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11 April 2016

How does it feel to be a Muslim in France today?

As Europe faces the aftermath of another terrorist attack, anti-Islam rhetoric amplifies. Muslims in France share how it feels to be persecuted.

By Lizzie Porter

In his temporary mosque on an industrial estate on the edge of Toulouse, imam Mamadou Daffé waves his arms in exasperation.

His frustration with associations between his mosque and the Clain brothers – the men from Toulouse who appeared in the Isil video claiming the November Paris attacks – is obvious.

“There was maybe a group of five or six people. But that doesn’t mean Toulouse has become a nest of people who call for jihad.

“Today, when people see an Arab, they think that person is a terrorist”, he tells me, after one of his weekly open-door information sessions. “When people see a woman wearing the veil, people feel themselves attacked, and they reject her.”

Muslims first came to France in the 8th century, when the Moors took parts of Spain, according to a recent report by the Brookings Institute. That goes contrary to the popular idea that they only arrived when former colonies such as Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco gained independence in the mid-20th century.

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But more than ever the minority – France’s 5m Muslims makes up less than 10 per cent of the whole population – is held to blame for Islamist violence.

Last year, the Muslim Council of France recorded 124 Islamophobic attacks and 305 threats – a 224 per cent rise on 2014 and the highest numbers on record. Incidents became noticeably more violent, it claimed, peaking after the shooting at the Charlie Hebdo offices in January, and the Paris attacks in November, last year.

Daffé’s experiences – and those of the people who come to pray at his mosque – are testimony to that.

Recent events in Brussels may make things worse. Daffé – by profession a biologist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research – tells me they have, “contributed to an exacerbation of anti-Muslim feeling, which was already very high. And what do the perpetrators of these crimes want?”

He insists he never knew Kevin Chassin, who killed himself in a suicide bomb in Iraq last year. French media have claimed he used to attend Daffé’s mosque.

The same goes for Mohamed Merah, who four years ago shot dead Jewish children at a school on the other side of the city.

“I have nothing to do with recruiting people – because I am against it,” the imam replies. “On Fridays, it is full here” – he motions to indicate a full mosque – “I am at the front and can’t see who everyone is.”

He “absolutely” has female worshippers coming to him to report incidences of Islamophobia. But they often dare not go to the police. If they do, he says, the police will sometimes not file a case.

The increasingly anti-Muslim sentiment in France has forced changes in behaviour.

Since the Charlie Hebdo attacks, the Es-Salam mosque on the neighbouring Bellefontaine housing estate in Toulouse has had to close between prayer times. Video cameras watch over the site.

“There is still a kind of suspicion [about Muslims],” says Hassan Idmiloud of the Muslim Association of Toulouse, which runs the Es-Salam mosque. “Someone who has got an Arab-sounding name, or who doesn’t eat a certain foodstuff, is seen as dubious. It is as if at some point, to be French, you have to have the right name, and eat the right things.”

A recent Human Rights Watch report substantiated individuals’ feelings. It accused France of using its state of emergency law, brought in after the Paris attacks in November, to carry out “abusive and discriminatory raids and house arrests against Muslims”.

A French police source said the forces’ actions were permissible under state of emergency laws and that no religious discrimination took place. They declined to give a formal statement.

Sadly, the difficulties faced by French Muslims pre-date the attacks.

Muslim children with foreign surnames find it difficult to find work experience, let alone a job, says Idmiloud. “They are born here but we continue to talk about them ‘coming from immigration’.”

He recognises the need for the Muslim community to act to prevent the possible slide to extremism, but would also like other parties’ help: “It is a job for society as a whole. Children need to have equal opportunities.”

Meanwhile, Muslims in Strasbourg remain defiant, and refuse to be sidelined. Nazih Kussaibi, originally from Homs in Syria, has lived in France for 40 years. “This is not a racist country,” he insists. But at the same time he is resigned: “If an attacker is called Mohammed or Ali, then all people called Omar are also blamed. But if there is a criminal called Christian or Jerome, are all other Christians with those named blamed too?”

In Toulouse, Daffé gets up to return to his office after our meeting. His family is from Mali, but he studied in France – baccalauréat (the equivalent of A-levels), then university. 

“But people here think imams are people who don’t have the bac,” he sighs, as he puts on his shoes.