organizer, spends his days and nights working with the youth to address their issues and to make sure they do not fall prey to extremist propaganda and ISIS recruiters. He was joined by Mohammed, a young man who loves photography and spent the afternoon taking photos of me and Fouad. When he heard my questions to Fouad about what is attracting people to ISIS, Mohammed casually said, “Some of them were disturbed before joining ISIS. Take Hayat Boumeddiene [the most wanted woman in France for her participation in the Montrouge shooting in 2015.] I went to school with her. She was always a very disturbed kid. She always did things to get attention and was always very disruptive in school. She moved from one family to the other and never had stability in her life. She had some psychological problem always without any relation to religion or any of that.”
Mohammed stated this as if it were common knowledge. When I asked him if he would agree to repeat his words on camera, (I was doing a related story for my new show, The Zainab Salbi Project, on The Huffington Post), he refused. So did all of the people Fouad introduced me to, including a young man who runs an after-school program for kids from all ethnic backgrounds. Everyone I encountered was extremely kind, and open to talking, especially in the presence of Fouad, a highly trusted member of the community who obviously cares about people. But their friendliness cooled the minute they saw cameras. They immediately fell silent, and could not be persuaded to talk.
Fouad explained their suspicion and fear of being mischaracterized by the media. “French Muslims do not place religion over nationality despite what media says. We see ourselves as French first. The Schizophrenia is coming from the media. On the one hand they don’t talk about religion in a secular state. On the other hand, the minute there is an attack they only talk about our religious identity. They ignore all other reality, lack of jobs, lack of housing, poor healthcare and the lack of political representation. Instead of talking about the real social issues that we are facing, they have ‘slum-ized’ the discussion and narrow it into an issue of religion.”
Fouad’s views on racism, media harassment, and the lack of good schooling and job opportunities for “Arabs” (derogatory French shorthand for people of North African origin and Muslims) are consistent with those of everyone I spoke to during my visit. “All of this makes for fragile and weak people who can fall into this trap. Now we are failing to build citizens,” Fouad said. Recruitment to ISIS is understood to be part of a syndrome that feeds on social, economic, and educational disadvantage and leads to the vilification of an entire segment of society.
On my trip to the outskirts of Paris I found that many French Muslims are afraid to express any form of identity that connects them to their religion. They fear that if they admit to following the basic Islamic practice of avoiding pork, for example, they will be viewed as radicalized.
With Fouad’s help, I managed to convince the family of a young French Muslim man who joined ISIS and committed a major terrorist attack to invite me into their home. I was expecting to meet a very religious family in a cold and fearful home. Instead, I was surprised and even touched by what I saw: a simple, warm, loving home. The mother, who asked me to call her “Suha” and not to use her real name, hospitably offered juice, nuts and candy. She is educated and went back to teaching only after her three kids went to college. Her husband speaks several languages and has traveled around the world. They have been in France for more than two generations.
Nadia (not her real name), her eldest daughter, explained to me why they are suspicious of the media. “It is not like we didn’t open up and talked about our realities to the media. We did. We let them in our homes, we opened our hearts to them and at the end they misrepresented us and they portrayed us as they wanted to see us and not as we are”. I asked them about the role of religion in their upbringing and Nadia quickly explained that they “celebrated Christmas and fasted in Ramadan but other than that religion did not play a role in our family.” She showed me family albums with pictures of Christmas trees and family vacations. All of the images I saw were of a loving, normal family that was no different from mine.
I asked Suha if she thought she had failed in being a good mother—if she had withheld anything from her son. She started quietly crying and said, “He was the love of my life. I gave my children all I could. I did not withhold anything from them. I helped them in their homework, I fed them well, I gave them all I could. There was nothing I withheld from being a good mother.” Nadia jumped in and described her brother as a shy young man who loved animals, often brought street cats in to feed them, and did not allow any of his sisters to gossip about anybody, as he thought of gossip as harmful to all.
But Nadia also talked about incidents of discrimination against him just for being an “Arab.” She told a story about her brother being accused of stealing by shopping mall police. Not until his mother came and insisted they view the video from the store’s security camera, providing absolute proof that the boy did not steal, was he released. “That incident scared him. It made him feel that no matter how much he tries to be good, he will also be discriminated against just for being an Arab.”
When later in life he took to prayer, his family did not mind. When it is your religion and you don’t have a negative understanding of it, prayers are seen as a good thing inside the house of a Muslim—something that anchors you in gratitude and love for God. Just as his family accepted his prayers, he didn’t mind that his sisters went out clubbing and dancing until the early morning hours.
Years later Suha’s only son surprised her when he went to Syria instead of on the vacation with his friends he had told her about before his departure. Once in Syria, he called her and told her about all the damage he was seeing there: destroyed homes, dead bodies, hunger, and people fleeing. She thought her son was on a humanitarian mission — that the crisis in Syria touched his heart as much as anybody else’s. She had no idea that it was ISIS that her son was with — not a real humanitarian group. When she learned that he’d joined ISIS she begged her son to come back. He responded, “What is the point mama? They will never treat me equally no matter what I do. I am staying.” His decision broke her heart.
When later they learned that their son had committed a terrorist attack the family was dumbfounded. They could not associate the son they saw in news images with the one they knew and loved. When asked if she hates her son or loves him, she just cried and said “both.” Nadia called her brother “a good person who had hopes and dreams for this world, but happened to see the dark side of it and lost all the positive part in him. He did not understand the indifference and why certain lives cost more than some others.”
I left Nadia and Suha crying. What I witnessed was a family shocked by how the son they thought they knew could have disappeared. They, like many people living in the city’s suburbs, understand the circumstances that shaped him: the racism, the lack of opportunities, and the discrimination are clear and blatant in the ghettos of Paris. The destruction of Syria and Iraq is also a heart-rending tragedy — for everyone in the world but particularly for Muslims who harbor deep emotional associations with these countries as fonts of civilization, honor and prosperity in Muslim history.
I came out of this experience believing that when suicide bombers and shooters scream “Allahu Akbar” before murdering people and blowing themselves up, they are not doing so for religious reasons at all — not to go to heaven and be rewarded with harems, as many claim. They are in essence saying, “screw you all,” and using religion as a rationale. I also came to realize that the way out of this crisis in France is not through further isolation of French Muslims but by really hearing them and recognizing their struggles. The failure to address these issues and the insistence on identifying the crisis as “religious” is a propaganda gift to ISIS and the like.
Many French Muslims feel trapped. On the one hand, the larger French society is criticizing them, and on the other ISIS is working hard to recruit their kids — not through the mosques but on line and in the streets. French Muslims are lonely in their struggle and in their good work. Fouad, spends his nights patrolling the streets and alleyways, making sure that no kids are falling into traps set by ISIS recruiters. He does this with little support from anybody else. If French society truly want to turn this crisis around, they should start by supporting leaders like Fouad and addressing the economic, educational and political realities he and many others are talking about.