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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.

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.

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.

Lizzie Porter is a freelance Middle East news and features journalist based in Beirut.

Italy's populist Five Star Movement (M5S) party leader Luigi Di Maio. CREDIT: GETTY
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Five Star’s “just fix it!” politics and the new age of digital populism

 In the Italian election, Five Star made radical and exciting promises – like a monthly universal basic income of around €780.

One evening in 2004, after finishing a performance of his comedy show Black Out, Beppe Grillo was approached by a tall, austere-looking man called Gianroberto Casaleggio, an IT specialist who ran a web consulting firm. He told Grillo that he could create a blog for him that would transform Italian politics. The internet, Casaleggio explained, would change everything. Political parties and newspaper editors were no longer needed. They could be “disintermediated”.

Grillo, a household name in Italy, was not particularly interested in technology but he was interested in politics. The following year the pair created the promised blog and Grillo began writing about cronyism, green issues and the power of the web to smash what he considered a corrupt, elitist and closed political system. Thousands, then millions, of frustrated Italians flocked to his site. They began using another website,, to gather offline to discuss Grillo’s latest post, and co-ordinate campaigns and rallies. It was heady stuff.

In 2007, this fledgling movement held Vaffanculo Day (which roughly translates to “fuck off day”), an event directed at the suits in charge. Grillo crowd-surfed the thousands who’d turned out in Bologna’s main square in a red dingy. Eugenio Scalfari, founder of the respected centre-left newspaper La Repubblica, wrote an editorial titled “The barbaric invasion of Beppe Grillo”.

In the age of Russian trolls and algorithmic ads, it’s easy to forget how optimistic the mood around digital politics was in the late Noughties. Occupy, the Pirate Party and Barack Obama all seemed to presage the end of tired old hierarchies. They were getting a digital upgrade: open, inclusive and more democratic. Grillo led the charge: in 2009 he declared that his band of online followers would stand in elections as the Five Star Movement. The group refused state funding, capped its MPs’ salaries at the average national wage, and pledged to publish all proposed bills online three months before approval to allow for public comment. All major policy decisions would be taken by votes on the blog, including candidate selections.

Seasoned political analysts dismissed Five Star as a bunch of bloggers and kids, led by a clown. But the movement started achieving local successes, especially in Italy’s poorer south. By 2012 there were 500 local groups and in the following year’s general election, Five Star won 25 per cent of the vote. Analysts repeatedly predicted that normal service would be resumed – but it never was.

In the Italian general election earlier this month, Five Star won 32 per cent of the vote, and 227 seats, easily making it the largest single party. (Grillo, who is 69, distanced himself from Five Star before this triumph. He remains the “guarantor”, but the new leader is 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio.) In a hung parliament, Five Star is currently in a stalemate with Italy’s right-wing alliance (the Northern League, Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia and the Brothers of Italy), which collectively secured more seats.

While Five Star has declared its commitment to direct democracy, many major decisions are taken by a small cadre, which has alienated some early supporters. Its occasional dalliances with power – the current mayor of Rome is Five Star’s Virginia Raggi – have been largely unsuccessful. Yet more than any other movement in Europe, Five Star demonstrates how digital upstarts can demolish years of cosy centrist consensus. Meet-ups are full of sparky, motivated activists – rather like the Corbynite Momentum – who combine online and offline techniques to deliver their message.

Five Star’s political ideas appear radical and exciting, especially to places blighted by economic stagnation. In the Italian election, Five Star promised a monthly universal basic income of around €780 for every adult.

Yet the movement’s rise also reveals the darker side of digital politics. Five Star is unashamedly populist and divisive, pitting the good, honest, ordinary citizen against the out-of-touch professional political class. Ever noticed how all populists, whether left or right, seem to love social media? Nigel Farage, Bernie Sanders, Marine Le Pen, Syriza and, of course, Donald Trump are all avid adopters. It’s partly because short, emotional messages, the populist stock-in-trade, spread so well online. Grillo frequently insults his opponents – he used to call the former Italian prime minister Mario Monti “Rigor Montis” – and new Five Star leader Di Maio recently called for the immediate halt of the “sea taxi service” that rescues migrants in the Mediterranean. There’s a receptive online audience for such content. And the blog is central to Five Star, just as Twitter is to Trump, because, it says, it allows it to circumnavigate the self-interested establishment, and deliver “the truth” straight to the people.

But the love affair runs deeper than clickable posts. The internet is inculcating all of us with new, unrealistic expectations. I call it “just fix it!” politics. Everything online is fast and personalised, answers are simple and immediate. The unhappy compromise and frustrating plod of politics looks increasingly inadequate by comparison, which fuels impatience and even rage.

Populists promise to cut through the tedium with swift and obvious answers, and in that sense they are tuned in to how we live as consumers. By contrast, centrist parties have struggled in the digital age because their watery, dull promises are weighed down by practical know-how and association with power. (“Boring! Traitors!”)

The rage of the jilted lover knows few bounds. This is the problem with all populist movements: what happens when things aren’t as easy as promised? A few days after Five Star’s stunning election result, dozens of young Italians turned up at job centres in Puglia, demanding their €780 monthly basic income. Should Five Star form a government, millions of Italians will turn up with them – and demand a lot more than a few hundred euros. 

Jamie Bartlett is the author of “Radicals: Outsiders Changing the World” (Windmill Books)

Jamie Bartlett is the head of the Violence and Extremism Programme and the Centre for the Analysis of Social Media at Demos.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Putin’s spy game