French Muslim leaders call for unity after terror attacks amid fear of stigmatisation

·6-min read

The slaughter of three people in Nice's Notre Dame basilica on Thursday has shaken all of France, not least this country's five-million strong Muslim population.

People in Nice have flocked to place flowers and candles outside the church where on Thursday a 21-year-old Tunisian, Brahim al-Aouissaoui, stabbed three people dead.

President Emmanuel Macron has called it an "Islamist terrorist attack".

It came just 13 days after history teacher Samuel Paty was beheaded outside his high school north-east of Paris.

France's Muslim leaders have roundly condemned the killings.

Abdallah Zekri, general secretary of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) said the Muslim community was “stupefied by these attacks” coming on the back of the “cowardly murder of teacher Samuel Paty”.

“We feel hatred and anger against these criminals, these terrorists, who are using the caricatures of Muhammad as a pretext to kill here in France,” he told RFI.

“I call on our fellow citizens to be vigilant in these difficult moments, to question the motivation behind these ill-intentioned attacks which are spreading death and division in our society.”

On Thursday, shortly after the Nice knife attack, Mohamed Moussaoui, the head of the CFCM, said:

“As a sign of mourning and solidarity with the victims and their loved ones, I call on all Muslims in France to cancel celebrations of the holiday of Mawlid.” Mawlid marks the birthday of the Prophet Muhammad, celebrated next Thursday.

Setting people against one another

Nice, on the French riviera, has a large Muslim population, the majority from nearby Tunisia.

Many live in the quiet and cosmopolitan neighbourhood around the Notre Dame basilica.

Among a string of halal butchers and shops selling north African foods, Tunisian-born Leila and her husband have been running a bakery for the last 35 years.

“We get on with everyone: Catholics, Italians, Arabs,” they told RFI. “As long as we respect people, they respect us.”

Leila said Thursday’s knife attack felt like a betrayal of her religion.

“No one has the right to kill, to take a mother’s life,” she said, in reference to Brazilian mother Simone Baretto Silvaone – one of the three victims of the attack. Shortly before she died of her injuries she asked the people helping her to “tell my children I love them”.

The other victims were father of two, Vincent Loqués, who worked at the basilica welcoming worshippers, and a 60-year-old woman who has not yet been named.

Leila said she felt saddened for the victims’ families but also feared that the multiplication of such attacks was dividing society and stigmatising Muslims.

“The last time I took the tramway people were looking at us strangely,” she said. “An old man sat down next to me and a woman warned him: ‘be careful, she’ll cut your throat’. I preferred to stay quiet and not feed the fire, but people are mixing everything up, setting people against one another.”

The ‘enemy within’

The French government has promised to crack down on extremism and religious separatism, what the interior minister, Gérald Darmanin, has called 'the enemy within'.

The authorities recently closed down a mosque on the outskirts of Paris, Darmanin has proposed banning several Muslim groups, and has even suggested a ban on the sale of halal and kosher food in supermarkets.

Some Muslims feel there’s a risk Islam in general, rather than the perpetrators of terror attacks, is being labelled as the enemy.

“Like all French citizens we are devastated by what’s happened," an elderly man leaving the Grand Mosque in Paris told RFI.

“These people don’t represent Islam at all. They say ‘Allahu Akbar’ but when they are before God they will be punished. How can they kill in our name? It’s not possible.

“You know, the Koran says ‘whoever takes a life - [unless as a punishment for murder or mischief in the land] - it will be as if they killed all of humanity’.”

All children of God

A younger worshipper said he was worried that people would increasingly confound Islam and terror. Pointing to people leaving the mosque he said: “You can see there are plenty of good Muslims; terrorists can be Christian, Muslim or whatever. Stupidity knows no religion or boundary.”

“The people carrying out these attacks are not Muslims,” insisted a young woman in a hijab. “A true Muslim has beliefs and fears Allah.”

“I am very shocked at people cutting other people’s throats,” an older woman, her voice trembling, told RFI. “They’d done nothing wrong, they were just praying in church. Why such hatred? We are all children of God. This has to stop.”

The challenge to overcome evil

Heavily-armed French military have now been mobilised to protect places of worship, particularly Catholic churches, ahead of the religious holiday of All Saints Day on Sunday.

Several stood outside the doors of a church in the old quarter of Nice where father Michel Angela held prayers on Thursday evening to offer solace to those traumatised by the knife attacks.

“You can’t react when the emotion is too raw, you have to take a bit of time to react more calmly,” he told RFI, explaining why they had waited several hours before welcoming parishioners.

“Evil is the challenge” he said quoting 20th century French philosopher Paul Ricoeur. “It’s indeed the big challenge we’re now facing.”

Pascal was among the twenty or so worshippers in church. “You always think a church is a sacred place, that it offers protection," he said. "But history repeats itself, it’s still the same violence, men against men, pitting one another over completely absurd ideas”.

For Leah, Thursday’s attack brought back bitter memories of the 14 July 2016 terror attack when a Tunisian man with links to Islamic State armed group drove a lorry down Nice’s Promenade des Anglais killing 86 people, including many Muslims.

“We’ve been particularly targeted here in Nice,” she said. “We try not to give in to fear, hatred or anguish, but to live in peace and with love. It’s a challenge, faced with what’s happening today in this context of global terrorism.”

Inter-religious dialogue

Mohamed Colin, editor of the Muslim daily Saphirnews, said his publication was “profoundly saddened” by what had happened and wished to show its deep solidarity with French Catholics.

“We know perfectly well that Muslims in France have many links with Catholics. There’s a solidarity between these two communities,” he told RFI’s Réligions du Monde programme.

“The inter-religious dialogue is extremely rich at both national and local level. Many mosques organise debates with the support of priests.In doing this [the terrorists] attempted precisely to destroy this symbol and the initiatives that are working so well.”