Amid a crackdown on ‘separatism’, how do French Muslims feel?

Al Jazeera spoke to French Muslims in Paris as the gov’t ramps up efforts to regulate community spaces and groups.

As France cracks down on what it calls 'radical Islamism', many French Muslims fear they are being collectively punished [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

Paris, France – France’s 5.7 million-strong Muslim community, the largest in Europe, is under a glaring spotlight.

Following two attacks in October, President Emmanuel Macron announced a crackdown on “radical Islamists”, which led to the closure of several mosques, Muslim associations and schools.

On Wednesday, details were revealed about a bill which Macron has said aims to tackle what he calls “Islamist separatism”.

And constantly in the background are debates over the hijab and the right to offend and blaspheme, with renewed discussions over caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad popularised by Charlie Hebdo.

But critics warn the government’s latest moves, which have also seen CCIF, a French civil rights organisation which monitors anti-Muslim hate crime, suspected of “radicalism” and closed, have added to a climate of Islamophobia.

They say Macron’s measures have gone too far, penalising all Muslims – as opposed to targeting people who threaten national security.

The draft law against “separatism” includes provisions to closely control home schooling, bolster powers to close mosques promoting “extremism”, outlaw virginity certificates and require associations to pledge allegiance to French “Republican principles” in order to receive government subsidies.

It will also ban employees providing a public service such as transportation – even if they are not directly employed by the government – from wearing overt religious symbols. Under current laws, public sector workers are already banned from wearing religious clothing or symbols.

Al Jazeera spoke to French Muslims in Paris about how they feel:

Fatoumata Diaby, 53, fabric seller: ‘I am French and I am Muslim. But I have the impression now that I must choose between them’

Fatoumata Diaby [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

It’s true that I don’t mix much with white French people. I am happy living in my community, I work hard and I pay my taxes. I don’t cause any trouble. Why should that be a problem? To tell you the truth, I don’t think they would want to see me in the rich neighbourhoods in Paris, anyway.

It’s the same with Macron. Let’s not forget that he was a banker. He wants to preserve the wealthy elite. They want to leave us on the periphery and forget about us – but then they seem surprised when there are problems with society.

In some ways, France is an incredible country that has given me a lot. But I think in other ways, it has regressed. Freedom of expression must be protected, but do we have to defend the right to spread hate? I am French and I am Muslim. But I have the impression now that I must choose between them.

Rayan Khelifi, 21, waiter: ‘There are better amenities for us now, even if it isn’t on the same level as some other religions’

Rayan Khelifi [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

For me, in some ways I think the new generation is better than how it used to be. Back when my father was a young boy growing up here, it was terrible. People didn’t hide their racism because they didn’t have to. Before there were barely any mosques to go to for prayer and there wasn’t any halal food in the supermarket. There are better amenities for us now, even if it isn’t on the same level as some other religions.

In that sense, it is easier and I am happy here. Where I live, there is a huge variety of communities – Africans, Jews, Muslims, Chinese – all living together without problems. We mix with each other. All the products in my restaurant are halal, but we have Jewish customers that come here because they like the food.

That being said, many problems still exist. It’s mainly at the political level that is stirring up this hate. That is where the trouble is coming from. It’s true that there still is racism in French society. But I try to ignore the small details because if you pay attention to the small details you will always find racism.

Lyess Chacal, 49, writer: ‘The situation is worse than my worst nightmare’

Lyess Chacal [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

I have grown up in France and been schooled among the elite here. I am a modest Muslim. I’m very grateful for laïcité (secularism) because it has genuinely allowed me to practise my religion better than I might have been able to even in some Muslim countries like Tunisia. I understand that we have to adapt. For example, when I went to school there was no halal meat option. I did not demand that the chef start serving it for me. I simply didn’t eat meat. That was no issue for me.

Perhaps because there are so many of us here now, Muslims have become an issue. It disturbs some people. Just like there is radical religion, in my opinion there is radical laïcité. It’s scandalous what is happening over separatism. I feel very ill at ease about what is happening in France now. Of course, there are a lot of issues at play here – the refugee crisis, globalisation and France’s complex relationship with the former colonies.

But I would have never imagined this outcome when I was young. The situation is worse than my worst nightmare. We’re heading towards disaster. It seems to me that the government isn’t thinking at all about where these decisions will take us, it doesn’t look to the future.

Meryeme Anfousse, 24, architect: ‘There have been incidents on public transport because I wear a hijab’

Meryeme Anfousse [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

I have very rarely had any trouble here because of my religion. There have been incidents on public transport because I wear a hijab, but that can and does happen in any city in the world and I don’t think that it is any worse in Paris. Of course, that does not mean it is acceptable when it does happen. But in my experience it is not worse in France.

I think that a lot of current problems in France are caused by parts of the media. I think that it does not give a real impression of Islam.

Almost all Muslims are very welcoming, kind people. Our beliefs are based on a serious spiritual grounding. Muslims in France work and contribute to the economy, and they don’t cause any trouble.

They are an important part of society just like everyone else. In fact, the French Muslim community is a very enriching, vibrant part of society. But that is not always reflected in the media.

Bilal Yattara, 33, unemployed: ‘Why can’t we have a say? This isn’t how a president should rule’

Bilal Yattara [Peter Yeung]

The most important lesson is that we must respect other people and they must respect us. I think that if everybody did that, the world would be a much better place. I think that is what laïcité is supposed to be. Unfortunately, that isn’t the case.

France is supposed to be based on “liberté, égalité, fraternité” (freedom, equality, fraternity) but that’s not the reality. Some people are more equal than others. That’s the truth.

Macron should quit and get out. He is introducing too many laws to control us. He is against freedom. He is targeting Muslims. When he was elected, I was much more hopeful about what his intentions were and what he could achieve. But his approach has changed a lot since then. Of course, terrorism must be stopped. Nobody is disputing that. But now he’s passing all of this legislation that will change our lives without consulting us. Why can’t we have a say? This isn’t how a president should rule.

Hafid Irjdalen, 45, baker: ‘They are trying to win votes from the far right’

Hafid Irjdalen [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

I’ve run my bakery for more than 11 years and we have reliable customers of all kinds that come here. I’ve never had any problems and I follow the rules. Yes, business can be a struggle sometimes but that’s nothing to do with my religion. My daily life is not touched by it.

What concerns me is all this discussion about immigration and integration. I think politicians are preparing for elections. They are trying to win votes from the far right. Those people who carried out terrorist attacks are not real Muslims. They have perverted Islam with those actions. They do not represent us. They must be stopped.

But I don’t think this is the right way to achieve this. All Muslims are suffering because of these mosque closures. I didn’t agree with that. And when [Interior Minister Gérald] Darmanin spoke about getting rid of halal food aisles in supermarkets – that was disgusting. How can he say that without being punished? This isn’t happening to Catholics and Jews. They are intentionally targeting Muslims. It’s discrimination.

Aude Fa, 43, organic food campaigner: ‘They are saying that only Muslims can be terrorists’

Aude Fa [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

I converted to Islam five years ago and I noticed the difference straight away in how people would look at me. On the inside, I didn’t change as a person. I think of myself as zen. But because I began to wear a hijab, because my exterior changed, people looked at me differently, even if it wasn’t necessarily hate.

I’ve always found that society has criticised my appearance. Before I converted, I dressed in a very feminine way, wearing dresses and skirts sometimes. Then people told me that I shouldn’t dress that way – now, because of my hijab, some people say I shouldn’t wear it. But I am proud to be a French Muslim.

This war being waged against separatism clearly is aimed at Muslims, even if it doesn’t name us in the law. But it seems they are saying that only Muslims can be terrorists. I don’t want to underplay the matter but some priests have been pedophiles – but we would never say all of them are. There is a stigmatisation. If France wants to defend religions, why does it do nothing about the Uighurs in China, the problems in Burma and China?

Nada Ziani, 22, student: ‘I don’t want us to be defined as victims’

Nada Ziani [Peter Yeung/Al Jazeera]

There is a kind of discrimination implicit in society. But it’s also very real. I have been the victim of Islamophobia many times – always verbal abuse not physical. It happens even in the 6th arrondissement where I am a student. People have told me “shut your mouth and go home” and shouted “submission” at me.

The problem is how laïcité as defined in 1905 has come to be politicised recently. Terrorists and extremists have nothing to do with real Islam – it is false.

But I don’t want us to be defined as victims. We must fight to defend ourselves and our rights. We must focus on educating people and that’s where I have hope. We must normalise the fact of French Muslims and we should not be defined by our religion alone. We are much more than that.

Source: Al Jazeera