For French Muslims, every terrorist attack asks questions about their loyalty to the republic

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After three people were killed in a knife attack in Nice this week that French President Emmanuel Macron called an “Islamist terrorist attack,” there was a sense of déjà vu – we’ve seen it before.Amid the sadness of innocent lives taken in the most gruesome manner, there is a sense of dread as to what is about to come, based on what has happened so often before.

The French people have experienced so many terrorist attacks in recent decades. This is not just the terrible violence associated with the rise of ISIS, but a seemingly endless series of attacks dating back to the Strasbourg-Paris train bombing in June 1961 that took killed 28 people.

In 2014, the rise of ISIS saw the start of a different kind of terrorist attack in France. Assault weapons featured in the attacks on Charlie Hebdo and kosher supermarkets in January 2015 and in the attack on the Bataclan theater in November 2015.

In some ways, most shocking of all has been another lone actor attack in Nice. On June 14, 2016, a truck driver crashed into hundreds of pedestrians celebrating July 14 at high speed on the promenade, killing 86 people and injuring more than 400.

For the six million Muslims in France, the current sadness is compounded by terror and fear.

The scandalous beheading of well-meaning professor Samuel Paty on October 16 and a similar attack on a 60-year-old woman and two others in Notre-Dame Cathedral in Nice two weeks later were acts of violence intended to provoke anger.

The barbarism was deliberate. He aimed to divide France and its people.

A Republican Guard holds a portrait of Samuel Paty at a national memorial event.
François Mori / PISCINE / EPA

Macron targets Islamists

A public opinion poll after Paty’s murder found that 79% of respondents believed that “Islamism had declared war” on France and the French Republic. An even higher percentage considered that France’s rigid approach to secularism was threatened.

In a society where almost one in 10 people are immigrants, being French means acting in French, and secularism means that there is no place in public life to express religious identity or commitment – unless it is aligned with French Catholicism.

For French Muslims, each Islamist terrorist attack triggers a new wave of public questioning about their loyalty to the republic and its values.

After Paty’s murder, the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM) sought to dispel any doubt about the position of French Muslims:

The horrible assassination […] reminds us of the scourges which sadly mark our reality: that of the outbreaks in our country of radicalism, violence and terrorism, which claim to be Islam, making victims of all ages, all conditions and all beliefs

In a moving speech at a national ceremony for Paty, Macron expressed similar sentiments, saying

Samuel Paty was killed because the Islamists want our future and because they know that with quiet heroes like him, they will never have it. They divide the faithful and the unbelievers.

Macron called for unity following the attack.
ERIC GAILLARD / POOL / Reuters

Muslims in France in a corner

Tragically, while much of what Macron said is consistent with what the vast majority of French people (Muslims and non-Muslims) believe, it leaves Muslims in France in a corner. No matter how hard they try, they can’t be French enough unless they stop being Muslims and, in public at least, turn their backs on their faith.

Macron was immediately denounced by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who questioned his sanity, and by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, who more tweeted thoughtfully:

This is a time when President Macron could have provided a touch of healing and denied space to extremists rather than creating more polarization and marginalization that inevitably leads to radicalization.

Pakistani traders burn the French flag during a demonstration.
Muhammad Sajjad / AP

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, meanwhile, didn’t even try moderation when he tweeted provocatively:

Muslims have the right to be angry and to kill millions of French people for the massacres of the past

In their statements, Erdogan and Khan had their eyes riveted on domestic politics. Mahathir, who has a long history of provocative statements, seemed to just seek attention, oblivious to him playing with fire.

In response to the terrorist attacks in France, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau echoed the thoughts of French Muslim leaders in the CFCM, saying

They were heinous, criminal acts, unjustifiable by any circumstance whatsoever and an affront to all our values.

The criminals, the terrorists, the cold-blooded murderers who carried out these attacks do not represent Islam. They fail to define Muslims in France, Canada or elsewhere in the world.

The Francophone Trudeau understands France well, but he also understands the multiculturalism of immigrant societies like Canada in a way that Macron does not understand.

Macron runs a deeply plural society shaped by immigration, but France is a nation struggling with the language and practice of pluralism.

The multiculturalism of Canada, the United States, Australia or New Zealand, on the other hand, is much more relaxed. These countries have a national unity approach that allows for the public expression of difference.

Duel extremisms

In the hours following the Nice attack, a man threatening a North African trader with a pistol in the French city of Avignon was shot dead by police after refusing to drop his gun.

He appeared to be wearing a jacket emblazoned with the “Defend Europe” logo of the far-right, anti-immigrant group Generation Identity, a group that espoused conspiratorial ideas similar to those of the Australian who slaughtered 51 people in Christchurch mosques. – ideas of a “great replacement” of white Christians by Muslims.

As France enters a second wave of COVID lockdown, its economy on its knees and its people anxious and fearful, the specter of dueling extremism and a growing cycle of violence is the last thing the country needs.

It’s a tough time to be French, but it’s especially tough if you’re a French Muslim.

Macron understands this, he recognizes the barriers represented by soaring unemployment rates for young French people in general and young Muslims in particular, and he recognizes the enormous problem of systemic racism and bigotry.

But, so far, he and the French nation are stuck in a rut, endlessly repeating the mistakes of the past, weighed down by an imperfect definition of identity and an unnecessarily narrow path to belonging. Already seen indeed.



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