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Societal issue

Mothers tell an all-too-familiar story of heartache and disenchantment

December 16, 2016

This is Episode 4 of The Zainab Salbi Project

Many French Muslims from various socioeconomic backgrounds are afraid to publicly declare that they do not eat pork, or that they may pray on a daily basis.  The fear is that they will be judged as religious.  In secularist France this is seen as threatening to French secularism.  Muslims who abide by the rules of the religion can be called extremists, and thus a threat to society.

Added to the fear of judgment is also fear of discrimination, which in turn impacts job opportunities for many French Muslims.  This is especially true if they are of North African origin, commonly referred to as “Arabs” in France. 

All of this leads to Muslims in France feeling marginalized.  And response to that marginalization varies. Some people are angry, while others try to defy the system and take on the headscarf.  Others are working to create dialogue and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims to address the social, economic, and political issues impacting French society.  

There are also those who, in their anger, become vulnerable targets for ISIS recruitment.  The 2015 and 2016 terrorist attacks in France left French society, and the world, shattered and horrified — and wondering how young French men of Muslim Arab origin could commit such unthinkable atrocities against their own country.  

Beyond horrified, I was deeply saddened at what seemed to be a deep, growing rupture in French society done in the name of Islam.  In wanting to understand the issue, my team and I spent four days in what is known as Department 93, a Parisian suburb also known for being the “ghetto” of Paris.

It was not easy to get many people to open up to us. There is an incredible mistrust of the media, and especially French media, for what they see as consistent misrepresentation of their voice. 

It is important to note that “Arabs” are not recent immigrants to France.  Rather, many have been in France for several generations.  Their grandparents fought with the French army in both World War I and II.  They see France as their country and their identity as French supersede all other identities they have — including being a Muslim. 

Their history with France goes back to French colonization of North Africa that went for more than a hundred years. It ended only in 1962, with what is known as the Million Martyr Revolution in Algeria that forced the last of French colonization in North Africa. 

Most importantly, they see the French promise of “liberté, égalité, fraternité” as having an equal application to them.  But it’s the current generation of millennials that sees that these French values don’t always apply to them equally.  They live in mostly isolated suburbs, receive bad schooling with a frequent rotation of teachers, and directly encounter street crimes related to drugs in their neighborhoods.  They experience targeted police racism, and they definitely feel rejection when they apply for mainstream jobs and hear “no.” 

After much persistence, and showing understanding of their history and culture, various individuals finally agreed to open up to me.  What I heard is that the issue, at its core, is either a social, economic or political French one.  Religion comes in at a distant fourth.  And it’s only used as a tool to take advantage of a vulnerability and a disenchantment with the French system, and mostly the French promise of equality.

“We bastardize the issue when it is seen as religion, Fouad Ben Ahmed, a community organizer in Department 93 told me.  He spends all his time organizing community activities from post school community work to night shifts to ensure youth gatherings are not taking advantage of by ISIS recruiters. 

I can see his point.  When we call the problem of radicalization in France as just “Islamic,” then no one can do anything to resolve it, other than promoting hate and fear of the “other”.  If we see it as a French issue — one of lack of any representation on a political level, discrimination on the job level, and bad schooling at the class level — then every French citizen can do something about it. Collectively, they can resolve community problems rather than simply pointing to a religion as the culprit.

Furthermore, studies show that more than thirty percent of ISIS recruits in France come from youth who weren’t raised Muslim, but who converted to Islam simply to join ISIS.  A Jewish mother, who refused to go on the record with me, told me her story — that her son converted nearly overnight and joined ISIS. 

Another Muslim mother told me how her other children pursued professional different sectors of society.  Her son’s radicalization and recruitment happened so quickly that she was left confused and devastated by the news.

Here’s what I learned from all the families and mothers I spoke with.  They all said that if it could happen to them, it could happen to anyone.  They stressed that ISIS is taking advantage of the youth’s anger, rage, and perceived purposelessness. By honing in on that, they convince them through a promise of power and meaning, if they join ISIS. After all, ISIS provides guns, money and women.  A life of discrimination, demonization, and unemployment does not.

“This is not our religion”, Fouad told me. “ISIS is a sect that does not represent Islam”.  He is right.  Not one Muslim I have met in France or in the Middle East think of ISIS as representative of Islam.  

And the fight against ISIS is seen as much a Muslim fight as it is a Western one.  I see it as both dangerous and sad when mainstream media in France and other countries address ISIS as the representation of Islam.  Doing so only further marginalizes the real issue at hand and further divides French society.  After all, French Muslims see themselves as French first.

We are living in a moment of fear from ISIS, radicalization, and terrorism in many parts of the world and especially in France.  When I finally was able to visit families and individuals who have been affected by the above, what I saw was normal families with love in their homes. 

They are as afraid of the parts of French society who have demonized them as much as the French society is afraid of them for thinking they will change French culture for being Muslims. 

Both will need to take a leap of faith to lower their walls and defenses and to see each other for who they are in the fullness of the story.  After all, every society collectively makes its story, and that includes France.  When it is only seen as an issue of Islam, we leave no path for understanding and possible healing.  Perhaps it is time to hear the voices of what French Muslims have to say.  Many are fighting terror inside their community and they need support, respect for their identity and religion is the first step for understanding and collectively addressing the issue.  This is where the path starts. 

Previously on The Zainab Salbi Project

Iraqi widow from Tikrit who fights — and beheads — ISIS militants speaks out in emotional interview

Woman walked away from a successful TV career and family to pursue a passion prohibited by her culture

Imagine never having to choose between male and female on any legal form

The headscarf, fear and Islamophobia in the heart of America