French Muslims, stigmatised by attacks, feel under pressure

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Paris: The pressure rises with each gruesome attack. After three in five weeks, France’s Muslims are feeling squeezed.

A spotlight of suspicion was trained on them again even before the latest acts of extremist violence, including two beheadings.

President Emmanuel Macron has forged ahead with his effort to rid Islam in France of extremists, part of a project he labels “separatism,” a term that makes Muslims wince.

Amid intensifying rhetoric and fresh attacks by outsiders, including the killings of three people Thursday at a Catholic church in Nice, Muslims in France have kept their heads down and chins up. But deep down, some are squirming, feeling they are being held responsible.

“It’s worrisome for Muslims,” said Hicham Benaissa, a sociologist who specialises in Islam in the workplace. Within his network, he said, some “talk about leaving France. The situation is tense. There is fear.”

Islam is the second religion in France, which has the largest Muslim population in Western Europe. But the country’s estimated 5 million Muslims have walked a delicate line in search of full acceptance in what for many is their nation of birth.

Discrimination casts a shadow over some and is an outright barrier to mainstream life for others.

France’s cherished value of secularism, which is meant to ensure religious freedom, has in recent years been used by the state to reign in customs practiced by some Muslims.

The president’s proposed law may mean further tinkering with the 1905 secularism law born out of a conflict with the powerful Roman Catholic clergy.

Macron has prompted angry protests and calls for boycotts of French products this past week from South Asia to the Mideast. He is accused of spreading anti-Muslim sentiment, notably while eulogizing the teacher who was decapitated near Paris, by defending the French right to caricaturise Islam’s Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

Samuel Paty was attacked outside his school Oct 16 by a teenage refugee of Chechen origin for showing the caricatures in a civics class.

A young Tunisian man killed three people Thursday inside the basilica in the southern city of Nice, beheading one woman, The series of bloodletting began Sept 25 when a young Pakistani refugee injured two people outside the former Charlie Hebdo newsroom office in Paris.

In January 2015, attackers massacred 12 people there after the paper published caricatures of the prophet. That trial is underway.

Words of solidarity from France’s Muslim leaders have been unfailing.         The attack “touched brothers and sisters who were praying to their lord. I am deeply Christian today,” said the imam of Nice’s Ar-Rahma Mosque, Otman Aissaoui.

But, “once again we are stigmatised, and people move so fast to lump things together,” Aissaoui also said, reflecting the deepening discomfort of France’s Muslims, most from former French colonies in North Africa.

Muslims “are neither guilty nor responsible … We shouldn’t have to justify ourselves,” said Abdallah Zekri, an official of the French Council for the Muslim Faith.

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