PARIS — The terror attack against Charlie Hebdo has deeply shaken Muslims in France, and their dread is twofold. They fear not only for their own safety but also that the shooting might make it even more difficult for them to take their place in the national community, that it will fuel the rising Islamophobia that they've been denouncing.
"As a Muslim, I'm very affected by what happened," 47-year-old Abderrahim Aabid says at a gathering outside the town hall in Aulnay-sous-Bois for a moment of silence. "What they did has nothing to do with Islam. That's just barbaric."
Other Muslims who answered calls from religious associations and town hall officials to stand in unity against terror use similarly strong words to describe the terrorists, who were finally killed by police Friday: "thugs," "maniacs," "miles away from our religion."
They were neither readers nor admirers of Charlie Hebdo and its cartoonists. Still, "If you don’t agree with a drawing, you must reply with a pen. In this country, we are free," says Abderrahim Aabid.
"We've known the slaughtered cartoonists since we were kids," says Karim, a forty-something business owner. "Nobody was forced to buy Charlie. Plus, they were quite harsh on the Pope too, weren't they?"
Patriot, above all
Karim is Muslim, though non-practicing, but he says French, above all. "I've never felt so French in my life. It's the first time ever that I'm singing 'La Marseillaise,'" the French national anthem. Outraged, he wants to stand together with the rest of the population. "The only reaction possible is to stay united so that the situation doesn't degenerate," he explains.
Many foresee and fear difficult days and weeks ahead, and Djamel predicts that Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front party will gain from it. Says Aabid, "We're six million Muslims, and there's maybe 600 nut cases. Should we all pay for them?"
But not everybody is so certain about whether they should participate in the wave of support for the victims. "I hesitated before going to the demonstration on Wednesday," says 35-year-old Foued A. in Marseille. "I wondered whether I belonged there. I didn't want to face all the looks. This attack will make life even harder for Muslims in France. The discrimination that we endure every day will only worsen."
Online homage to Ahmed Merabet, the Muslim policeman killed Wednesday.
Many Muslims feel that terrorism and Islam are increasingly being conflated, though many intellectuals are doing their best to stop this trend. In the immediate aftermath of the attack, Muslim French "officials" condemned the massacre, and the various Muslim associations and institutions gathered in the Paris Grande Mosquée, calling on imams across the country to condemn "violence and terrorism" in their Friday prayers. They are urging believers to join Sunday's commemorative gatherings.
"We're shocked by what happened," says Same Debah, president of an association that fights against Islamophobia in France. "The Muslim community feels a heavier weight on its shoulders now."
Said Branine, founder of news website Oumma.com, says Muslims are unanimous in their condemnation "but also extremely worried that the stigmatization will be proportional to the impact of the attacks."
Hanan Ben Rhouma, editor of Saphirnews.com, says, "The predominant feeling is one of shock and disgust. But immediately after comes the anxiety, the fear of a violent backlash."
At least four mosques, or buildings located near one, have been targeted in attacks since the dramatic events of Wednesday morning — in the western city of Le Mans, in Port-la-Nouvelle in the south, in Villefranche-sur-Saône near Lyon and in Poitiers. "Muslims are an integral part of this show of emotion and coming together," Branine says. "They belong there. But will they be accepted?"